From Analog to Digital: Barbara Kruger in the 21st-Century

Has any artwork so succinctly encapsulated the discourse concerning the objectification of women in art (through the ages) as Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (Your gaze hits the side of my face)? In this 1981 photo and text montage, arguably one of the seminal images encapsulating key concerns of second-wave feminism, the marble visage of a female classical sculpture turns to the side to absorb contact – to take the impending “hit.” On the left, a cascade of blunt text delivers the discursive punch: “gaze.” It is a reference to a concept that was centered in feminist theory: the objectifying male gaze. 

A conceptual artist, Kruger is associated with the Pictures Generation, a loose-knit group of artists whose work was featured in a five-person show at Artists Space gallery in New York City in 1977, curated by critic and art historian, Douglas Crimp. While the exhibition did not include Kruger, it did establish a framework for thinking about, explains the Tate Museum, the work of this “group of American artists who came of age in the early 1970s and who were known for their critical analysis of media culture.” 

Notions of agency, identity, authenticity, and originality were core concerns of Kruger and other Pictures Generation like Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince. They produced powerful critiques of popular and consumer culture, advertising and mass media, and more through the use of various mediums such as film, photography, performance, video, collage, and so forth. Underpinning their work was a potent sense of disillusionment in the wake of what they saw as the failure of 1960s counterculture to right the societal ship.  

Kruger’s background in design – she studied at the School of Art at Syracuse University and at Parsons School of Design in New York City (under Diane Arbus) – informed her art from the beginning. She worked as a graphic designer at Condè Nast and a photo editor at House & Garden and Mademoiselle, two powerhouses of identity and idea manufacture in the veritable belly of the mass-media culture beast. 

Her pioneering pairing of texts and images, which Kruger called “a closed system,” provokes viewers to question deeply internalized core values, beliefs, and conceptions of identity, including gender and other binaries. The “YOU” and “YOUR” in a short phrase is a sharp indictment, but who exactly is in the hot seat? Who is being implicated? Ambiguity and doubt are built into Kruger’s work.

Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You, is Barbara Kruger’s first solo exhibition in 20 years.

Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You, Kruger’s first solo exhibition in 20 years, opened in February at the Serpentine Gallery (South) in London’s Kensington Gardens. Co-organized by the Chicago Art Institute (CAI), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA), Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You ran successively in all three venues from September 2021 to January 2023. 

Like the show at the Serpentine, the previous iterations of the exhibition were shaped to a considerable extent by the architectural settings in which they were installed. Faithful to the artist’s insistence on melding her art with its enclosing architecture as well as with the external environment – the city beyond the gallery walls – the installation at the Serpentine in London is conceived of and scaled quite differently than previous iterations of Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You. The facility is much smaller than the others; it is intimate, and that alters significantly the experience of the viewer.

Click image to enlarge.

Notably, each venue/institution emphasized the spatial relationships between objects, viewers, and site. “Ambient soundscapes” encircle you. Billboards beyond gallery walls, in the cities, engage unwitting viewers. Signs on taxis and public transit vehicles perplex and “large-scale vinyl room wraps” dwarf visitors. Select “single-channel videos from the 1980s” foster nostalgia and regret: everything and nothing has changed. Gallery walls dissolve as monumental video installations featuring emphatic, evolving text along with the Kruger’s familiar  image-and-text mashups provide an immersive experience that one cannot help but internalize. 

It gets to you. I Mean Me. I Mean You. “As an active consumer and vigilant viewer of popular culture,” observes LACMA, “Kruger grapples with the accelerated ways pictures and words instantaneously flow through media.” Take, for instance, her Untitled (No Comment) from 2020, an “immersive, three-channel video installation [that] explores contemporary modes of creating and consuming content online.” Audio clips, text, memes, and found images never coalesce but, rather, collide to, as art critic Roberta Smith puts it, “tell dire truths about society, history and our own mind-sets.”

The exhibit is what the Serpentine calls “a unique selection of installations alongside moving image works and multiple soundscapes.” 

