STATEMENT OF INTENT Barbara Kruger on her anti-establishment artistry
Barbara Kruger first sent a message to the world in the 1980s with her fearless, provocative art, and she continues to challenge the status quo today
‘No complaints, except for the world.’ Who other than Barbara Kruger could say so much in so little? Speaking to me on the phone from New York, she is every bit as economic in her language as her pithy, assertive artworks would suggest. This is not a woman who wastes her words.
If you don’t already know Kruger’s name, you will almost certainly know her work. Rendered in white Futura or Helvetica type on a pillar-box-red background and overlaid on black and white photographs, her eye-catching aphorisms have permeated the public realm and seeped into popular culture, often spawning bad imitations in the process. Whether emblazoned on buses or plastered on billboards, they call for widespread institutional change while challenging viewers to reflect on their individual contributions as citizens. ‘I try to make work that is about how we are to one another – the adorations and the contempts, the damage done and the love made,’ says Kruger.
It’s an ambitious project for a woman who entered the working world with no university degree and little formal artistic training. Abandoning her studies at Parsons School of Design after a term, in the late 1960s Kruger took a job as a designer at Condé Nast’s Mademoiselle magazine, which in retrospect she says she was fortunate to secure. ‘At that time, Condé Nast and Hearst were about the only places where women had some sort of agency over what they were doing – they could actually work rather than just make coffees for a male boss.’ Nonetheless, she struggled with the idea of propping up the materialist society whose flaws she was already beginning to recognise: ‘I didn’t have what it took to create so many clients’ images of perfection.’ She gave up graphic design in favour of making art (initially a series of woven wall hangings), photographing architecture and even publishing poetry – a period of experimentation that paved the way for the adoption of her modern collage practice in the early 1980s.
Many of Kruger’s early works can be understood as a direct response to her disillusionment with the magazines she had worked on. By juxtaposing provocative slogans with mainstream imagery, she sought to reinvest conversations conducted through the mass media with meaning. ‘I shop therefore I am,’ reads the irony-laden message on her 1987 silkscreen print, blending mercantile and philosophical registers in a simple yet crushing assessment of contemporary society’s devotion to the false god of consumerism.
That kind of direct language is at the heart of Kruger’s approach: despite being exceptionally well-informed (her more recent works reference a range of writers including Virginia Woolf and George Orwell), she shies away from talking about her influences. ‘“Inspiration” is a very flowery, baroque word for someone like me,’ she says. ‘I basically engage with the everyday and how that filters into our experience.’ For the same reason, when she started out it seemed natural to exhibit in the public realm rather than in the more private setting of a museum or gallery. ‘I didn’t know much about individual art practices, but I did understand making magazines and watching TV and going to the movies, so it was a way for my work to function through these very public forums,’ she says of the billboards, murals and covers she made in the 1980s and 1990s. It was also a method of attacking the status quo as visibly as possible: in 1989, her nowiconic ‘Your Body is a Battleground’ poster for the Women’s March on Washington, which shows a woman’s face bisected into positive and negative exposures, became totemic for protesters fighting to defend legal abortion.
In the era of Trump and his pro-life brigade, it’s hard not to look at that poster without a shiver. Still, resonant though it is with our troubled times, Kruger is contemptuous of those who profess us to be worse off now than we were then. ‘There are no good old days – it wasn’t better 30 years ago for women or people of colour,’ she points out. ‘These are the good old days, not because they’re good by any means, but because we’re alive to experience them and perhaps change them.’ She is modest about her own reforming power – ‘People have written in the past that my work is subversive, but I make no such claims’ – emphasising that it is precisely the vanity of self-professed change-makers that has failed to prevent the rise of social conservatism. ‘Those people who believe they’re thinking the right thoughts and polishing their haloes make me sick, because the world is bigger than their narcissistic consciences, bigger than their intensely ambitious and intellectual language,’ she says, referring to the ‘enfeebled campaign’ of the Democrats that, in her view, effectively handed Trump his victory. ‘If you can’t transform thoughts and language into a vehicle for reaching people, we’re just going to have more of what we have now.’
Kruger herself is a past master at reaching people. When she isn’t tapping into celebrity culture, as she did with her 2010 W magazine cover starring a nude Kim Kardashian adorned with three white-on-red bands of text (‘It’s all about me /I mean you /I mean me’), she’s co-opting urban-transport networks to spread her message. Take her 2012 installation in Los Angeles, for which she wrapped 12 city buses as part of an initiative to promote art education in local schools. Then there was last year’s partnership with the Performa 17 Biennial, which saw her release 50,000 New York MetroCards illustrated with open-ended questions such as
‘Who is silent? Who speaks?’ For the same project, she staged her first ever performance, Untitled (The Drop), which involved the launch of a flash sale of merchandise featuring her trademark Futura font. As people began queuing obediently outside the SoHo store, parallels quickly emerged with the frenzied ‘drops’ made by the American streetwear brand Supreme, whose logo design is widely known to owe more than a small debt to Kruger.
Some artists might have reacted to this level of copyright infringement with a retinue of lawyers; Kruger’s outlook is more stoic. ‘Whatever! How amazing that I’ve entered the discourse – I don’t take that for granted,’ she says truthfully. Is she uneasy about her fame or grateful for it? ‘Both and everything in-between. The way things have played out is an example of how arbitrary the whole system is: who gets seen and who doesn’t, who’s known and who isn’t, who gets a proper name and who is forgotten. I never use the word “great” unless it’s in quotes.’ Therein lies the wisdom, humility and – dare I say it – greatness of Barbara Kruger. Barbara Kruger’s work will be on show at South London Gallery (www. southlondongallery.org) until 18 November as part of its ‘Knock Knock: Humour in Contemporary Art’ exhibition.
Opposite: Barbara Kruger’s ‘Untitled (No)’ from ‘Untitled’ (1985). Below: her‘Untitled (You Will Never Wake Up From This Beautiful Dream)’ (2006)
From top: Kruger’s NewYork MetroCards from last year’s Performa Biennial. ‘Are We Having Fun Yet?’ (1987). ‘We Don’t NeedAnother Hero’ (1987)
Clockwise from below: ‘Untitled (Talk is Cheap)’ (1993). ‘Tears’ (2012). An installation at the Sprüth Magersgallery in Berlin last year
Above: ‘Untitled (You Are a Very Special Person)’ (1995). Below: Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground)’ (1989). Bottom: a 2016 work on New York’s High Line