Barbara Kruger

Barbara Kruger

American Designer, Graphic Artist, and Photographer

Born: January 26, 1945 - Newark, New Jersey
"Do you know why language manifests itself the way it does in my work? It's because I understand short attention spans."
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Barbara Kruger
"I try to deal with the complexities of power and social life, but as far as the visual presentation goes I purposely avoid a high degree of difficulty. I want people to be drawn into the work."
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Barbara Kruger
"Direct address has been a consistent tactic in my work, regardless of the medium that I'm working in."
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Barbara Kruger
"Although my art work was heavily informed by my design work on a formal and visual level, as regards meaning and content the two practices parted ways."
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Barbara Kruger
"Perhaps the problem is one of implicitness, that what is needed is, again, an alteration, not only called 'from primary to secondary', but from implicit to explicit, from inference to declaration."
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Barbara Kruger
"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."
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Barbara Kruger

Summary of Barbara Kruger

Barbara Kruger is best known for her silkscreen prints where she placed a direct and concise caption across the surface of a found photograph. Her prints from the 1980s cleverly encapsulated the era of "Reaganomics" with tongue-in-cheek satire; especially in a work like (Untitled) I shop therefore I am (1987), ironically adopted by the mall generation as their mantra. 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. Since the 1990s, she has also returned to magazine design, incorporating her confrontational phrases and images into a wholly different realm from the art world. Associated with postmodern Feminist art as well as Conceptual art, Kruger combines tactics like appropriation with her characteristic wit and direct commentary in order to communicate with the viewer and encourage the interrogation of contemporary circumstances.

Accomplishments

  • The economy of Kruger's use of image and text facilitates a direct communication with the viewer. Within a short declarative statement, she synthesizes a critique about society, the economy, politics, gender, and culture.
  • Kruger merges the slick facade of graphic design with unexpected phrases in order to catch the viewer's attention using the language of contemporary publications, graphic design, or magazines. Rather than attempting to sell a product, her works aim to sell an idea to the viewer that is meant to instigate a reconsideration of one's immediate context.
  • Kruger appropriates images from their original context in magazines and sets them as the background against which she emblazons confrontational phrases. From her use of clearly legible font to her jarring palette of red, white, and black, each element of the final artwork is crucial to its effectiveness as both an artistic expression and a protest against facets of postmodern life.

The Life of Barbara Kruger

Entrance to Kruger Exhibition: Belief + Doubt at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC

Recalling “Even when I was a little girl, I remember going to the Museum of Modern Art.. And what I really remember is the design collection,” Kruger’s first artistic inspiration evolved into her bold graphic prints that powerfully confronted social issues.

Important Art by Barbara Kruger

Progression of Art
1982

Untitled (You invest in the divinity of the masterpiece)

For this early work Kruger appropriated a portion of Michelangelo's renowned Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco, notably the image of God's hand touching Adam's at the moment of creation. Through her use of the pronoun "You," Kruger directly addresses the viewer, inviting them to impose their own narrative on Michelangelo's masterpiece. The inference of personal responsibility in this work, however abstract, is a consistent theme through Kruger's work. She suggests that all of us are somehow implicated in a historical narrative; in this case, that of Western ideology, society, and art and as viewers of works of art, our opinion about the importance or role of the work of art is influenced, and sometimes even predetermined, by our own religious or philosophical, cultural, and ideological beliefs. Participating in postmodernism's ideal of questioning the progression and narrative of modernism, Kruger uses this piece to help the viewer acknowledge their role and agency when viewing art.

Photostat - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

1989

Untitled (Your body is a battleground)

Kruger designed this print for the 1989 reproductive rights protest, the March for Women's Lives, in Washington, D.C. Utilizing her signature red, black, and white palette, the woman's face is split along a vertical axis, showing the photographic positive and negative sides, suggesting a highly simplified inner struggle of good versus evil. The political and social implications of the work are self-evident, but Kruger emphasizes the directness of her sentiment by having her subject stare straight ahead through the print, frankly addressing the viewer through both her gaze and the words emblazoned across her face. The message unequivocally addresses the issue of the continued feminist struggle, connecting the physical body of female viewers to the contemporary conditions that necessitate the feminist protest. Kruger's slick graphic aesthetic and use of dramatic found imagery also place this work within the purview of postmodernism, tying it not only to contemporary critique, but to the larger social and cultural responses within the period.

