Barbara Kruger: Infinitely Copied, Still Unmatched

For decades this social critic has addressed the powerful influence of media, consumerism and politics. Her work anticipated how images and ideas are now disseminated.,

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CHICAGO — At the entrance of “Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.” the striking, flag-planting new Barbara Kruger retrospective (and elaboration) at the Art Institute of Chicago, you’re greeted with one of the artist’s videos, installed like a blockade. It’s of an image being assembled like a jigsaw puzzle, clacking loudly with each new added piece. You stand before it, as if staring into a Las Vegas slot machine — a tractor beam of tsk-tsk propaganda. When complete, the message is delivered with a thump: “I shop therefore I am.”

That’s familiar Kruger wisdom, deploying the tools of mass communication shepherding to make the sheep think.

On the walls on either side of this work are slates of Kruger copycats — derivative works combining text and found material from media — by mostly anonymous designers and agitators. They co-opt Kruger’s famous templates (the colors, fonts, phrasings, and so on) for myriad purposes, and are collaged by the artist with abandon: memes, marketing materials, metacritique. A still of Patrick Bateman overlaid with “Die Yuppie Scum!” A pic of Paris Hilton with the text “100% Natural.” An ad for the 2008 French presidential campaign of Segolene Royal. Some scattered phrases jump out: “I Am Frivolous.” “Wage Slave.” “You Are Not Yourself.” “iPhone Therefore I Am.” “Forsaken.”

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Foreground, “Untitled (I shop therefore I am),” 1987/2019, one of the artist’s videos, is an image being assembled like a jigsaw puzzle, clacking loudly with each new added piece. On the sidewalls, “Untitled (That’s the way we do it),” 2011/2020.Credit…Art Institute of Chicago

These paste-up arrangements aren’t the most elegant works in this exhibition, but they are maybe the most telling. Their inclusion is a savvy attempt to fully represent the seemingly boundless impact of Kruger, a loud conceptualist whose straightforward work takes on full power the more it iterates in the world.

Or put a slightly different way: “It’s giving me Supreme vibes,” said one young woman as she looked up at them on a recent afternoon.

Which, of course it does. And that underscores the complexity of revisiting Kruger at this moment in image dissemination: Her strict-rule paste-up approach to interrogating groupthink has become so defining, so signature that her innovations are now core grammar. Her art is recombinant. It exists whether or not she’s present.

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“The scale of a Kruger is the message,” our critic says. “A great deal of her work overtakes and supersedes its allotted space.” There are text pieces on the Art Institute’s exterior, and sprinkled on walls, billboards and train platforms throughout the city. Credit…Art Institute of Chicago

“Thinking of You” is bold and convincing, occasionally overblunt and occasionally mischievous. Part backward looking and part revision and update for the constantly moving present, it embodies and thickens Kruger’s refracting of the language of advertising and propaganda through an anticapitalist, humanist lens.

Since the early 1980s, the engine of her work, and its effectiveness, has been formatting — the candy apple red bar containing white sans serif type, rendered in Futura Bold Oblique, conveying aphorisms that could be taunts or pleas. Endlessly hashtaggable, they presaged how modern phone-centered communication would be reduced to the immediacy of the endlessly shareable and the fluidity of the endlessly memeable.

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Installation of “Untitled (That’s the way we do it),” 2011/2020. The artist confronts her own ubiquity by incorporating copycat images she found online and then collaged. The work takes on more power the more it iterates in the world. Credit…Art Institute of Chicago

But they began much more humbly, as paste-ups made by hand, an extension of Kruger’s work as a graphic designer at Conde Nast magazines. Twenty of her 1980s originals are displayed in a suboptimally lit walkway. Up against the room-size works, they feel like modest afterthoughts. But up close they are deeply moving, almost innocent. Each juxtaposes a gnomic phrase with a stark black and white image, but at this scale, they scan more as private entreaties than global dictates — rave fliers for young agitators.

Several works in the exhibition are, in essence, remixes of Kruger originals, either remade in a site-specific way for this show, or updated in terms of medium. In a nearby gallery, one paste-up — “Admit nothing. Blame everyone. Be bitter”– is the foundation for a video piece that changes each word, one at a time, to those with opposing meaning. A few other videos here function similarly, a comment about the way that the composition of a message can be more potent than the message itself. But these videos are also about the ways in which we fumble over language, how we occasionally leap from one word to another, because of the shape they take in our mouth or brain, without realizing that they’re in opposition. Language is about words, but also about context and structure, and sometimes those things render specificity null. The meaning is fungible but the delivery system is not.

