PRINT September 2022


Barbara Kruger, Your body is a battleground, 1990, billboard. Installation view, Columbus, OH.

FORTY-EIGHT HOURS after I got off the phone with Barbara Kruger—we talked about her work, power, politics, social media, and TV—I was in Washington Square Park, watching her most famous image make its way through a throng of protesters. Untitled (Your body is a battleground), 1989, appeared on a stricken teen’s T-shirt: a new purchase, it seemed, unfaded, the shoulder seams still creased. On another day, it might have registered as a cultural statement on a par with Nirvana’s X-eyed smiley face, but this was the sultry evening of June 24, the day the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Kruger’s design, which she printed and wheat-pasted around New York in 1989 to publicize the women’s march on Washington (organized in response to a spate of new laws restricting abortion), has retained its air of punk militance over the decades, the familiar cropped face of its vintage white Maybelline-type model still radiating sinister conformity and dystopian threat—an enduring counter to the forced-birthers’ transfixing mascot, the flash-lit fetus, resplendent with innocence, floating in its divine void. (A head-to-head matchup isn’t purely hypothetical: Shortly after the installation of a horizontal variation of Your body on a billboard in Columbus, Ohio, commissioned by the Wexner Center for the Arts in 1990, the adjacent space was plastered with just such a photo—of a fetus at eight weeks, its pregnant host unseen—accompanied by the entreaty to “vote pro-life” and a phone number.) On the battleground of symbols, the classic wire coat hanger, with its fallopian curves and macabre little hook, has soldiered on, too. It peppered the crowd that Friday, adorning handmade signs and buttons. But the pro-choice pictograph is now more emoji than alarm bell. It’s anachronistic, shorthand for a gruesome pre-Roe, pre-misfepristone/misoprostol reality, while Your body, with its half-solarized photo split into warring sides and trapped behind red bars, gestures to a still-dawning technological regime. Kruger’s retro-futurist agitprop evokes the terror of illegal abortion by picturing the gendered fate of bodily autonomy in an authoritarian surveillance state more broadly.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Your body is a battleground), 1989, poster, dimensions unknown.

Perhaps anticipation of this particular moment, foretold by May’s leaked majority opinion, sharpened both the note of dread and the edge of exasperation in the artist’s comments two days before. “I’m sorry, but I don’t want to see a shot of [New York senator] Chuck Schumer reading with his head down, wearing those fucking glasses one more time,” she tells me, irate at Democratic leaders’ “halo polishing.” Moral vanity and incompetent stagecraft stand no chance against the maneuvers of a ruthless extremist party.

Over Kruger’s nearly five-decade career, an eerie understanding of advertising—the logic of its visual bait and indelible taglines—has been matched by an intuitive grasp of mass media’s feedback loops and dopamine drips, its morphing structures and, maybe particularly, its scripts. In her through-the-looking-glass adages, disembodied voices—omniscient and authoritative or interior and pathetic—with their oscillating deployment of words like I and you, my and your, mirror the subtext-riddled, dog-whistling conventions of commercial, corporate, propagandist, or everyday clichéd speech. Remarkably, her catchphrases have sometimes actually caught on. Beyond bootlegged T-shirts, her work—as well as her endlessly coopted syntax and style—proliferates without her involvement, untethered from her name and reputation.

Your body, with its half-solarized photo split into warring sides and trapped behind red bars, gestures to a still-dawning technological regime.

When we spoke, Kruger, who grew up in Newark, New Jersey, “lived in New York for a million years,” and has been based in Los Angeles for thirty-one, was back in New York to open two major shows. “Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.”a survey of sorts (not a retrospective, the artist emphasizes), which originated at the Art Institute of Chicago and traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—was to appear as a sweeping site-specific commission in the Museum of Modern Art’s atrium (where it is on view through January 2). And pieces she has made in recent years—mostly moving-image work but also soundscapes and wallpaper—the majority of which were featured in Chicago and LA, would be on view in her first show with David Zwirner. (The gallery began representing her in 2019.) She was to take over the three Nineteenth Street spaces through the summer, which would form a museum-scale presentation of their own.