Photo silkscreen on vinyl - The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica

1991

Installation view of self-titled solo exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery, NYC

For her third solo show at Mary Boone Gallery, Kruger transformed the gallery space into pure experience, with wall to wall and floor to ceiling displays in black, white, and red. Upon entering the gallery, visitors were greeted with the following text, printed in white letters on a vermillion background: "All that seemed beneath you is speaking to you now. All that seemed deaf hears you. All that seemed dumb knows what's on your mind. All that seemed blind sees through you." This confrontational epithet set the tone for the entire installation, which implicates the viewers in Kruger's critique of the dynamics of power in the early 1990s. Kruger used bold white text within a virtual sea of red, pitting a flood of language against billboard-sized images that collide on the walls. Two images of a child's screaming face confront the viewer with the phrase "All violence is the illustration of a pathetic stereotype," while a sensational image, tucked in the back room of the gallery, portrays a naked woman on a cross wearing a gas mask, emblazoned with the words, "It's our pleasure to disgust you," a brazen challenge aimed at the conservative elements of American society. The hostile tone of Kruger's language, as well as the nature of the entire installation, is intended to activate viewers' emotions in order to consider the circumstances that led Kruger to make such incisive statements. Her first foray into site-specific installation, this exhibition represented a major departure from her earlier two-dimensional work.

Photographic collage - Mary Boone Gallery, New York

1992-97

Picture This

Beginning in 1989, the North Carolina Museum of Art invited Kruger to collaborate with architects Henry Smith-Miller and Laurie Hawkinson and landscape architect Nicholas Quennell to create an installation for the museum's grounds that remains a focal point of the museum's sculpture park to this day. Situated around a stage and outdoor amphitheater, Kruger constructed a series of letters in varying media, spanning over 200 feet in length. The mere scale of this work represented something new for Kruger, who up until this point had only worked in photography, collage, and indoor installation. The text, coupled with its use of a declarative invitation to consider the institution and its surroundings and the inherent multi-media nature demonstrate how Kruger continued to expand and diversify her artistic pursuits throughout her career.

Site-specific landscape installation - North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC

1997

Power Pleasure Desire Disgust

This all black-and-white multi-media installation was the inaugural show at Deitch Projects' Wooster Street space in New York City. Unlike previous installations of similar scale and theme, Kruger incorporated audio and moving pictures, so that visitors were bombarded with constantly shifting text, images, and sounds. After entering the gallery, the viewer encountered images and words projected onto the floors and walls, changing every eight seconds in intervals of twelve. Within this sensorial cacophony, Kruger placed three video close-ups of talking heads on monitors at the end of three separate twenty-two foot-long tunnels. The heads were clearly visible from the gallery entrance, but the voices only became clearer as the viewer approached the darkened passageways, where they were confronted with abbreviated monologues about love, hate, power, and sex. This exercise in extended viewing and experiential art was proof that socially conscious art can be didactic and effective at the same time.

Multi-media sound, video, and photomontage installation - Deitch Projects, New York

2010

It's all about me, I mean you, I mean me

Kruger's work in magazine graphic design has always informed her art, while the nature and context of her art has shifted drastically. Recently, Kruger has returned to her roots, with a number of magazine covers graced with original design layouts by the artist, like this cover of W magazine featuring Kim Kardashian. The cover features the artist's signature use of the Futura font on a red background emblazoned across an image. However, the image is not an anonymous found picture, but a professional photograph of a celebrity, created exclusively for this cover. The blatant and glorified nudity of the subject is cleverly juxtaposed with a tripartite tagline by Kruger, which could easily be construed as either a scathing critique of Kardashian's self-serving celebrity or a passionate declaration by Kardashian herself. This work exemplifies Kruger's success within the contemporary art world; her style is so recognizable that she has been able to cross back into the commercial world of graphic design but on her own terms.

Photographic collage - W Magazine, New York

Biography of Barbara Kruger

Childhood

Barbara Kruger was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1945. Her mother was a legal secretary and her father a chemical technician. An only child, Kruger attended Weequahic High School in Newark, and enjoyed what was by all accounts a typical middle-class upbringing. She was accepted to Syracuse University as an undergraduate, where she enrolled in a number of art and design classes. After only one year at Syracuse, Kruger moved to New York City to take more advanced art and design classes at the Parsons School of Design.

Early Training

While enrolled at Parsons, Kruger's instructors included the American photographer Diane Arbus and graphic designer Marvin Israel. Israel in particular had a dramatic influence on Kruger, encouraging her to prepare a professional portfolio when she was becoming disenchanted with art school. At this early stage in Kruger's training, she had yet to assimilate mass media imagery, language, and signage into her work, and instead focused largely on architectural photography, painting, craft, and erotic imagery. Upon leaving Parsons, Kruger found work as a designer and editor with a number of publications based in New York, including House and Garden, Aperture, and then Mademoiselle, becoming lead designer within a year of being hired and at the age of twenty-two. Despite her early success in editorial work, she felt compelled to pursue a career in art, having said, "I basically wasn't cut out for design work because I had difficulty in supplying someone else's image of perfection." In 1973, Kruger received her first big break, when curator Marcia Tucker, who would eventually found the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, selected several of Kruger's works for the Whitney Biennial exhibit.

