THERE WAS SOMETHING UNCANNY about the timing of “Barbara Kruger,” which opened at the National Gallery of Art this past September. While ostensibly scheduled to reinaugurate the museum’s series of monographic In the Tower exhibitions on the occasion of the reopening of its newly renovated East Building, the show also spanned the final stretch of the 2016 presidential campaign, the election, and the inauguration. Not that the choice was overtly controversial: Kruger’s searing critiques of the Reagan era are by now so canonical that they have even been absorbed into the AP Art History curriculum. Yet, as installed in the heart of our capital this past fall, Kruger’s strategic juxtapositions of image and text appeared urgently relevant. Indeed, several of the most prominent works could almost have been conceived as campaign posters for the election.
Centered on the wall facing viewers entering the exhibition hung Untitled (We don’t need another hero), 1987. A blond girl in braids prods the biceps of a posturing boy: Perhaps this is how Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would have interacted as children. Timing-wise, the source image could be about right, the children’s dated hair and clothingas well as their stereotypical, almost palpable whitenessplacing them firmly in a nostalgic 1950s America. When I saw the show in December, I thought about how differently I would have read this piece, with its wry send-up of gender stereotypes and masculinity, back in September. If, during the run-up to the election, I let go of my reservations concerning Clinton’s neoliberalism in favor of my excitement about the possibility of the country voting in its first woman president, Trump’s victory raised the specter that the work of my own heroinesKruger among themwas all for naught. The deadpan cynicism of Kruger’s Pictures-generation critique was, after all, still tinged with optimisminvested in the power of appropriation to turn the tropes of mass media and advertising against themselves. Now, however, at a moment when the most powerful mobilization of identity politics might arguably be that of white masculinitynot the ascendance of marginalized peoples but the dying gasp of a waning majoritythe sly promise of Kruger’s works was like salt in my wounds.
Instead of fleeing in despair, though, I stayed; in fact, seduced by both the sheer aesthetic prowess of Kruger’s work and the scholarly sophistication of the installation conceived by curator Molly Donovan, I rather enjoyed myself. Cued by Untitled (Think of me thinking of you), 2013, I had some version of the titular Tin Pan Alley song playing in my head as I moved through the showthe lyrics are stacked vertically atop the profile of a young woman’s face as she looks coyly at herself in a handheld mirror. Kruger rewards those of us who love show tunes and old Hollywood movies, even as she compels us to question the nostalgia she harnesses. She often draws on images culled from the same era that Trump seems to be evoking when he refers back to that mythical time when America was “great.” Glumly recognizing the applicability of Kruger’s particular brand of mass-media appropriation, honed on Reaganesque telegenics, to this new celebrity turned politician, I allowed myself to wallow in another nostalgiafor a time just a few months past when the polls had been reassuring.
But the exhibition wasn’t conducive to wallowing. Comprising just twenty-one works, including two mock-ups and several small-scale projects in multiple media, the two-room installation was understated and tightly focused. It is a mistake to think that we can instantly grasp the meaning of Kruger’s work just because her signature look is, by now, so familiarjust as it is a mistake to think that we have learned all there is to learn from identity politics because it’s decades old. And Donovan’s canny curatorial choices prompted viewers to stick with Kruger, to spend some time and mental and visceral energy on this apparently slight miniretrospective. That all the works in the show were profiles, for example, could be understood not only visually (all the faces were seen from the side) but also textually (the captions served to characterizeor profilethe subjects, however ambiguously). The titular phrase in Untitled (Half Life), 2015, a vinyl wall covering commissioned for the show and tailored to the gallery’s dimensions, for instance, raises intriguing questions in relation to the huge face of a woman, half encased in a sculptural form, onto which it is superimposed. Should we feel confident that oppressive gendered stereotypes, to which we mold ourselves, are disappearing slowly like so much radioactive waste? Or depressed that this young beauty will lose her looks at an exponential rate? How are we complicit in creating the norms that some of us rail against? With identity politics again in the national spotlight, what we have to learn from Kruger is not that we need to attend to questions of gender (and race and stereotype) but how to attend to them. This exhibition gave me hope that Kruger’s tactics can themselves resist appropriationand that their half-life may open onto further strategies of critique and mediation.
Bibiana Obler is an associate professor of art history at George Washington University in Washington, DC.
This is a complimentary article. Subscribe to access the rest of the issue and our online archives.