Installing amid cataclysm is nothing new for Kruger—“Thinking of You” had been slated to open in November 2020 but was pushed back several months because of the pandemic. The catalogue was finished by the time the show’s organizers were working remotely, but the artist, responding to global tragedy and seismic social shifts, added a suite of photos to the book as a preface. Among the most powerful are those that appear to have been shot off a flat-screen TV during that summer’s uprising in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Cable news captures two of Kruger’s immense, wall-spanning street banners, which had become backdrops to milling protesters, police lines, and mass arrests on Sunset Boulevard in LA—just half a mile from where she lives.

In a panoramic two-page spread, CNN’s chyron reads, 7TH NIGHT OF PROTESTS AS TRUMP THREATENS MILITARY CRACKDOWN; in the lower right, the artist’s complementary sans-serif demand reads, WHO BUYS THE CON? (The works are from Untitled (Questions), 2020, part of a sprawling public installation commissioned by the Frieze Art Fair.) Her white-on-green text runs along the side of the NeueHouse Hollywood building. From the angle of the news helicopter, it’s a diagonal line, like an arrow pointing out of frame. Her all-caps sign, camouflaged by the graphic conventions of breaking news, is a prismatic metaquery, apropos to any element of—every con suggested by—this fraught scene and its live broadcast.

“What can I say, some stuff never gets old.” Kruger is alluding to the elastic topicality of her work, the way it seems to auto-update, shift emphasis, and switch targets with the times—or perhaps she’s referring to the stubborn persistence of her original foes. Years of magazine-design jobs (first at Mademoiselle, beginning in 1966) trained her in the commercial photomechanical layout techniques that informed her famous early X-Acto compositions. The black-white-and-candy-apple collages from the ’80s (such as Your body), with their cropped midcentury consumer-culture/noir imagery interrupted by blasts of Futura Bold Oblique, became Kruger’s signature. But her formal acuity, and the scope of her work’s subject matter, has always extended beyond print. Rather than leave her old stuff as is, letting the iconic predigital works she calls paste-ups rest, she has reprised and reinterpreted them in a new video form—the “replay”—using LED technology to portray a stark, totally contemporary vision. Kruger claims not to have social-media accounts, but, visiting her Chelsea show a few days before the opening, I saw she’d nevertheless mastered the pacing of an Instagram Story auteur.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Remember me), 1988/2020, LED panel, single-channel video (color, sound, 23 seconds). Installation view, David Zwirner, New York, 2022.

A trio of short videos—Untitled (Our Leader), 1987/2020; Untitled (Remember me), 1988/2020; and Untitled (Your body is a battleground), 1989/2019—were grouped together, synced to play one after the other. Each based on the decades-old paste-up of its title, the replays undercut the original works’ fixed quality. With smartphone-era brevity and slick simplicity, rapid-fire slideshows propose absurd or forbidding variations on Kruger’s slogans.

Something like the sound of a hammer hitting an anvil punctuates the cycling images of the twenty-four-second Our Leader. OUR LEADER / OUR LOSER / OUR LONER / OUR LENDER / OUR LOVER / OUR LAWYER / OUR LIAR / OUR LEADER, they read, before the screen seems to cramp with nausea in a fun house–mirror effect. “Remember me / Dismember me / Delete me,” commands another LED panel (accompanied by a different percussive industrial sound), switching object pronouns to end, “Embrace us / Replace us / Release us.” Your body begins with a pile of jigsaw-puzzle pieces, which click together into the 1989 picture. The cautionary maxim’s permutations include “My coffee is a motorboat,” “Your neck is squeezed,” and finally “Your humility is bullshit.” It’s all transfixing, like a speed round of Mad Libs, illustrating the possibilities, or the tyranny, of a template.

