Barbara Kruger is one of America’s most successful postmodern feminist visual artists. An accomplished graphic designer who worked extensively in magazine publishing, her works use provocative text and pop cultural imagery to challenge social norms about women’s roles, political power, and consumerism.
Kruger was born in Newark, New Jersey, the only child to middle-class parents. She studied art, design, and poetry at Syracuse University but only stayed for a year, returning home in 1965 after the death of her father. The following year, she entered the fine arts program at Parsons School of Design in New York, where she studied photography under Diane Arbus and design under Marvin Israel. It was Israel who encouraged her to develop a professional portfolio as she began to question whether to continue at Parsons, and both teachers introduced her to a circle of fashion magazine photographers. She left school to accepted a position at Conde Nast Publications with Mademoiselle, where she was quickly promoted to chief designer. Around the same time, she began to do freelance work designing covers for political publications – an experience that would develop her shrewd skills for crafting confrontational text. Kruger later became a photo editor at a number of other publications, including House and Garden and Aperture. The ability to pair bold copy with striking images for mass communications became her particular strength, asking, “Do you know why language manifests itself the way it does in my work? It’s because I understand short attention spans.”
Kruger’s art making reflected feminism from its early beginnings. Her first pieces were inspired by craft - large, colorful woven hangings integrating beads, sequins, and feathers, often depicting sexually suggestive objects. In 1973, a selection of these works was included in the Whitney Museum’s Biennial by curator Marcia Tucker. In 1976, Kruger left New York and moved to Berkeley, California, where she taught at the University of California for four years and immersed herself in the writing of Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes.
In 1977, Kruger returned to art making, turning her attention initially to photography with a series of stark architectural photos made into an artist book entitled Picture/Readings (1979). Each black-and-white image is accompanied by a long-form narrative that wonders about the lives of the people living inside. The work foreshadowed the vocabulary that would later become her hallmark.
By 1980, Kruger began using black-and-white found images from 1950-60s women’s magazines and advertisements, collaged over with short, provocative slogans. Her Untitled (1980) depicts a woman with hands held in prayer, evoking the Virgin Mary, with the word “perfect” along the lower edge. In her Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face (1981) and Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am) (1987) the images are cropped and large-scale, with ironic aphorisms in Futura Bold font against eye-catching text bars. In all of her works in this style, the use of personal pronouns implicates the viewer, asking them to join or question her assumptions. Kruger further blurs the boundaries between art and advertisement by supervising the production of mass produced merchandise depicting her artworks, including umbrellas, tote bags, postcards, mugs, and T-shirts.
More recently, Kruger has created public installations in galleries, museums, municipal buildings, train stations, and parks, as well as on buses and billboards. In these immersive environments, the walls, floors, and ceilings are completely covered with images and texts. Her installation at the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington, DC, entitled Belief + Doubt (2012) covers the museum lobby and storefront with enormous printed phrases about consumerism, many of them 12 feet tall, in black, red, and white typeface. They include, “Belief + Doubt = Sanity,” “The rich man’s jokes are always funny,” and, “You want it. You buy it. You forget it.”
Since the late 1990s, Kruger has also ventured into creating life-size sculptural figures to satirize modern American culture. Her large fiberglass work Justice (1997) depicts J. Edgar Hoover and Roy Cohn painted in white, each dressed partially in drag and kissing. Hoover and Cohn were both right-wing political conservatives who hid their homosexuality as they rose to powerful positions.
Kruger has taught at the California Institute of Art, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the University of California, Berkeley. She lives in New York and Los Angeles.
Untitled (We don't need another hero), 1987
photograph and type on paper
5 3/4 x 11 3/8 inches
Untitled (our prices are insane!)
photographic silkscreen on vinyl
98 1/4 by 97 3/4 inches
Untitled (You Kill Time)
black and white photograph, in artist's frame
73 1/4 by 49 inches