Barbara Kruger is an American conceptual artist. Much of her work consists of thought-provoking captions over black and white photographic collages. Kruger’s work is often described as political; it creates these moments of internal identity confusion in which we don’t know if we are acting as victim, oppressor, or witness. Usually, we are all of the above.
American conceptual artist Barbara Kruger was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1945 and left there in 1964 to attend Syracuse University. Early on she developed an interest in graphic design, poetry, writing and attended poetry readings.
After studying for a year at Syracuse she moved to New York where she began attending Parsons School of Design in 1965. She studied with fellow artists/photographers Diane Arbus and Marvin Israel, who introduced Kruger to other photographers and fashion/magazine sub-cultures. After a year at Parsons, Kruger again left school and got her training as an artist the hard way: through a full-time job as a magazine designer at Condé Nast in 1966. Not long after she started to work at Mademoiselle magazine as an entry-level designer, she was promoted to head designer a year later.
While some of those early layout techniques of bold graphics inform her work, a pulsating visual-linguistic triple-take keeps all of her pieces so alive that she’s become known for her own immediately identifiable, authoritative style—even if authority is what is being questioned in the authoritative typeface. Her work has promoted a march on Washington for women’s reproductive rights with the iconic “Your Body Is a Battleground” poster in 1989 [Untitled (Your Body Is a Battleground)]; swallowed buses with wrap-around vinyl; and taken over the exterior of a department store in Frankfurt.
These early collages in which Kruger deployed techniques she had perfected as a graphic designer, inaugurated the artist’s ongoing political, social, and especially feminist provocations and commentaries on religion, sex, racial and gender stereotypes, consumerism, corporate greed, and power.
Later still she worked as a graphic designer, art director, and picture editor in the art departments at “House and Garden”, “Aperture,” and did magazine layouts, book jacket designs, and freelance picture editing for other publications. Her decade of background in design is evident in the work for which she is now internationally renowned. Like Andy Warhol, Kruger was heavily influenced by her years working as a graphic designer.
She took up photography in 1977, producing a series of black-and-white details of architectural exteriors paired with her own textual ruminations on the lives of those living inside. Published as an artist’s book, Picture/Readings (1979) foreshadows the aesthetic vocabulary Kruger developed in her mature work.
By 1979 Barbara Kruger stopped taking photographs and began to employ found images in her art, mostly from mid-century American print-media sources, with words collaged directly over them. Her 1980 untitled piece commonly known as “Perfect” portrays the torso of a woman, hands clasped in prayer, evoking the Virgin Mary, the embodiment of submissive femininity; the word “perfect” is emblazoned along the lower edge of the image.
“I have problems with a lot of photography, particularly street photography and photojournalism. There can be an abusive power to photography.”
During the early 1980s Barbara Kruger perfected a signature style, using cropped, large-scale, black-and-white photographic images juxtaposed with raucous, pithy, and often ironic aphorisms, printed in Futura Bold typeface against black, white, or deep red text bars. The inclusion of personal pronouns in works like Untitled (Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face) (1981) and Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am) (1987) implicates viewers by confounding any clear notion of who is speaking. These rigorously composed mature works function successfully on any scale. Their wide distribution—under the artist’s supervision—in the form of umbrellas, tote bags, postcards, mugs, T-shirts, posters, and so on, confuses the boundaries between art and commerce and calls attention to the role of the advertising in public debate.
In recent years Barbara Kruger has extended her aesthetic project, creating public installations of her work in galleries, museums, municipal buildings, train stations, and parks, as well as on buses and billboards around the world. Walls, floors, and ceilings are covered with images and texts, which engulf and even assault the viewer. Since the late 1990s, Kruger has incorporated sculpture into her ongoing critique of modern American culture. Justice (1997), in white-painted fiberglass, depicts J. Edgar Hoover and Roy Cohn—two right-wing public figures who hid their homosexuality—in partial drag, kissing one another. In this kitsch send-up of commemorative statuary, Kruger highlights the conspiracy of silence that enabled these two men to accrue social and political power.
Her work was featured in The New York Times on November 24, 2012, in large white Futura type on a black background, under the title “For Sale,” the work read: “You Want It You Buy It You Forget It.” This newspaper-embedded artwork was particularly apt because it appeared on a weekend that was kicked off by Black Friday, one of America’s busiest shopping days of the year (and also, in some years, one of its deadliest). So on that morning, the Barbara Kruger piece functioned exactly as Barbara Kruger pieces have so often functioned since the 68-year-old artist first began working with invented texts in her art in the 1970s. The direct address is disarmingly direct. Certainly, the “you” implicates 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 everyperson-and the reader sides with the artist in condemning this sector of the population who is greedy, wasteful, and irresponsible. So already—and almost always in a graphic Kruger text piece—a haunting repositioning occurs in the mind of the viewer: judged and also judging; agreeing with the charges even as she or he is charging others.
There is a distinctly Krugerian tone to all of her pieces—”Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face,” from 1981; “Not Cruel Enough,” from 1997; “Plenty Should Be Enough,” from 2009—that compels the viewer to side with her and against her simultaneously, and always stop as the balance of our thinking shifts.
Kruger lives and works in both New York and Los Angeles (where, since 2006, she has taught art at UCLA).