“Feels Like Life” | An Interview with Barbara Kruger
hen news broke in June that the Supreme Court had struck down Roe v. Wade, we were not the only ones who thought back to Barbara Kruger’s iconic silkscreen “Untitled (Your Body Is a Battleground).” Originally created in 1989, the piece, for better or worse, remains timely — like much of Kruger’s other work. Her immediately recognizable and frequently imitated style has resulted in some of the most indelible images in contemporary art. At 77, she is still working — producing art that is entirely original, as well as revisiting older pieces with a new slant or in a fresh medium. This year, a retrospective spanning four decades, Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You., has traveled the U.S., offering an opportunity to reflect on the breadth of her influences and influence. Kruger is omnivorous, drawing from advertisements, the internet, right-wing message boards, memes, and even previous appropriations of her own pieces, from the fashion label Supreme’s mimicry to Krugeresque images pulled from Tumblr. Primarily comprising large-scale installations, the show brings together large-scale collages, sound pieces, annotated texts, and video works that juxtapose kittens with right-wing political rhetoric.
Over Zoom, we talked with Kruger about her career, media diet, and political views; the internet; the ever-churning flow of images and words; and — what else — reality television.
One of your most famous pieces — “Untitled (Your Body Is a Battleground)” — was initially made for the 1989 women’s march on Washington, which was a protest for legal abortion. How have you thought about the newer iteration of the women’s march, and the overturning of Roe v. Wade?
I just hope that all those folks marching for reproductive rights and privacy for all bodies had the power of the Supreme Court in mind when they voted in the past few presidential and midterm elections. Their choices, considering the closeness of those elections, brought us the composition of the current court. What’s happened in terms of Roe was so predictable and could have been avoided. It is more urgent than ever that people vote strategically and realize how their votes, because of the courts, will determine the feel of your (our) days and nights.
I don’t vote “my conscience” because the world is bigger than my or anyone else’s narcissistic conscience. For years, many third-party candidates assured us that if Roe was overturned, it wouldn’t be a problem because it would simply become a state issue. This was always uttered by a man without a uterus. I cannot be an apologist for the incrementalism of the Democratic Party, but I have to vote strategically. I will not forget the era of Bush v. Gore, when many votes cast around the University of Florida, along with the power of Sandra Day O’Connor, brought us the beginning of the current rightward cast of the Supreme Court, which in fact began even earlier with the egregious Clarence Thomas.
The “old left,” even when it was made up of young college students, was never what you could call “intersectional.” It continued to marginalize the issues of gender and race, refusing to see the necessity of engaging these concerns simultaneously and with urgency.
Trump is not responsible for all of this. I mean, the right has been watering these noxious weeds of grievance and supremacy for almost three centuries. But the genie is totally out of the bottle now. And no one should be surprised.
Review: In a smashing new LACMA retrospective, Barbara Kruger probes the modern media maelstrom
Barbara Kruger has a way with words. Big, bold, often visually loud words.
Kruger mixes exceptional graphic design skills with deep knowledge of the structural complexities of art and language, not to mention the media maelstrom in which modern life is lived. For 40 years, the L.A.-based artist has surveyed the social, cultural and political landscape with a deft combination of acute insight and lacerating wit.
No stranger to the city’s museums, where her work has been prominently featured at the Museum of Contemporary Art (a terrific 1999 midcareer survey, plus two incisive building murals), the UCLA Hammer Museum (a blaring 2014 entry installation) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (a somewhat less successful 2008 commission for the three-story elevator shaft inside BCAM, too busy for the available space), the artist is now the subject of a smashing LACMA retrospective.
In the show’s title, “Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.” (with Xs over the “you” and “me”), the equivocal shifts that ricochet among the personal pronouns “I,” “you” and “me” pry open a space of transparency in which the artist lets viewers know to watch out for the slipperiness of what they are about to see. Who is speaking, who is listening and who oversees — or benefits from — the exchange is not as clear or simple as one might assume.
