Barbara Kruger: Challenging Power and Control

Barbara Kruger: Challenging Power and Control

The way in which we absorb information is rapidly evolving. For generations, Artists have been bridging image and text together in order to enhance their message, an example of this being when Surrealist artist Magritte famously wrote “Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe” across his painting, giving the text a principal role in understanding his work. American conceptual artist, Barbara Kruger, places catchy satirical phrases over mass media images in pursuance of challenging notions of power, identity, and sexuality. By using text as a crucial communication tool in her artistic practice, Barbara Kruger explores the stereotypes and behaviors of consumerism. Her work urges the viewer to examine their own beliefs about how these long-established media outlets alter and bias our perceptions. Kruger’s trademark eye-catching style consists of cropped, large scale, black and white photographs, juxtaposed with ironic remarks printed in Futura Bold against black, white or red. 

Influenced by the Constructivist Alexander Rodchenko, Kruger introduces short phrases such as “Thinking of You” and “I shop therefore I am” into her work to communicate her ideas, as well as catch the viewer’s attention by using the language of contemporary magazines and publications. Rather than seeking to sell a product, Kruger’s works aim to sell an idea to the viewer, attempting to provoke a review of one’s immediate context. Injecting meaning back into media,  Kruger’s works tackle themes of consumerism and feminism, such as one of her most known works “Untitled (I Shop therefore I am)” (1987). This piece encourages viewers to rethink material consumption, as well as to contemplate notions of our individual autonomy. The simplicity of this photograph begs the viewer to pay more attention to the statement that Kruger is making, which stems from Descartes’ famous statement “I think therefore I am”. This artwork, therefore, correlates to the concept surrounding the existence of the self and is demonstrating how this has now become ingrained with the act of consumption. By using “we” “you” and “I”, Kruger is candidly addressing the viewer. 

Kruger’s artworks have been labeled as “Extract Expressionism”, as she collects and uses images from mass media and pastes words over them. I think that I’m trying to engage issues of power and sexuality and money and life and death. Power is the most free-flowing element in society, maybe next to money, but in fact they both motor each other,” says Kruger. The artist conceives her own political and social messages that overtly dispute stereotypical notions of gender roles as well as social relationships, demonstrated in the work “Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground)”(1989). This artwork presents a frontal image of a model’s face, with half of her face reversed from positive to negative with the phrase “Your body is a Battleground” plastered onto the image. Here, Kruger is critiquing the objectified standard of beauty that has been applied to women over centuries that has been constantly perpetuated by the media and advertising. This print was originally designed for the 1989 Reproductive Rights Protest, The March for Women’s Lives in D.C. The subject is gazes directly at the viewer, accentuating the directness of Kruger’s statement. The graphic aesthetic in her works places Kruger within the realm of Postmodernism.

“I always say I try to make my work about how we are to one another.” –Kruger

Though these artworks were created over 25 years ago, they remain significant and relevant today. During this current political climate, these statements and images are more powerful, needed and important than ever.  Leaving room for interpretation, Kruger’s art is surely not constrained by time or a particular issue. Her juxtapositions of pictures and words provoke and generates constantly evolving perspectives on the consumer society that we inhabit. As technology continues to develop, allowing for more widespread sharing of pictures and information, combined with the rapidly growing consumerism, Kruger’s art only becomes more relevant. Today, the artist’s works are held in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, among others. 

“I never say I do political art. Nor do I do feminist art. I’m a woman who’s a feminist, who makes art. My work has always been about power and control and bodies and money and all that kind of stuff”