Barbara Kruger: Slogans that shake the art world
Barbara Kruger, an American conceptual artist, is best known for laying direct and concise captions over black-and-white photographs. At the time of the 80s, where the golden era of contemporary art in the United States, Kruger pop-up to the storefronts and redefined how art could be made. In this paper,using several Kruger’s famous pieces including I shop, therefore I am (1987) and Your body is a battleground (1989) and her interviews as the main source, I would explore how does Kruger develop her iconic visual language that conveyed a direct critique about consumerism, feminism, and political issues and how does her art act as an interface that blurred the lines between art, entertainment, and commerce.
Since the 1970s, she has explored the power of image and text. Her bold works combing black-and-white photography and white-on-red slogan have become the icons of the contemporary art. In this paper, I will introduce Barbara Kruger and her artworks. Specifically, I will focus on several aspects. By introducing the background of the ’80s, in which the art and commodity culture brought to new era of contemporary artist like Kruger, and analyze Kruger’s several major works I shop, therefore I am (1987) and Your body is a battleground (1989), I would like to propose the following thesis question:
How does Kruger develop her iconic visual language that conveyed a direct critique of consumerism, feminism and political issues?
How does her art act as an interface that blurred the lines between art, entertainment, and commerce?
“I came to the art world much later than most.” – Barbara Kruger
Barbara Kruger inadvertently got her training as an artist the hard way: through jobs as a graphic designer and picture editor for Mademoiselle magazine, Vogue, House and Garden, Aperture, and other publications. This background in design is evident in the work for which she is now internationally renowned. While she was working there, the routine in the work is “paste-up-type and pictures using someone else’s photography, and she works to put text on it” in which made her developed a fluency in it. Yet Kruger realized that she is not cut out to be a designer, “there’s just no way I’m cut out to create someone else’s image of perfection as a profession” (Bollen, 2013). Kruger doesn’t have any degrees and was painfully intimidated by the codes of the art world until her early 30s.“I came to the art world much later than most,” Kruger said. “I didn’t consider myself an artist in any way that would be meaningful to me” (Stoeffel, 2018).
In 1981, Kruger’s art appeared in a group show titled “Public Address,” alongside work by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jenny Holzer. There, she débuted her now iconic style: white Futura text in red boxes. Kruger considered her photo work with words comes full-on from her job as a magazine designer, not informed by the art world at all. “They were bigger, they were one of a kind,” said Kruger, in which her 48-by-72 inch giant work first showed, people got shocked (Bollen, 2013).
The age of ‘80s
During the early 1980s, with the experience of work at the magazine empire, seductive and powerful fusion of fashion, class, money, and status became Kruger’s enduring subjects for her early art pieces. Kruger layers found photographs from existing sources with aggressive and often ironic texts that involved the viewer in the struggle for power and control that her captions speak to (Art 21). Among them, the most well-known one proclaimed “ I Shop Therefore I Am.”
I Shop Therefore I Am: Consumerism
Kruger’s work during the ‘80s “cleverly encapsulated the era of “Reaganomics” with tongue-in-cheek satire” (The Art Story). Displayed in the Hirshhorn museum exhibition: Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s, Kruger’s work I Shop Therefore I Am (1989), revealed the time of 80s that deeply examined the consumerism. “ The iconic decade when artwork became a commodity and the artist, a brand.” A throwback to thirty years ago, where “ the seismic shifts in politics, economics, and technology brought a golden era of contemporary art in the U.S (Hirshhorn)”. The introduction of MTV, financial crisis, gentrification, Reaganomics, and the height of the AIDS crisis, all of these were significant moments in the ‘80s, artists exploited the growing consumerism culture and redefine their position within it.
Kruger revealed that before making it, she read Walter Benjamin, and paraphrase a quote: “If the soul of the commodity existed, it would want to nestle in the home and hearth of every shopper that passed its way.” Kruger realized that Benjamin was a compulsive shopper who always shopping for something. She thought that she needs to address the social phenomenon of consumerism culture into her work if she was developing this commodity status (Art 21).
