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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Barbara Kruger is heading to Washington bearing the single word that has the power to shake the seat of government to its roots and cleave its sclerotic, deep-frozen deadlock.

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What is the word? Well, first let me introduce Barbara Kruger. If you don’t know her name, you’ve probably seen her work in art galleries, on magazine covers or in giant installations that cover walls, billboards, buildings, buses, trains and tram lines all over the world. Her new installation at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., scheduled to open August 20—the one that focuses on that powerful, power-zapping word (yes, I will tell you what it is)—will be visible from two floors of public space, filling the entire lower lobby area, also covering the sides and undersides of the escalators. And when I say floors, I mean that literally. Visitors will walk upon her words, be surrounded by walls of her words, ride on escalators covered with her words.

What’s the best way to describe her work? You know abstract expressionism, right? Well, think of Kruger’s art as “extract expressionism.” She takes images from the mass media and pastes words over them, big, bold extracts of text—aphorisms, questions, slogans. Short machine-gun bursts of words that when isolated, and framed by Kruger’s gaze, linger in your mind, forcing you to think twice, thrice about clichés and catchphrases, introducing ironies into cultural idioms and the conventional wisdom they embed in our brains.

A woman’s face in a mirror shattered by a bullet hole, a mirror on which the phrase “You are not yourself” is superimposed to destabilize us, at least momentarily. (Not myself! Who am I?) Her aphorisms range from the overtly political (Your body is a battleground) to the culturally acidic (Charisma is the perfume of your gods) to the challengingly metaphysical (Who do you think you are?).

Kruger grew up middle class in Newark, New Jersey, and her first job was as a page designer at Mademoiselle. She turned out to be a master at using type seductively to frame and foreground the image and lure the reader to the text.

The dream-machine magazine empire of Condé Nast (which also publishes Vogue, Vanity Fair and Glamour)—the dizzyingly seductive and powerful fusion of fashion, class, money, image and status—represented both an inspiration and an inviting target. The fantasy-fueled appetite to consume became Kruger’s enduring subject when she left for the downtown art world, where many of her early pieces were formal verbal defacements of glossy magazine pages, glamorous graffiti. One of her most famous works proclaimed, “I shop therefore I am.”

Kruger keeps her finger tightly pressed to the pulse of popular culture. So it shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did when, in the middle of a recent lunch at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, she practically leapt out of her chair and pointed excitedly to someone on the plaza outside. “It’s the hairdresser from Bravo!” she exclaimed excitedly. When I professed ignorance, Kruger explained, “She’s on this Bravo reality series where she goes into failing hair salons and fixes them up.” (I later learned the woman was Tabatha, from a show called “Tabatha Takes Over.”)

In addition to being a self-proclaimed “news junkie” and bookmarking the Guardian and other such serious sites, Kruger is a big student of reality shows, she told me. Which makes sense in a way: Her work is all about skewed representations of reality. How we pose as ourselves. She discoursed knowingly about current trends in reality shows, including the “preppers” (preparing for the apocalypse) and the storage wars and the hoarder shows. Those shows, she thinks, tell us important things about value, materialism and consumerism.

Kruger has immersed herself in such abstruse thinkers as Walter Benjamin, the prewar post-modernist (“Did you know he was a compulsive shopper? Read his Moscow Diary!”), and Pierre Bourdieu, the influential postmodern French intellectual responsible for the concept of “cultural capital” (the idea that status, “prestige” and media recognition count as much as money when it comes to assessing power). But she knows theory is not enough. She needs to wade into the muddy river of American culture, panning for iconic words and images like a miner looking for gold in a fast-running stream, extracting the nuggets and giving them a setting and a polish so they can serve as our mirror.

Christopher Ricks, a former Oxford professor of poetry, once told me the simplest way to recognize value in art: It is “that which continues to repay attention.” And Barbara Kruger’s words not only repay but demand attention from us. Her work has become more relevant than ever at a time when we are inundated by words in a dizzying, delirious way—by the torrent, the tidal wave, the tsunami unleashed by the Internet. “What do you read, my lord?” Polonius asks Hamlet. “Words, words, words,” he replies. Meaningless words. And that is what they threaten to become as we drown in oceans of text on the web. Pixels, pixels, pixels.


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