Barbara Kruger’s Artwork Speaks Truth to Power

The mass media artist has been refashioning our idioms into sharp-edged cultural critiques for three decades—and now brings her work to the Hirshhorn

Barbara Kruger photographed in her New York studio. (Chester Higgins Jr. / The New York Times / Redux)
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For some, Kruger has had a forbidding aura, which is probably because of the stringent feminist content of some of her more agitprop aphorisms, such as “Your body is a battleground,” which features a woman’s face made into a grotesque-looking mask by slicing it in half and rendering one side as a negative. When I later told people I’d found Kruger down-to-earth, humorous and even kindly, those who knew her readily agreed, those who knew only her early work were a bit surprised.

But she’s made a point of being more than an ideologue. “I always say I try to make my work about how we are to one another,” she told me.

That reminded me of one of her works in which the word “empathy” stood out.

“‘How we are to each other,’” I asked. “Is that how you define empathy?”

“Oh,” she replied with a laugh, “well, too often it’s not [how we are to each other].”

“But ideally...we’re empathetic?”

“No,” she said, “I don’t know if that’s been wired into us. But I mean I’ve never been engaged with the war of the sexes. It’s too binary. The good versus the bad. Who’s the good?”

It’s a phrase she uses often: “too binary.” She’d rather work in multiple shades of meaning and the ironies that undercut them.

All of which brings us to her upcoming installation invasion of Washington and that potent, verboten word she wants to bring to Washington’s attention. The magic word with the secret power that is like garlic to Dracula in a town full of partisans. The word is “DOUBT.”

“I’d only been in Washington a few times, mainly for antiwar marches and pro-choice rallies,” she said. “But I’m interested in notions of power and control and love and money and death and pleasure and pain. And Richard [Koshalek, the director of the Hirshhorn] wanted me to exercise candor without trying to be ridiculously...I think I sometimes see things that are provocative for provocations’ sake.” (A rare admission for an artist—self-doubt.) “So I’m looking forward to bringing up these issues of belief, power and doubt.”


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