Consumerism is never an outdated topic, it was rising thirty years ago, and it is ongoing prosperity till now. Kruger’s work is still reflecting the cultural discourse that is prevalent now. In 2010, Kruger’s show at the Guild Hall Museum, slogans “ Money makes money and a rich man’s jokes are always funny” and “You want it/You need it/You buy it/You forget it”is presented. Kruger implied that the desire behind wanting and shopping is not limited to the power elite, and we’re all more and more in thrall to consumer culture (Spears, 2010). It’s about the culture we live in, the media. It’s about everything around us. This is Kruger’s unique code of message, where she conveys her own style of the message that questions the stereotypical ways mass media influences society’s notion about certain value, like consumerism.
The Pictures Generation
During the ‘80s, in a reaction to the success of neo-expressionism and its nostalgia of figurative painting, artists came together to form their own complex commercial entities and began as satire quickly grew to become the determinate moment in the contemporary art (Hirshhorn).
Kruger was intimidated and also curious when she joined the other artists who formed the group of Artists Meeting for Cultural Change in the ‘70s. It was formed before she joined and did protest against the museum and the politics (Bollen, 2013).
Later, a rented loft on Reade Street introduced Kruger to other artists, including the first graduates of CalArts, a cohort now known as the Pictures Generation.
The Picture Generation was a loose affiliation of artists that emerged in the 70s and 80s whose works were united by the appropriation of images from the mass media (Artsy). Influenced by conceptual and pop art, they experimented with a variety of media such as photography, film, and video. By reworking well-known images, their art challenged the notion of authorship, which made the movement as the form of postmodernism. “The artists created a more savvy and critical viewing culture, while also expanding notions of art to include social criticism for a new generation of viewers saturated by mass media” (The Art Story). Their works blur the lines between high art and popular imagery.
Untitled (Your body is a battleground) (1989)
Using a silkscreened frontal photograph of a model’s face, Kruge gave the artwork additional meaning by dividing the large canvas it occupied into two sections. From left to the right, the image reversed from positive to the negative. From top to the bottom, the face is divided by the words. It presented an inner struggle of good versus evil. The model’s face stares straight ahead through the print, connect to the viewer by her gaze and the words on her face. “Kruger critiques the objectified standard of symmetry that is applied to feminine beauty and perpetuated by media and advertising” (The Broad).
Designed for the 1989 reproductive rights protest, the March for Women’s lives in Washington D.C., this piece addressed the issue of feminism, connecting the physical body of female viewers to the contemporary conditions that necessitate the feminist protest (The Art Story). This artwork as the form of postmodernism because of the authentic graphics and dramatic use of the image not only critique the social issue of female struggle but also call for a response from the society as a whole.
“I’m fascinated with the difference between supposedly private and supposedly public and I try to engage the issue of what it means to live in a society that’s seemingly shock-proof, yet still is compelled to exercise secrecy,” Kruger explained of her work (Artnet).
The direct connection to political movements in Kruger’s work is not new. While some other artists fear of their work showing standing about politics and reading as propaganda, Kruger defended herself by saying that her work has always been about power and control and bodies and money, and all kinds of stuff (Bollen, 2013). As a person who doesn’t set the boundary of the idea, it is only that for this time, she decided to be more specific rather than be abroad in the message that she conveys through the art piece.
“You” “I” “We” “They”
Kruger’s captions in her artworks are not only declarative but always include the pronouns such as “You,” “your”, “I”, “we”, and “they”, addressing cultural constructions of power, identity, and sexuality. For the viewer, the usage of these words facilitate a direct communication with the viewer, it’s like every word is speaking to you. It’s a characteristic of Kruger’s style, which she tended to make the viewer to think about the slogan and address them with the given context, to think and rethink, to care about the society, the economy, politics, gender, and culture.