The Serpentine’s iteration of Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You, was curated, notes the gallery, “by the artist in close collaboration with Natalia Grabowska, Curator at Large, Architecture and Site-specific Projects.” The exhibition is anything but a postscript to the previous shows, however, nor is it a retrospective. Far more, it has the air, at least to those familiar with Kruger’s previous work, of a reprise as the artist has repurposed some of her most iconic works in what the Serpentine calls “a unique selection of installations alongside moving image works and multiple soundscapes.” 

Many of Kruger’s trademark formal accoutrements are present across the disparate venues, artworks, and media: vintage-looking 1950s and ‘60s black-and-white stock photos, red frames, sparse montages, and arresting, meaningful-seeming, declarative text (red, black, or white) in her signature fonts – Futura Bold Oblique and/or Helvetica Ultra Condensed. 

In addition to (Untitled) Your gaze hits the side of my face, several other of Kruger’s most plangent works make the scene, perhaps set in motion, possibly monumentalized. In particular, Your Body is a Battleground (1989) and I Shop Therefore I Am (1987) are not merely twisted into 2020s shape but, rather, the artist has taken – and forces us to take – a close, excruciating look at the continuing relevance of the issues to which they originally pertained. What has changed? What did we learn? Have we made progress at all

For example, Your Body is a Battleground (pictured above), which Kruger created originally to lend publicity to the 1989 Women’s March on Washington, D.C., takes the form of an enormous, oscillating, digital puzzle; as the pieces fall into places, they are swapped out for alternates, thereby generating disparate messages. The viewing experience induces anxiety: you simply cannot keep up.

The message seems clear: your body is still a battleground. 

In another work, a collage, images and texts together form a patchwork skin over the underlying, recognizable black-and-white composition of Your Body is a Battleground. This time, color photographs culled by the artist obscure the old image almost completely. The message seems clear: your body is still a battleground. 

Everywhere, in every artwork, Kruger’s signature, attenuated texts pack the import of koans, to cite Roberta Smith. Are they nuggets of wisdom or provocative nonsense? Either way, they hit like a barrage of accusations, insinuations, pleas, revelations: ”Why are you so offended by your own body?” and “Fantasy is just a hidden reality.” A tattooed young blonde woman wearing a t-shirt that reads, “Eat pussy not animals,” demands to know if we ever really gained stewardship over our own bodies (among other things).

The obvious reworkings make the boldest statement of all: underneath (and not even completely concealed) our new high-tech, light-speed distractions and preoccupations, utopian dreams and bedroom fantasies, lie the old ideas, biases, binaries, hurts, hates, yearnings… If we keep going, adding color and nuance and frank language, do we simply bury the past alive rather than finishing it off once and for all?

Finally, far from Kruger vainly striving for relevance or signaling contemporaneity three decades after her seminal inaugural work, Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You is, in a sense, a concession on the artist’s part: I can’t keep up either.

Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You runs until March 17, 2024 at the Serpentine South in Kensington Gardens, London. Visitors are advised to reserve tickets online.

© Debra Thimmesch (3/1/24) – Special for FF2 Media ®

LEARN MORE/DO MORE

Visit the Serpentine Gallery to experience Barbara Kruger’s exhibit.

Read Roberta Smith’s profile on Barbara Kruger for The New York Times.

For more work by Barbara Kruger, see Sprüth Magers Galleries.

Read more about the exhibit from past locations such as the Chicago Art Institute, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Read more about the Pictures Generation from The Tate Modern.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured, middle, and bottom photos: Moments from the exhibit. Photos by Debra Thimmesch

Tags: Barbara Kruger, Chicago Art Institute, Cindy Sherman, Debra Thimmesch, Female Gaze, Female Objectification, LACMA, London, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Male Gaze, MOMA, Museum of Modern Art, NYC, Pictures Generation, Richard Prince, Serpentine Gallery, The Tate Modern, Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You

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Debra Thimmesch is an art historian and critic, activist, independent researcher and scholar, writer, editor, and visual artist. She mentors graduate students in art history and is attuned to current endeavors to radically rethink, decolonize, and reframe the study and pedagogy of art history. Her work has appeared in Art Papers, The Brooklyn Rail, and Blind Field Journal.
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