American Icon Barbara Kruger Returns

Artwork: Barbara Kruger, “Untitled (A picture is worth more than a thousand words)”, 1992, silkscreen on vinyl other: 208.28 x 312.42 cm (82 x 123 in.), © Barbara Kruger, Private collection.

You have seen it a million times in your minds eye: across a black-and-white photograph, a red bar runs. Against the red, words are written in white Futura Bold typeface. It is the work of American artist Barbara Kruger (b. 1945), so iconic no less than Supreme used it as inspiration for their logo, perhaps unironically referencing her famed 1987 work that called out consumer culture with the words, “I shop therefore I am.”

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Three decades ago, Kruger brought us to the edge. We looked into the abyss and saw ourselves staring back at us, with a queasy smile of recognition. Fast forward to 2016, where many people proudly see themselves as brands. They take selfies and layer those photographs with words, unwittingly incorporating the very aphorisms Kruger has been speaking throughout her career. It’s a bit like the snake eating its tail and it becomes clear: progress is simply forward motion in time. Revolution is when the circle spins 360 degrees, returning to its starting point. We’ve been here before, haven’t we?

Barbara Kruger, “Untitled (Love is something you fall into)”, 1990 photographic silkscreen/vinyl overall: 163.83 x 396.24 cm (64 1/2 x 156 in.) Hall Collection © Barbara Kruger. Photo courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York.

Maybe we have. Kruger’s black and white photos overlaid with red bands and white font are reminiscent of the Life and Look magazine banners from the golden age of picture magazines. They call to mind the spirit of “the greatest generation,” who believed in nuclear warfare, and their children, who used to hide under their school desks during Cold War drill tests. These are the people who believed what they were told by their media and their government, no matter how far-fetched the plot line went.

But then, the circle spins around once more, and we return to the present day. Maybe time elapsed is the only change. Maybe a new generation has inherited Kruger’s aphorisms without the context in which they were made. Maybe that context has vanished, without a trace, and all that remains are the artifacts and memories of yesterday.

Barbara Kruger, “Untitled (You thrive on mistaken identity)”, 1981 gelatin silver print overall: 152.4 x 101.6 cm (60 x 40 in.) Matthias Brunner © Barbara Kruger. Photo courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York.

So many questions come to mind, but the answers are unknown. Perhaps that’s for the better. Why try to make concrete the changeable world? Kruger observes, “I think people have to set up little battles. They have to demonize people whom they disagree with or feel threatened by. But it’s the ideological framing of the debate that scares me.”

Let’s remove the frame, and deal with the work. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, presents In the Tower: Barbara Kruger, now on view through January 22, 2017. The exhibition showcases 15 of Kruger’s profile works made between the early 1980s to the present, at varying scales ranging from magazine-size to monumental.

In her work, Kruger calmly goes straight for the jugular, arresting our attention visually and verbally for the cleanest, meanest visceral assault. But she does it without exacting blood. “I think I developed language skills to deal with threat. It’s the girl thing to do—you know, instead of pulling out a gun,” Kruger reveals.

Barbara Kruger, “Untitled (The future belongs to those who can see it)”, 1997 silkscreen on vinyl overall: 215.9 x 152.4 cm (85 x 60 in.) From the Chris and Dori Carter Collection © Barbara Kruger.

Kruger’s work has so many layers, it is like a Russian nesting doll. She grabs our attention, and does not let go. She pushes a button that compels us to keep going. But she does it with (seemingly) the greatest of ease. Everything appears so simple, and just when we think we have it figured out, another layer appears.

“I want people to be drawn into the space of the work. And a lot of people are like me in that they have relatively short attention spans. So I shoot for the window of opportunity,” Kruger says.

So we begin with the graphics, struck by the sheer pleasure of the familiar sight of red, black, and white. Then we read, because words tend to demand, asserting themselves as context, or position, or polemic. Then we look at the photograph, and we try to synthesize the information we are given. We can take it as it is, and never open the nesting doll. Or we can get caught in a spider’s web of truth, lies, and interpretation—and that’s when the floor begins to shift under our feet.

Barbara Kruger, “Untitled (Know nothing, Believe anything, Forget everything)”, 1987/2014 screenprint on vinyl overall: 274.32 x 342.05 cm (108 x 134 11/16 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington © Barbara Kruger.

Kruger observes, “Seeing is no longer believing. The very notion of truth has been put into crisis. In a world bloated with images, we are finally learning that photographs do indeed lie.”

So what is true, and how can we know? What is disinformation at the service of the power structure? Kruger does not have the answers. She is like the sphinx of old, sharing the riddles that lie at the very heart of our world.

Kruger reveals, “I think that art is still a site for resistance and for the telling of various stories, for validating certain subjectivities we normally overlook. 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.”

Level up, take it in, and enjoy the show.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.