Gallery  July 26, 2022  Howard Halle

Barbara Kruger Zwirner and MoMA Shows Speak to Past and Present

Photo: Emile Askey via MoMA

Installation view of Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You., on view at The Museum of Modern Art, New York from July 16, 2022 – January 2, 2023.

Sightings of Barbara Kruger’s work in New York City have been somewhat scarce since her last exhibition in 2018 at Mary Boone Gallery (which permanently closed after its namesake owner went to jail for tax evasion), but now, Kruger is back in a big way with concurrent offerings at David Zwirner and MoMA.

The Zwirner exhibition takes up the gallery’s entire West 19th Street location, while the presentation at The Modern fills the museum’s capacious atrium. Each show presents the latest in the artist’s patented amalgams of photos, words, and punchy graphics conducting meta-textual commentary on the zeitgeist.

Over the decades, Kruger’s work has grown from large-format photographs to videos and immersive installations that swamp viewers in logorrheic gushes of pronouncements, aperçus, questions and sentiments. But throughout her 40-year career, Kruger’s aim has been to subvert the corrupting combination of late capitalism, male privilege, and mass media by creating a kind of faux propaganda that parodies the semiotics of authority.

Courtesy David Zwirner.

Installation view, Barbara Kruger, David Zwirner, New York, June 30-August 12, 2022.

Long associated with the early 1980s Pictures Generation, Kruger had, in fact, emerged a decade prior as part of the feminist wave washing through the art world. Consistent with attempts at that time to revive and elevate the craft traditions of “women’s work,” Kruger fashioned wall hangings out of yarn, beads, sequins, feathers, and ribbons, earning her a spot in the 1973 Whitney Biennial. But by the end of the ’70s she became disenchanted with that approach and turned to conceptually oriented photo pieces pairing seemingly random illustrations with meditations on the nature of power. These works, however, lacked the scale and pizzazz of what followed.

During this period, Kruger supported herself by serving as art director for Mademoiselle magazine, a job which required marrying images and texts into eye-catching layouts enhanced by display fonts and color accents. Such tricks of the trade informed Kruger’s signature juxtapositions of black-and-white stock photos from mid-century advertising with red banners or boxes overlaid in white sans-serif type. The most famous example, 1987’s Untitled (I shop therefore I am), features a hand holding a card printed with the eponymous slogan. As testament to their visual potency, Kruger’s design ideas were lifted wholesale by the skateboarding clothier Supreme, and by the street artist Shepard Fairey. 

Parts of the Zwirner show are given over to what are essentially remixes of Kruger classics, with I shop therefore I am given an elaborate makeover as an installation centered on a large digital animation built into a freestanding partition. It begins with the original image collapsing into a heap of jigsaw puzzle pieces at the bottom of the frame, which re-assemble to flash editorial upgrades such as, “I shop therefore I hoard,” “I love therefore I need,” and “I am therefore I hate.” The surrounding walls are covered by a mural depicting repeated views of the iconic hand—which, instead of a message, holds various iterations of previous Kruger works, collaged with additional ephemera like Instagram posts that reference the artist.

Courtesy David Zwirner

Installation view, Barbara Kruger, David Zwirner, New York, June 30-August 12, 2022.

Elsewhere, the Pledge of Allegiance and the traditional wedding vow are busily typed out on flatscreens as if someone were taking dictation from the global CEO for banality. Also on view is a video installation that begins with a sequence of chyrons crawling across a man’s worried face reading, in part, “This is about the beginning of the end. This is about the canny use of fear. About doing damage…,” before galloping on from there. 

At MoMA, Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You continues Kruger’s tour d’ horizon of our collective consciousness in all its chaotic and delusional glory. An orgy of bromides set in billboard-size type, the piece climbs the walls and spills across the floor of the atrium, as texts running vertically and horizontally go off in different directions figuratively and literally. Several passages set in oval frames are distorted to look as if they were reflections in a convex mirror, while George Orwell’s famous quote about imagining the future as a boot stamping on a face forever rolls out beneath your feet like dystopian carpeting.

Given that the artist originally formulated her work under the monocultural dominance of print and three-channel television, it’s tempting to see these shows as an OK Boomer stab at remaining relevant, while telling us something we already knew. But just as Orwell intuited the totalitarian shape of things to come, she effectively foresaw how a world mired in memes serves the interests of a ruling elite. That we already know what we do is thanks, in some measure, to Barbara Kruger.

About the Author

Howard Halle

Howard Halle is a writer and artist who has exhibited his work in the United States and Europe. Between 1981 and 1985, he was Curator of The Kitchen's Gallery and Performance Art series. From 1995 through 2020, he was Chief Art Critic for Time Out New York. He lives and works in Brooklyn.

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