Barbara Kruger Is More Relevant Than Ever

Four decades into her career, the virality of her work in the wake of Roe v. Wade’s overturning and a dizzying new show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art prove that Barbara Kruger’s bold textual statements have lost none of their power or urgency.

“Untitled (Your body is a battleground),” 1989, by Barbara Kruger. Collection of the Broad, Los Angeles

One of the most revered artists of her era, Barbara Kruger rose to prominence in the ‘80s for her simple yet confrontational collages—word-image combinations overlaid with blunt observations in bold white text on blood-red blocks—that, as she describes, “broadly address what it means to be alive on this planet.” Concise, direct, and unsparing, they expose and interrogate power dynamics and gender injustices. Perhaps the 77-year-old Pictures Generation superstar’s most famous work is Untitled: Your Body is a Battleground, a silkscreen that depicts a woman’s face split in positive and negative exposures, creating a stark divide. Produced for the 1989 Women’s March on Washington in support of reproductive freedom, the image is a potent example of protest art. 

It’s just as relevant today, circulating widely after Politico leaked a Supreme Court draft majority decision—passed almost two months later—to overturn Roe v. Wade, effectively eliminating the constitutional right to abortion in the United States. Kruger quickly responded to the ruling with an op-art piece that reads “If the end of Roe is a shock, then you haven’t been paying attention.” To be clear, Kruger is dialed in. Earlier this year, she revealed her habit of scrolling “ideologically intense” websites like anonymous forum 4chan and defunct Neo-Nazi site Stormfront. “Every time I hear people say they are shocked, I’m like… [shakes head],” she told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s that failure of imagination that has led us to today.” She continued: “It would be kind of good if my work became archaic.”

“Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photography by Emile Askey

Until then, there’s ample meaning to plumb from her latest exhibition, “Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You,” which opened at the Art Institute of Chicago and Los Angeles County Museum of Art before landing at New York’s Museum of Modern Art through Jan. 2. (Another solo show recently filled up all three of David Zwirner’s spacious Chelsea locations earlier this summer.) 

Enveloping the museum’s triple-height Donald and Catherine Marron Family Atrium are her signature statements, rendered dizzyingly in alternating black-and-white capitals that seem to shout messages of doom and cynicism. Among them is a rethink of a Virginia Woolf quote: “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.” Another, taking up the entire floor, comes from George Orwell: “You want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face, forever.”

“Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photography by Emile Askey

Kruger has never been interested in trademarking her work, which may explain why copycats frequently appear on signs, billboards, and at abortion-rights protests, or why streetwear giant Supreme lifted her signature white-on-red Futura type for its logo. (When Supreme sued like-minded label Married to the Mob for infringing on its logo, Kruger called the spectacle “a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers.”)  The latter speaks to her wide-ranging influence on visual culture that continues to grow more than four decades into her career. “Next to Warhol,” says Mary Boone, the former gallerist who represented Kruger until 2019, “there’s not another artist, aside from perhaps Cindy Sherman, who’s been as influential for what things look like and how people see the world as Barbara.” 

“My work is seldom incident- or event-specific, but tries to create a commentary about the ways that cultures construct and contain us,” Kruger told The Guardian. “I’ve always said that I try to make work about how we are to one another. I see this as an ongoing project.” If there’s one takeaway from Kruger’s work, look no further than the wise words she emblazoned on skateboards at Performa 2017 in a sly rebuff to Supreme: “Don’t be a jerk.”

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