During the late 1970s, while living and teaching in Berkeley, California, Kruger developed an interest in the written word - poetry in particular - and began writing and performing her own poetry and narratives, while still pursuing painting. The pull of language proved too much, and Kruger stopped painting and went back to her initial interest in photographs and words. This fascination led to explorations of physical space and boundaries, manifested most notably in her 1978 self-published "Pictures/Readings." The book included photographs of building exteriors accompanied by a narrative text on the opposite page in the form of a dialogue, dilemma, or dramatic scene. Kruger's unique juxtapositions of image and text, allowing each one to inform the other however concretely or abstractly, would become the foundation of her mature, conceptualist body of work.

Mature Period

Shortly after publishing "Pictures/Readings", Kruger completed a similar photographic study of hospitals, only this time the accompanying text was far shorter and more declarative, including phrases like "Go away" and "Not that." This motif of image and text in her work would soon mature into phrases that explored issues of social power dynamics, technology, death, violence, and the human condition, often taking the form of abstract concepts and postulations, i.e. "The illumination of the physical" and "The comfort construct." A crucial change in her work also took place during the late 1970s, as Kruger decided to abandon original photography in favor of found images, most often derived from mass media sources like magazines and newspapers. By the early 1980s Kruger became more ambitious in both her use of rhetoric and imagery. Kruger would later claim that her chosen motif of overlaying pictures and words was due to their "ability to determine who we are and who we aren't." Indeed, with slogans like "I shop, therefore I am" and "Your body is a battleground," Kruger was exploring text that addressed issues of feminism, consumerism, desire, and personal autonomy. Recalling the context in which she created her critical works, Kruger stated, "People write about the art world of the '80s as a glitzy time - it just makes my head explode - because it was also a time when issues of criticality came to the fore." Her use of a reduced red, white, and black palette and clear typography is influenced by the aesthetics of the Russian Constructivists, in particular Alexander Rodchenko.

Another significant shift in Kruger's career took place in 1991 with her self-titled solo exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery in New York in which she transitioned to immersive installations, covering nearly every inch of the gallery's interior with text accompanied by images, effectively transforming a white-cube gallery into a red, white, and black "arena of hostility." Of note, Kruger was the first female artist signed to the blue-chip Mary Boone Gallery, in 1988, which was best known at the time for representing macho, Neo-Expressionist male artists. The 1990s also marked for Kruger a return to magazine design, creating covers for publications like The New Republic, Ms., Newsweek, and Esquire, among others. Using her work within an entirely commercial medium carried with it a sense of irony, as much of her text can be seen as a direct challenge to consumerist culture.

Within the last two decades Kruger's oeuvre also expanded, quite literally, to include large-scale installations for museums and public spaces around the world. One such example was the landscape architecture piece Picture This (1995) for the sculpture park at the North Carolina Museum of Art. She maintains her criticality of contemporary life, still asking viewers to re-consider their contexts, and has stated of her work, "I think that art is still a site for resistance ... I'm trying to be affective, to suggest changes, and to resist what I feel are the tyrannies of social life on a certain level." Kruger has taught at California Institute of the Arts, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, University of California, Berkeley, and is currently a member of the faculty at University of California, Los Angeles. She has also written a number of critical essays and reviews for publications like The New York Times, Artforum, and The Village Voice. In 2005 Kruger participated in The Experience of Art, the 51st Venice Biennale - the first Biennale curated by two women. The artist splits her time between New York City and Los Angeles.

The Legacy of Barbara Kruger

Barbara Kruger's work has an integral place in the history of feminist, postmodern, and conceptual art. Connected with this, Kruger dissects contemporary culture in her unique combinations of image and text, often targeting multiple oppressions or hypocrisies. Kruger's aesthetic is among the most recognizable of contemporary artists, along with the likes of Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, and Damien Hirst. More importantly, as a successful artist in both the commercial and high art arenas, Kruger continues to influence many artists who struggle to make that same crossover. A clear connection to Kruger's approach is found in the work of artists like Shepard Fairey, the Guerilla Girls, and Lorna Simpson, through their use of image and text, as well as cultural critique. Kruger's wide variety of work, from her early prints, to her magazine covers, installations and t-shirt designs, has ensured that she has and will continue to have a wide influence on artists and non-artists alike.

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Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Barbara Kruger Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 01 Oct 2012. Updated and modified regularly
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