“The hyperfamiliar juncture of demidistracted fascination and narcolepsy” is where the magic starts, where mass media’s power resides, Kruger understands. Writing in 1990 in these pages (her column on television, “Remote Control,” appeared in Artforum from 1985 until that year), the artist observed a new kind of spectatorship, one formed by the phenomena of live feeds and instant playback—a culture in which “if someone isn’t eyeing us, we’re eyeing ourselves”; in which, she wrote, our narcissistic voyeurism is “appropriated into the directives of corporate and state power.” The advent of cable networks devoted to real-time courtroom coverage was the inspiration for Kruger’s vivid rhetoric—not the infinite, intimate data collection of today, fueled by never-ending searches and PR campaigns of the self. But everything she says applies, of course, to online life too. And the insight is reflected in, or refracted by, her art.

Kruger doesn’t judge her audience’s dazed receptivity or attention span; her work is calibrated to contemporary psychic conditions (even when it adopts imagery and graphic styles of the past), traveling well-worn pathways to entertain or deliver a jolt. Her strategy isn’t theory driven, though the Frankfurt School and postmodern feminist thought loom large in her writing, as well as in her career-long assault on aura, notions of originality, and the regressive myth of the artist as a “star-crossed Houdini with a beret on, a kooky middleman between God and the public.” (This perfect description appears in the wall text for “Picturing ‘Greatness,’” first installed in 1988 at MoMA, an exhibition of photographs of artists from the institution’s collection.) “I didn’t grow up going to museums,” she tells me. She credits her legibility, her ability to reach a demidistracted public, to her roots. “When I started going to galleries, I hadn’t read Bourdieu,” she says. “I didn’t understand Conceptual art.” She makes work that she would have understood then, she says.

The meaning and social significance of Kruger’s work are enhanced—or constituted, in part—by its widespread metabolization and mutation.

These days, she trawls Instagram and TikTok, scans 4Chan and Stormfront, and watches, among other things, reality shows, Fox News, and MSNBC. She envies the genius of Netflix’s BoJack Horseman (2014–20). She also searches out—and easily finds—print-on-demand merchandise featuring her own work on the marketplace Redbubble, as well as NFT art derived from her most recognizable images up for auction at OpenSea. These commercial ventures represent only a small slice of her reach; “Barbara Kruger” is a style threaded through visual culture, used for all manner of messaging, from the corporate to the confessional. Memes, posts, flyers, inspo, and brand identities all reflect her influence, the success of an unplanned social experiment. Where others might see theft, Kruger finds a gift (“I truly never thought that anyone would know my name or my work, so the fact that things are playing out like this is very interesting and satisfying and a little mind-blowing”). She also finds inspiration in it, collecting the astonishing and banal output of her imitators.

In the wraparound floor-to-ceiling vinyl murals of the installation Untitled (That’s the way we do it), 2011/2020, she gathers the gratifying evidence of her graphic clout to present a noisy patchwork, appropriating appropriations of her own appropriation-based work. She takes as a framing device the famous hand, best known for its delicate display of the motto I SHOP THEREFORE I AM in a work of hers from 1987. It’s been blown up to ominous architectural scale and repeated, shown holding a succession of collages, as though God himself were hawking the uneven wares of his Kruger-citing children. YOUR BODY IS A BATTLEGROUND cuts across a variety of subbed-in faces, including that of a cow, and appears reproduced as a stilted painting; FUCK MY LOOK, in white Futura Bold Oblique, divided into three red rectangles, captions a black-and-white mirror selfie; an image of a ’70s office guy with an ancient word processor is adorned with the slogan IT’S A SMALL INTERNET BUT SOMEONE’S GOT TO FUCK IT.

View of “Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.,” 2022–23, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Emile Askey.

Nothing bearing Kruger’s imprimatur uses the word fuck in such ways, not that I can think of, but the word’s fed-up or renegade register characterizes much of this derivative (or transformative) work: Her iconic paste-up elements have come to signal, deftly or unduly, regardless of content, a middle finger. In 2013, the streetwear brand Supreme, whose logo is transparently indebted to Kruger, sued the women’s skate-fashion line Married to the Mob (founded by Leah McSweeney) over a sardonically referential “Supreme Bitch” graphic. When asked to comment on the lawsuit, the unlitigious Kruger responded with a statement as legendary, perhaps, as any of her artworks, sending an empty email with the attachment “fools.doc.” “What a ridiculous clusterfuck of uncool jokers,” it read. “I make my work about this kind of sadly foolish farce. I’m waiting for all of them to sue me for copyright infringement.”