Take “Untitled (Truth),” a 2013 digital print on a sheet of vinyl almost six feet high and 10 feet wide. A pair of hands pulls apart a stretchy elastic bandage overprinted with the word “truth,” all in capital letters in conventional Helvetica typeface. Somewhere between a billboard and a mural, the sign confounds in a productive and probing way.
Is the elasticity of fact, reality or certainty under urgent examination? It would seem so. The crimson word printed over a field of bright green causes a jangling chromatic dynamism of opposites on the color wheel, creating a purely visual sense of alarm.
FORTY-EIGHT HOURS after I got off the phone with Barbara Kruger—we talked about her work, power, politics, social media, and TV—I was in Washington Square Park, watching her most famous image make its way through a throng of protesters. Untitled (Your body is a battleground), 1989, appeared on a stricken teen’s T-shirt: a new purchase, it seemed, unfaded, the shoulder seams still creased. On another day, it might have registered as a cultural statement on a par with Nirvana’s X-eyed smiley face, but this was the sultry evening of June 24, the day the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
Kruger’s design, which she printed and wheat-pasted around New York in 1989 to publicize the women’s march on Washington (organized in response to a spate of new laws restricting abortion), has retained its air of punk militance over the decades, the familiar cropped face of its vintage white Maybelline-type model still radiating sinister conformity and dystopian threat—an enduring counter to the forced-birthers’ transfixing mascot, the flash-lit fetus, resplendent with innocence, floating in its divine void. (A head-to-head matchup isn’t purely hypothetical: Shortly after the installation of a horizontal variation of Your body on a billboard in Columbus, Ohio, commissioned by the Wexner Center for the Arts in 1990, the adjacent space was plastered with just such a photo—of a fetus at eight weeks, its pregnant host unseen—accompanied by the entreaty to “vote pro-life” and a phone number.) On the battleground of symbols, the classic wire coat hanger, with its fallopian curves and macabre little hook, has soldiered on, too. It peppered the crowd that Friday, adorning handmade signs and buttons. But the pro-choice pictograph is now more emoji than alarm bell. It’s anachronistic, shorthand for a gruesome pre-Roe, pre-misfepristone/misoprostol reality, while Your body, with its half-solarized photo split into warring sides and trapped behind red bars, gestures to a still-dawning technological regime. Kruger’s retro-futurist agitprop evokes the terror of illegal abortion by picturing the gendered fate of bodily autonomy in an authoritarian surveillance state more broadly.
Artist Barbara Kruger is still right about everything. Let’s listen up.
Barbara Kruger has changed the way the world looks — its visual language, including art, advertising and graphic design. She has been less successful in changing the way the world works, especially regarding gender injustices — the oppression of women in its infinite variety, the dominance of men (ditto) — and such plagues as war, consumerism and poverty.
But that is surely not for lack of trying. Since the late 1980s Kruger has parlayed her skills as an artist, feminist, writer and graphic designer into some of the most memorable, and resonant, public artworks of her era. Right now, the intensity of her efforts can be seen in two immersive displays in Manhattan: a large installation piece titled “Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.” that wraps the Museum of Modern Art’s vast Marron Family Atrium — floor and walls — in language, and a battalion of individual pieces filling the spacious 19th Street galleries of David Zwirner, who started representing the artist in 2019, in collaboration with Sprüth Magers.
Kruger is known for glamorous, red-framed montages that begin with slightly archaic black-and-white photographs that emit a well-behaved 1950s air. (They come from a large image bank from — an archive that Kruger has assembled from magazines, newspapers and illustrated books over the decades.) To these she adds her own terse, almost koan-like phrases, blunt observations and imperatives that are contemporary in their economy and style — typically a few words in a blocky white sans-serif font on one or more bands or blocks of red.
Artist Barbara Kruger is still right about everything. Let’s listen up.
No self-respecting lefty college kid in the 1980s and ’90s was without a reproduction of something by Barbara Kruger. Perhaps it was her black-and-white image of a hand holding a message in bold, white-on-red type: “I shop therefore I am.” Or the iconic distillation of how the oppression of women has played out for centuries, printed over a woman’s face: “Your body is a battleground.”
