Barbara Kruger - Biography and Legacy
American Designer, Graphic Artist, and Photographer
Newark, New Jersey
Biography of Barbara Kruger
Barbara Kruger was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1945. Her mother was a legal secretary and her father a chemical technician. An only child, Kruger attended Weequahic High School in Newark, and enjoyed what was by all accounts a typical middle-class upbringing. She was accepted to Syracuse University as an undergraduate, where she enrolled in a number of art and design classes. After only one year at Syracuse, Kruger moved to New York City to take more advanced art and design classes at the Parsons School of Design.
While enrolled at Parsons, Kruger's instructors included the American photographer Diane Arbus and graphic designer Marvin Israel. Israel in particular had a dramatic influence on Kruger, encouraging her to prepare a professional portfolio when she was becoming disenchanted with art school. At this early stage in Kruger's training, she had yet to assimilate mass media imagery, language, and signage into her work, and instead focused largely on architectural photography, painting, craft, and erotic imagery. Upon leaving Parsons, Kruger found work as a designer and editor with a number of publications based in New York, including House and Garden, Aperture, and then Mademoiselle, becoming lead designer within a year of being hired and at the age of twenty-two. Despite her early success in editorial work, she felt compelled to pursue a career in art, having said, "I basically wasn't cut out for design work because I had difficulty in supplying someone else's image of perfection." In 1973, Kruger received her first big break, when curator Marcia Tucker, who would eventually found the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, selected several of Kruger's works for the Whitney Biennial exhibit.
During the late 1970s, while living and teaching in Berkeley, California, Kruger developed an interest in the written word - poetry in particular - and began writing and performing her own poetry and narratives, while still pursuing painting. The pull of language proved too much, and Kruger stopped painting and went back to her initial interest in photographs and words. This fascination led to explorations of physical space and boundaries, manifested most notably in her 1978 self-published "Pictures/Readings." The book included photographs of building exteriors accompanied by a narrative text on the opposite page in the form of a dialogue, dilemma, or dramatic scene. Kruger's unique juxtapositions of image and text, allowing each one to inform the other however concretely or abstractly, would become the foundation of her mature, conceptualist body of work.
Shortly after publishing "Pictures/Readings", Kruger completed a similar photographic study of hospitals, only this time the accompanying text was far shorter and more declarative, including phrases like "Go away" and "Not that." This motif of image and text in her work would soon mature into phrases that explored issues of social power dynamics, technology, death, violence, and the human condition, often taking the form of abstract concepts and postulations, i.e. "The illumination of the physical" and "The comfort construct." A crucial change in her work also took place during the late 1970s, as Kruger decided to abandon original photography in favor of found images, most often derived from mass media sources like magazines and newspapers. By the early 1980s Kruger became more ambitious in both her use of rhetoric and imagery. Kruger would later claim that her chosen motif of overlaying pictures and words was due to their "ability to determine who we are and who we aren't." Indeed, with slogans like "I shop, therefore I am" and "Your body is a battleground," Kruger was exploring text that addressed issues of feminism, consumerism, desire, and personal autonomy. Recalling the context in which she created her critical works, Kruger stated, "People write about the art world of the '80s as a glitzy time - it just makes my head explode - because it was also a time when issues of criticality came to the fore." Her use of a reduced red, white, and black palette and clear typography is influenced by the aesthetics of the Russian Constructivists, in particular Alexander Rodchenko.
Another significant shift in Kruger's career took place in 1991 with her self-titled solo exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery in New York in which she transitioned to immersive installations, covering nearly every inch of the gallery's interior with text accompanied by images, effectively transforming a white-cube gallery into a red, white and black "arena of hostility." Of note, Kruger was the first female artist signed to the blue-chip Mary Boone Gallery, in 1988, which was best known at the time for representing macho, Neo-Expressionist male artists. The 1990s also marked for Kruger a return to magazine design, creating covers for publications like The New Republic, Ms., Newsweek, and Esquire, among others. Using her work within an entirely commercial medium carried with it a sense of irony, as much of her text can be seen as a direct challenge to consumerist culture.
Within the last two decades Kruger's oeuvre also expanded, quite literally, to include large-scale installations for museums and public spaces around the world. One such example was the landscape architecture piece Picture This (1995) for the sculpture park at the North Carolina Museum of Art. She maintains her criticality of contemporary life, still asking viewers to re-consider their contexts, and has stated of her work, "I think that art is still a site for resistance ... I'm trying to be affective, to suggest changes, and to resist what I feel are the tyrannies of social life on a certain level." Kruger has taught at California Institute of the Arts, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, University of California, Berkeley, and is currently a member of the faculty at University of California, Los Angeles. She has also written a number of critical essays and reviews for publications like The New York Times, Artforum, and The Village Voice. In 2005 Kruger participated in The Experience of Art, the 51st Venice Biennale - the first Biennale curated by two women. The artist splits her time between New York City and Los Angeles.
The Legacy of Barbara Kruger
Barbara Kruger's work has an integral place in the history of feminist, postmodern, and conceptual art. Connected with this, Kruger dissects contemporary culture in her unique combinations of image and text, often targeting multiple oppressions or hypocrisies. Kruger's aesthetic is among the most recognizable of contemporary artists, along with the likes of Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, and Damien Hirst. More importantly, as a successful artist in both the commercial and high art arenas, Kruger continues to influence many artists who struggle to make that same crossover. A clear connection to Kruger's approach is found in the work of artists like Shepard Fairey, the Guerilla Girls and Lorna Simpson, through their use of image and text, as well as cultural critique. Kruger's wide variety of work, from her early prints, to her magazine covers, installations and t-shirt designs, has ensured that she has and will continue to have a wide influence on artists and non-artists alike.