Kruger, contrary to some journalistic framings of the comment, isn’t bothered by Supreme’s original nod to her look. (“I don’t own a font,” she has said.) The irony, to her, is not the brand’s legal action in light of its own practices of appropriation but rather that the “quote ‘radical badboys’” behind its image are actually corporate stuffed shirts, running to their lawyers as though getting lampooned entitles you to a cut of the joke.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (That’s the way we do it) (detail), 2011/2020, digital print on vinyl wallpaper, dimensions variable.

An amicus brief authored by Kruger with Robert Storr and filed this year with the United States Supreme Court in Andy Warhol Foundation v. Goldsmith—a momentous case to be heard this October—makes clear why Kruger has, as the document reads, “a strong interest in ensuring the proper application of copyright law, including the law of fair use, to ensure that artists are permitted to build and comment on existing materials as they strive to express themselves through new works of art.” The dispute concerns Warhol’s use of a Lynn Goldsmith photograph as the basis for his 1984 silk-screen “Prince” series. At stake, potentially, are not only the rights to a particular image but also the legal status of a gesture essential to Pop and the Pictures Generation alike—and to all those who have relied on using, without permission, what’s instantly recognizable, weirdly familiar, despotically ubiquitous, iconic, officious, or clichéd as the material or subject of their art. The Second Circuit’s ruling on appeal in favor of Goldsmith, which has brought the suit to this place, points to the “identifiable likeness” of Warhol’s work to Goldsmith’s photograph as evidence of his falling short of a new standard for transformative work, despite his utter Warholization of the portrait’s composition, style, meaning, and affect.

The artist, who famously gave Elaine Sturtevant a Marilyn screen to aid in the production of Warhol Marilyn, 1965—which he understood, correctly, to be her art—held a view at odds with the framing of copyright as an instrument of corporate capital, which is why it’s not unthinkable that we’ll get yet another chilling 6–3 ruling from uncool jokers, this time against art.

Barbara Kruger’s 1990 Untitled (Your body is a battleground) wheat-pasted on a wall in New York, 1990.

Though the argument presented by Kruger and Storr touches on the role of copying in European Renaissance and Eastern artistic traditions, Manet et al., and pretty much everything after Duchamp, the example of Kruger’s work is unique, and perhaps the most Warholian, in that it represents “both sides”—the user and the used—in copyright law’s doctrine of fair use.

The aforementioned That’s the way we do it, which makes explicit the halls of mirrors her work inhabits and engages, brings to Kruger and Storr’s brief an example of one artist’s confrontationally broad notion of intellectual property, a model for the nonproprietary appreciation of the anarchic, infinite nature of cultural discourse. Regarding fair use, the advantage to Kruger—her ability to use the ’50s illustration of a girl admiring the flexed biceps of a little boy in Untitled (We don’t need another hero), 1987, whether its copyright is expired or not, for example—is clear. But the meaning and social significance of her work is enhanced—or constituted, in part—by its widespread metabolization and mutation too. That is, when she’s the one getting “ripped off.”

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (That’s the way we do it), 2011/2020, digital print on vinyl wallpaper. Installation view, David Zwirner, New York, 2022.

If it were not for the use and abuse of YOUR BODY IS A BATTLEGROUND; if it were not on a shirt you could imagine finding not only on Redbubble but maybe at Target; if it were not for the distillation or dilution of her early style into a signifier for the young and disaffected (or for marketing with an edge), her replays might make a different, less interesting kind of sense. It’s because her greatest hits are at risk of ossification, over-saturation, becoming cliché, that there’s reason to nudge them awake and call them into question. Otherwise, new versions of old work would simply celebrate them as sooth-saying relics; they would indulge in the kind of retrospective self-mythologizing, beret-wearing, even halo-polishing nostalgia that Kruger fucking detests.

Johanna Fateman is a writer, an art critic, and a co-owner of Seagull Salon in New York. She is a contributing editor of Artforum.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (We don’t need another hero), 1987, billboard. Installation view, Las Vegas.