Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA.
Wendy Vogel digs into the politics and power of Barbara Kruger, whose work has blasted through boundaries for more than thirty years.
Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (Your gaze hits the side of my face), 1981, slices like a knife. The work features the titular phrase overlaid on a vintage photograph of a female statue. The sculpture’s chiseled cheek and deep-set eyes cast dramatic shadows over the image, echoed by the text’s alternating black-and-white design. The effect is a chilly refusal to give up one’s interiority as a feminist response to the violent (male) gaze. Kruger’s punkish critique of culture crosses high art and popular aesthetics. It is instantly legible, yet unexpected, as though bubbling up from a collective wellspring of discontent. Such early works, in other words, were proto-memes.
Over five decades, Kruger’s work has been widely disseminated across cultural channels, imitated by activists and brands alike. Her major exhibition Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You. directly responds to the recursive conditions of her artistic production. Bringing together works from the course of her career, remixed into new installations and forms such as moving image works, the show interrogates the language of power. For Kruger, such a political critique is rooted in the imperatives of the feminist movement and an avant-garde legacy of montage.
Kruger began her career in the 1960s as a graphic designer and pictures editor for Condé Nast, working on layouts for magazines like Mademoiselle and House and Garden. In the late 1970s, she started her “paste-ups” series, collaging text on top of existing images. These slickly designed works in bold sans-serif typefaces often featured enticing signature red backdrops. Her work builds upon the tenets of second-wave feminism, which urged women artists to reclaim their own images and language. Instead of utilizing diaristic language, however, Kruger fused the intimate address of advertising with the ideological deconstruction of high theory. And rather than her own images, Kruger culls from existing visual imagery—or positions text as image itself.
Early in the 1980s, Kruger’s collaged paste-ups were championed alongside artists who utilized appropriation and montage for politically radical ends. In his 1982 Artforum article “Allegorical Procedures,” Benjamin H.D. Buchloh situated Kruger’s work alongside Pictures Generation artists like Louise Lawler, Dara Birnbaum, and Sherrie Levine. Kruger’s work can also be situated as part of a broad swath of approaches to language-based conceptualism: Yoko Ono’s “event scores” of the 1960s; artists who deploy cultural critique in their practices, such as Mary Kelly, Adrian Piper, Lorraine O’Grady, Martha Rosler, and Andrea Fraser; the deconstruction of the English language in the work of artists like Theresa Hak Kyung-Cha; and the subversive use of the photographic caption in the work of artists like Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems. In all of these artists’ works, language is weaponized to call out the ways that women and people of color have been excluded from power.
photo © Museum Associates/LACMA.
Kruger’s written style—a politically-engaged, direct address—most often draws comparisons to the artist Jenny Holzer’s language-based practice. Both artists evoke multiple subject positions, often using the second-person address of “you” to call out a male viewership. In Kruger’s hands, this intimate address can be probing (Your comfort is my silence), complicit (I shop therefore I am), evoking a twisted solidarity among the historically marginalized (It’s our pleasure to disgust you), or baldly condemning as with Untitled (Shafted), 2008, in which Kruger quotes George Orwell: If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face—forever.
Like conceptual artists such as Holzer and Lawrence Weiner, Kruger’s formal strategies have evolved to include architectural interventions, installations in public spaces, and moving-image works. In the early 1990s, Kruger debuted an immersive wraparound style of text-based art, covering gallery spaces from floor to ceiling as with Untitled (Forever), 2017, and Untitled (Floor), 1991/2020. By enveloping her viewers in language, Kruger anticipated the pending arguments about the dissolution of privacy in the Internet age.
In recent years, her work has considered the personalized address of advertising in the age of Big Data. Her installation Untitled (Selfie), 2020, leans into social media culture by inviting audience participation. For this piece, she reappropriates her own words that she overlaid on a picture of radio personality Howard Stern for a 1992 Esquire piece—Stern’s first cover story, penned by Kruger herself: I hate myself and you love me for it / I love myself and you hate me for it. The audience has the option to be pictured against these textual backdrops, implicating themselves in a work that digs at the culture of compulsory oversharing and self-promotion, all in the name of delivering social-media users to advertisers. This piece comes full circle on the question of the gaze.
photo © Museum Associates/LACMA.
As opposed to positioning oneself outside it, however, Untitled (Selfie) utilizes the grammar of social media—self-portraiture and the caption—to critique its destructive impulses. Kruger has always understood how language and power are intertwined. Her work asks us to shift our perspective while using its tools.