For instance, The New York Times on Saturday, November 24, 2012, might have come across, on page A21, in large white Futura type on a black background, a piece from artist Barbara Kruger. Under the title “For Sale,” the work read: “You Want It You Buy It You Forget It” (Bollen, 2013).
How to interpret the word “you”? Here, it indicated the reader- a shopper, a consumer, a part of the capitalist enterprise, guilty of impulsive buying habits. But the “you” is also a general composite—that annoying, far more guilty every person-and the reader sides with the artist in condemning this sector of the population who is greedy, wasteful, and irresponsible (Bollen, 2013).
While the viewer is experiencing the process of being judged and judging, agree with the statement or charging others. This internal transition and confusion are interesting, Kruger confuses us as we don’t know if we should position ourselves as the victim, oppressor, or the witnesses. Yes, we are all of the above. It made viewers stand on the side with her and against her simultaneously when we see the pieces by Kruger from 1981 to 2009, “Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face,” from 1981; “Not Cruel Enough,” from 1997; “Plenty Should Be Enough,” from 2009,” and it made viewer’s mind to shift back and forth (Bollen, 2013). This is how Kruger’s building of meaning and the construction of re-meaning works to the viewer and to the society who watch it.
Feminism, consumerism, and propaganda
Most of Kruger’s artwork questions the viewers about feminism, classicism, consumerism, individual autonomy and desire. The use of image and a declarative statement that delivered a direct communication with the viewer and catches viewer’s attention. She’s not selling the product, but the idea to the viewer to make people reexamine and reconsider people’s thinking in the context.
“I never say I do political art. Nor do I do feminist art. I’m a woman who’s a feminist, who makes art. But I think what becomes visible and what work remains absent is always the result of historical circumstance. ” — Barbara Kruger (Bollen, 2013).
Because of Kruger’s work usually convey a direct message and feminist critique, there is the perception of tie her to certain tags like “ ‘80s feminism.” While Kruger herself revealed her thought toward the stereotyped thinking. In Kruger’s mind, the ‘80s began in 1975 and ended in ‘84 or ‘85, where the market changed and things heated up.
“Who is seen and who is not seen is always a result of historical reckoning, social circumstances, and good luck,” said Kruger (Stoeffel, 2018). From Kruger’s perspective, artists always are the reflections of times that they are situated. For her, there was the real historical change and women for the first time has entered the marketplace and haven’t been marginalized in the works. In my opinion, the historical change and the given context provide the artists environment to create artwork. To some extent, artists and the society are interdependent to each other. Things are changing so rapidly, saying the art world, and the society.
Museums, buses, buildings, billboards as interfaces
The famous art piece by Kruger has a wide distribution, in the forms of umbrellas, tote bags, prints, T-shirts, posters, photographs, electronic signs, and so on, which at first confuses the boundaries between art and commerce and call attention to the role of advertising in public debate.
Kruger’s artwork is held in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, among others. Moreover, her work appeared on magazine covers or in giant installations that cover walls, billboards, buildings, buses, trains and tram lines all over the world. Her work has swallowed the whole bus and buildings and has become part of the landscape of skylines.
While works that placed in the public outdoor open spaces, like bus posters or digital screens are seen as purposely settled for advertising. While in the past, the boundary of art and commerce is still firm, now within thirty years, advertising has evolved, so do people’s perception. Kruger once mentioned that nowadays advertising has been so clever and smart. When she went to London, advertising had a really elevated place in culture (Bollen, 2013).
Artist and the viewer
As Kruger’s pieces getting famous worldwide, the text pieces are translated into the language of the countries in which they are being shown and installed. The words deliver the same idea to the viewers no matter in what language, in other words, Kruger’s work may seem like the universal message to the world’s audience.
Kruger once mentioned that she was totally outside the art discourse at first. She went to the gallery to see conceptual art and saw people’s marginalization from what the art subculture is because they didn’t crash the code. Now, after all these years as being the artists, she got to crash the code, understand and support all the work. She feels that she is related to the viewer who doesn’t know the secret code word (Bollen, 2013).