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At left, “Untitled (Admit nothing/Blame everyone/Be bitter),” 1987/2020. Right, “Untitled (it’s our pleasure to disgust you),” 1991.Credit…Art Institute of Chicago

Sometimes, though, the scale of a Kruger is the message. A great deal of her work overtakes and supersedes its allotted space: “Why Are You Here?” on a wall by the museum’s main entrance; staircase risers that read “Not Dead Enough,” “Not Loud Enough” and so on. There are, as you might expect, large text pieces on the building’s exterior, and sprinkled on walls, billboards and train platforms throughout the city — Kruger has always been possessed of a graffiti impulse.

Kruger’s work is intrusive by design, but in the era of relentless selfies and Instagram backdrops, some of her grandest works become denatured in this setting. A vinyl floor piece about grotesque, desperate bodies and a gallery wall touching on the many meanings of war, end up, in their vivid austerity, simply places to pose, which plenty of people did. Perhaps this is no different than standing in front of the Mona Lisa, but Kruger’s mandates need to be read, not obstructed.

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“Untitled (floor),” 1991/2020. On the wall, from left, “Untitled (Brain),” 2007; “Untitled (Truth),” 2013; and “Untitled (Heart),” 1988.Credit…Art Institute of Chicago

In places, though, the exhibition anticipates these responses. One small gallery is marked with a disclaimer: You will be filmed. Inside, security cameras at the top corners capture attendees in front of a pair of text walls: “I Hate Myself and You Love Me For It,” “I Love Myself and You Hate Me For It.” Elsewhere, in other sections of the museum, four small monitors telecast the feed of people posing for their own pictures perhaps not fully registering that they themselves are the art.

This thrilling tension — are you intruding on the art or is the art intruding on you? — had the same frisson as Kruger’s original radical incursions. Spoken-word sound installations in the elevators were largely ignored by most passengers, engendering a stalemate between the attentive and the oblivious. The sound works in the main room — “Take care of yourself,” “I love you” — were harder to ignore. They sounded like admonitions.

Kruger also engages the museum itself as a playground. There are a handful of her pieces sprinkled throughout other wings — most vividly, a statue depicting J. Edgar Hoover and Roy Cohn in a lip-locked embrace in a sculpture gallery, and a video monitor playing a loop of the “Public Service Announcements” short videos about fear and isolation that Kruger made in 1996 in a gallery of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine art. These videos are purposeful and crisp whereas Kruger’s multi-wall video installations are drained of their potency during the minutes they take to unfold.

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Installation view of monitors for “Untitled (Selfie),” 2020, which displays live video of museum visitors in a different gallery. People posing for their own pictures are themselves the art.Credit…Barbara Kruger

Her terseness has limitations, too — it makes her ideology transmissible, and easy to destabilize, or even undermine. It’s hard to inhale Kruger’s art without also taking in the exhaust fumes of everything she inspired.

Kruger has on occasion been lured into the debate about her aesthetic children. In 2013, she issued a statement to Complex about a lawsuit between Supreme and a company borrowing its red bar/white text aesthetic, which of course Supreme had hoisted from Kruger. “Totally uncool jokers,” she called them. She wasn’t wrong.

For many, though, Krugerian aesthetics exist primarily through those commodity channels. She’s explored that avenue, too, at various points over the years, releasing T-shirts featuring her work. Given that, the scope of Kruger merchandise in the gift shop was disappointing: magnets, socks, a “Too Big To Fail” wall clock, an $85 clutch embossed with “Money Talks” that doesn’t feel nearly clever enough in the Demna Gvasalia era. These haute tchotchkes feel like shrugs — what was once subversive is now ordinary.

Perversely, a reminder of how truly ubiquitous Kruger’s approach now is might lie in “Untitled (Our people),” a piece she originally displayed in 1994. “Our people are better than your people,” it begins, then continues. “More intelligent, more powerful, more beautiful, and cleaner. We are good and you are evil. God is on our side.”

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Kruger works deal with authority and its abuse. From left, “Pledge,” 1988/2020; “Untitled (Our people),” 1994/2017; and “Vow,” 1988/2020. Credit… Art Institute of Chicago

It’s about stupid pride and stubborn bigotry. Absorbing this white text on a red background, though, it was hard not to feel the specter of another highly trafficable recent use of white text on a fire-red background to convey messages of bombast and exclusion.

Naturally, Kruger has weaponized her aesthetic against former President Donald J. Trump on the cover of New York magazine on two occasions. But sometimes the line between indictment and incitement is thin and slippery. Especially in a time — a nation, a world — in which the tools of radicalism and demagoguery are the same, assessing and identifying nuance is increasingly a challenge. You never quite know who’s reading — and that was always the point.

THINKING OF YOU. I MEAN ME. I MEAN YOU.

Through Jan. 24, 2022 at the Art Institute of Chicago, artic.edu.

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