Few creators can claim the Museum of Modern Art and Rage Against the Machine as fans and collaborators. Yet, this is the unifying power of 77-year-old conceptual artist Barbara Kruger’s work: it’s immediate, powerful, and, as her legion of imitators has proven, it also looks great on a T-shirt.
Known for iconic text works proclaiming “I shop therefore I am” and “Your body is a battleground” – the latter given new life last spring as an incendiary cover for New York Magazine – the artist remains ever humble. “I believe that no work of art is as brilliant, amazing, awesome and major, or as failed, ridiculous, horrible and minor as it’s written to be,” she tells the Guardian. “All the hyperbolic claims, judgements, anointings and condemnations are as symptomatic as the works they address.”
Kruger, who first gained widespread recognition for her banners for the 1989 Women’s March on Washington for legal abortion, has been a tireless champion for reproductive freedoms for over four decades. Her work is known for challenging society’s views on beauty, identity, social constructs, and how we perceive our power (or lack thereof) within social structures. With the supreme court’s recent movement to overrule the landmark Roe v Wade decision, disabling the constitutional right to abortion in the United States, Kruger’s art has never been more relevant. Even if that recognition may come as bittersweet.
The first thing heard when entering the David Zwirner gallery in New York’s Chelsea is the metallic thud-thud of a firing typewriter. The sound, part of an immersive installation and larger self-titled show by Kruger, is jarring and pierces the quiet that usually envelopes the austere white space. Yet, the art displayed is as urgent as the cacophony erupting within its massive walls. On view until 12 August, the exhibition is a homecoming for the LA-based, east coast-born pioneer, whose blazing, anti-capitalist text-based collages and multimedia pieces have helped define the activist aesthetic in America for almost half a century.
The most extensive showing of an individual in Zwirner’s history, the exhibition boasts both canonical and new works and coins with Kruger’s large-scale, site-specific installation – Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You – on view in the Marron Family Atrium of Moma in New York, starting 16 July. This month also wraps Lacma’s tribute to Kruger and a genesis showing at Sprüth Magers of her early “paste-up” guerrilla collages.
“My work is seldom incident or event-specific but tries to create a commentary about the ways that cultures construct and contain us,” she says, responding to the timeliness of the showings. “I’ve always said that I try to make work about how we are to one another. I see this as an ongoing project.” Kruger, who began her career in the Condé Nast design department of the 1960s, learned early the power of words and pictures and the immediacy of a visual elevator pitch as an image-based call to action. In the decades since, every pieces have taken on a life of their own, making cameos in films and “inspiring” the slick boxed black, white, and red Supreme logo, sparking a legendary Hypebeast trademark war, with Kruger famously denouncing her imitators as “a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers.”
For her show at Zwirner, classic works have been reconfigured with a digital facelift using video and sound, care of LED screens, and clever edits. For example, in Pledge, Will, Vow (1988/2020) – also included in the 59th Venice Biennale – snippets of the Pledge of Allegiance are typed out to loud effect and reconfigured on screen, alluding to the sense that our current history is being edited, rewritten, and sometimes even discarded altogether by an unknown hand.
“The works at Zwirner are mostly moving image installations that have been created and recreated over the past three years,” explains Kruger. “All of these were responsive to the particular architecture and built environment that contained them,” she continues, noting her engagement with the challenges of spatializing her work. Despite the difficulty of crafting these installations, which Kruger still hand-curates, she feels immense privilege. “I feel fortunate to have these amazing opportunities to create works at these sites. I never take this for granted, as what is seen and what becomes prominent is often so cruelly arbitrary,” she says, noting the amplification of certain artists over others, the result of “historical conditions, the brutality of social relations, the containments of categories” as well as the fickle whims of the often mercurial art market. “I’m so appreciative of the current visibility of my work and so welcome it as I approach my centennial.”
For her newest works, Kruger, who once infamously wrapped Kim Kardashian’s naked body in her trademark Futura font on the cover of W magazine, hones in on how celebrity, technology and social media shape our attention and consumption patterns. “My image/text works attempt to show and tell the stories of bodies and minds. How they might be pictured and how they picture themselves,” she says. “In this time of massive collisions of voyeurism and narcissism and quickened attention spans, I feel very engaged with the self-presentation and direct address social media offers. How millions of us are pleasured, desired, worshiped, and shamed by these picturings.”
Simultaneously, on the streets, her works have been given new dramatic presence, with copycat Krugers appearing on signs and billboards at abortion-rights protests across the country. It would be easy for a less modest artist to feel the need to claim ownership. “As someone who never thought anyone would know my name or my work, it is both amazing, satisfying, and haunting and could only happen in a time when the virality of images is so accelerated,” she says of the proliferation of her work, “And, horrifically, when the virality of plague, war, and grievance is so punishingly prevalent.”
Ultimately, Kruger’s art excels when it allows the viewer to shift their perspective, often on the overlooked or misrepresented. “My work has consistently focused on the vulnerability of bodies. Of how power is threaded through cultures. On how the choreographies of hierarchies and capital determine who lives and who dies, who is kissed and who is slapped, who is praised and who is punished,” she explains.
As for how the artist feels about the recent Roe ruling, she has choice words for those just tuning in. “The repeal of Roe should come as no surprise,” she admonished. “Anyone who is shocked by what is happening has not been paying attention,” she says, pointing to the US’s fraught history of suppressing minority rights while fostering white supremacy. “Any surprise at the current state of things is the result of a failure of imagination. Of not understanding the force and punishment of what has happened and worse, what is yet to come.” She believes that this failure of imagination has contributed to what has devolved into, in her words, an “increasingly volatile time of reckoning and vengeance.”
Rather than shame, she hopes to build community. “More than ever, it’s pivotal to simultaneously engage the contestations around race, gender, and class,” she pronounces. “To not separate, silo, and hierarchize these issues, but to see the interconnectivity of the forces that determine what it feels like to live another day. To hurt or heal, to light or destroy.”