They circulated as postcards, magazine clippings and unauthorized photocopies, stuck to the refrigerator with magnets, tacked to your dorm-room corkboard or taped to the composition books in which you recorded lecture notes. Some people wore them on their bodies, emblazoned on T-shirts at anti-apartheid protests and ACT UP marches for AIDS awareness.
“Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.,” an extensive and engaging Kruger exhibition that opened at the Art Institute of Chicago last month, is her first major solo show in two decades. In the four decades since Kruger emerged as one of this country’s most uncompromising conceptual artists, the media landscape has changed almost beyond comprehension. But Kruger has kept up with it, turning to different modes of presentation and media, refining her messages, sharpening her wit. As new generations encounter her work for the first time, they will find it as bracingly smart as when their parents discovered it.
For more than four decades Barbara Kruger has produced the most trenchant examples of feminist art, superimposing witty texts on purloined images, hoisting the everyday assumptions of patriarchy and plutocracy on their own petards. She has done this seriously playful work at every scale, from matchbook covers to giant billboards, and across many types of media, including blunt photomontages and immersive screen-and-audio installations. Classic pieces like her Untitled (Your body is a battleground)—in which this phrase is placed in bold white type over a repurposed photo of a female face—continue to circulate with fresh meaning. Last year she had copies of a 1991 version of this work pasted on the streets of Szczecin, Poland, in response to restrictive new abortion laws there. Always alert to questions of audience and venue, Kruger forever seeks new ways to intervene in the public sphere, drawing political debate into artistic practice and vice versa. All this is made abundantly clear in her current retrospective—“Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.”—at the Art Institute of Chicago, which will travel to Los Angeles and New York next year.
Barbara Kruger: Infinitely Copied, Still Unmatched
CHICAGO — At the entrance of “Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.” the striking, flag-planting new Barbara Kruger retrospective (and elaboration) at the Art Institute of Chicago, you’re greeted with one of the artist’s videos, installed like a blockade. It’s of an image being assembled like a jigsaw puzzle, clacking loudly with each new added piece. You stand before it, as if staring into a Las Vegas slot machine — a tractor beam of tsk-tsk propaganda. When complete, the message is delivered with a thump: “I shop therefore I am.”
That’s familiar Kruger wisdom, deploying the tools of mass communication shepherding to make the sheep think.
On the walls on either side of this work are slates of Kruger copycats — derivative works combining text and found material from media — by mostly anonymous designers and agitators. They co-opt Kruger’s famous templates (the colors, fonts, phrasings, and so on) for myriad purposes, and are collaged by the artist with abandon: memes, marketing materials, metacritique. A still of Patrick Bateman overlaid with “Die Yuppie Scum!” A pic of Paris Hilton with the text “100% Natural.” An ad for the 2007 French presidential campaign of Ségolène Royal. Some scattered phrases jump out: “I Am Frivolous.” “Wage Slave.” “You Are Not Yourself.” “iPhone Therefore I Am.” “Forsaken.”
‘It’s Just a Perpetual Slaughter’: Barbara Kruger on Why She’s Remaking Some of Her Old Critiques of Power for Her New Museum Survey
Barbara Kruger likely needs no introduction. Her work is taught in art history classes and is instantly recognizable to the uninitiated as well (think of the ubiquity of Kruger’s November 2016 New York Magazine cover with ”Loser” printed across Donald Trump’s sneering face.) She’s also very publicly tangled with the streetwear brand Supreme, whose logo and entire branding seems to have pirated Kruger’s visual vernacular, causing a circus of copyright infringements that ultimately prompted Kruger to laugh it off: “What a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers.”
Despite these outbursts in mainstream culture, Kruger has been rather inconspicuous in the art world in recent years. Her last gallery showing was in 2018 with Mary Boone, and while her slogans-as-statements have been spotted at art fair booths since, there really hasn’t been an important exhibition–until now. This past weekend, the Art Institute of Chicago unveiled the largest comprehensive exhibition of Kruger’s work in more than 20 years. It will be on view until March 2022 before heading to the L.A. County Museum of Art, through July 2022, followed by a stop at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Kruger, a powerful critic of contemporary culture, isn’t approaching the exhibition in a standard format. She’s taking over non-gallery spaces in the museums, as well as intervening into the public domain, alway seeking to offer her art in the most accessible modes.