Kruger’s work is described as eye-catching, easily transmitted, and frequently ripped off (Stoeffel). She has a short attention span before it was cool which is a characteristic that she believes is beneficial for her artist work, and help her relate to the audience especially people who are outside the art world. She considered her art form is more easily to be decoded by the viewer as compared to other forms of art.
For every exhibition or work being presented in public, Kruger always would go in and do a quick read of the place and then do a work locally with the people there (Bollan, 2013). This kind of site-specific art creation is really interesting, accommodate different viewers with a different background, and create the site design artwork is the artist like Kruger who is passionate about her work.
While artwork maybe varies in different locations of the exhibit, Kruger’s main spirit, and concerned issues are always there, the issues of consumerism, the place of women’s bodies. Kruger would read and get to know the issues in the place of exhibit.
As Kruger’s career progressed, her work expanded to include site-specific installations as well as video and audio works, all the while maintaining a firm basis in social, cultural, and political critique (The Art Story). She had her live performance, a recurring event titled “Untitled ( The Drop)” took place at a former American Apparel store in SoHo last year. This is one of the four Kruger works throughout NYC. The commission includes a billboard in Chelsea, a roving yellow school bus, a limited-edition MetroCard, and an installation at the skatepark in Coleman Square Playground, which pose questions like “Who owns what?” on red vinyl decals wrapping the ramps(Keiles, 2017).
Because Kruger’s format of the art piece is easily copied by others, in 1994, he downtown streetwear brand Supreme cribbed Kruger’s red-and-white Futura for its logo—teasing the boundary between homage, parody, and theft (Keiles, 2017). While Supreme launched its weekly product “drops” that draw a long line outside its stores. And in 2013, Supreme sued the clothing brand for infringing its red-and-white Futura logo. “What a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers,” Kruger response to the lawsuit.”
Kruger’s “Drop” is a pop-up shop in Soho where you can wait in line to buy Kruger-branded merch made in collaboration with Volcom. With the name “Drop” and the similar installation, Kruger’s live performance seems to target at Supreme on purpose. On the other hand, it is interesting to see the powerful influence of Kruger’s iconic style of artwork toward the society, the fashion industry, and the cultural discourse.
Then and Now
“Something to really think about is what makes us who we are in the world that we live in, and how culture constructs and contains us.” – Barbara Kruger
The world is changing so fast with the rapid growth of the society. Kruger mentioned that one critic in around 2002 wrote about her “I Shop Therefore I Am” piece and said things are so different now than they were when she made that work. Kruger denied this statement. “Things are like they were but multiplied in terms of the intensity of commodity culture and how the digital world has intensified that to a certain degree” (Bollen, 2013).
At the age of seventy-two, Kruger never stops absorbing new material and keep up with the latest trend of the world. Throughout her thirty years of career path, Kruger always brought new surprise to the public, from individual works to streets to buildings to newspapers to commercial products to installations in the earth. As an artist whose work is about the skewed representation of reality, she keeps her finger tightly pressed to the pulse of popular culture. Watching reality shows to know the current trends that can tell how media portrait value, materialism, and consumerism (Rosenbaum, 2012).
In addition, she follows Twitter and Instagram even though she isn’t active use it and she can quick name the brands her students like. She made efforts to be immersed in the mass media and the popular culture, see how her work is changing in this era of digital times (Art 21).
Best known for laying directive slogans over black-and-white photographs that she finds in magazines, Barbara Kruger developed her own visual language that was strongly influenced by her early work as a graphic designer. Her works that concerned the issue of consumerism, feminism appeared not only in the museum and gallery but also exist among public places. Her iconic style blurs the lines between high art and popular imagery. In a rapidly changing society with commodity culture, Kruger never stopped to keep up with new ideas and create powerful works.
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