We spoke with Kruger about how she’ll be remixing some of her most famous works, the thousand-year persistence of power struggles, and her major new traveling museum survey.
Barbara Kruger: ‘Thank God I’m an artist and not a movie or Tiktok star’
By some measures, Barbara Kruger might be the most influential artist working today. Her cliché-eviscerating work has moved as ably as cliché, infiltrating visual culture to an extraordinary degree, with early pieces like Untitled (I shop therefore I am, 1987) and Untitled (Your body is a battleground, 1989) spawning countless imitations and variations.
But far from assuming that influence works in one direction, Kruger’s work often acknowledges that she is not only a creator but a consumer, speaking to other consumers who in turn speak to her—even with their knock-off versions of her works. And she knows that artists are perpetually remaking their own work.
Her forthcoming survey at the Art Institute of Chicago, Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You, is especially canny in this way, with five new, large LED displays that revise her early catchphrases. Together, they replace the notion of the “icon” as a static image with something more fluid and alive—something more like a meme.
The Art Newspaper: You have called your new show an “anti-retrospective”. What do you mean by that?
Barbara Kruger: I don’t really remember saying that because it’s so binary. It’s more that this show is not a gathering together of all of my works. There aren’t that many works where you can put a nail on the wall and hang something. It’s mostly wallpaper and floors, architecturally determined by the space. In Chicago, the show will look totally different than it will when it travels to Lacma [Los Angeles County Museum of Art], which will look different than what I will do in the atrium at MoMA [Museum of Modern Art in New York]. It’s all architecturally defined, and that’s what I love doing.
PERHAPS WE’VE ALL had it, the Barbara Kruger moment. Maybe it was a postcard from a museum gift shop in your dorm room in the late 1980s, pinned to the wall above your stack of cassettes. “You are not yourself,” it read, accompanying an image of a woman’s fragmented reflection, the mirror shattered by a bullet or fist. Originally a signifier of cool, its message reverberated for years. Maybe, decades later, you cut one of her op-ed illustrations from the newspaper — “You Want It You Buy It You Forget It” — which spoke to your dawning suspicion that you had become just another cog in the capitalist machine. Many of us in New York had the MetroCards she designed in 2017, printed with questions that stung a little every time we used it, crossing into Manhattan on the Q train: “Who is healed? Who is housed? Who is silent? Who speaks?” Perhaps you even attended a Rage Against the Machine concert with Kruger’s stage backdrop — it was the 1996 “Evil Empire” tour — or owned one of her T-shirts, like my friend Ben, who, in high school, had the one with a vintage image depicting a housewifely figure holding a magnifying glass, her eye comically enlarged behind the lens. “It’s a small world but not if you have to clean it,” it read. “Barbara was right,” Ben told me. “I never did have to clean anything.”
Barbara was always right. (There’s a T-shirt for that, too: It reads “Barbara Kruger was right,” and was issued in 2018 in limited edition by the comedian Hasan Minhaj to mock the streetwear company Supreme, which pilfered its branding from Kruger.) In the 1980s, Kruger became famous for juxtaposing aphoristic declarations with found imagery culled from magazines and textbooks: In her 1981 “Untitled (Your Comfort Is My Silence),” an anonymous man in a fedora raises a finger to his lips in warning; her 1986 “Untitled (We Don’t Need Another Hero)” features a Norman Rockwell-esque illustration of a young girl cooing over a little boy’s bicep. The text, superimposed across the appropriated black-and-white pictures in her now-iconic white sans serif font (usually Futura Bold Oblique) in a red box, seemed to externalize things we’d long internalized, things like misogyny, consumerism and our relationship with authority and desire: Imagine Don Draper’s grasp of American psychopathology delivered with the pithy asperity of Emily Dickinson.