Home Magazine Barbara Kruger and the Protest Art in Capital Letters

Who do you hurt? Who do you fear? Who do you honor? ¿QUIÉN ES EL QUE AMAS?. These are some of the questions asked by Untitled (Who?), 2020), Barbara Kruger’s most recent work installed on the facade of Los Angeles Sprüth Magers Gallery, on show until January 15, 2021.

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Having always been at the core of her oeuvre, Kruger’s daring and witty questions in capital letters go along with the political rhetoric in America and the ongoing debates about racism, Black Lives Matter Movement and a global pandemic, in the middle of an endless US presidential election. The “super cool” online exhibition Questions, presented by Sprüth Magers, surveys some of Kruger’s most important text-based, large-scale installations in the US and across the world.


Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Who?), 2020, Print on vinyl, Installation view Sprüth Magers Gallery, Los angeles.


The American conceptual artist of The Picture Generation, and Distinguished Professor of New Genres at the UCLA, Barbara Kruger (b. 1945), initially worked as a magazine graphic designer. Eventually, in 1976, she became unsatisfied with her working output: photograph collages, advertising, poetry and music columns writings. Inspired by philosophers Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes, she started working with her own architectural and visual Mise en scène. Black-and-white photographs are superimposed with acerbic captions, white-on-red texts in her signature font style, Futura Bold or Helvetica Ultra Condensed, invented for the editorial “big ideas”


Barbara Kruger, Untitled (We Don't Need Another Hero), 1987, screenprint on vinyl, Overall: 108 7/8 × 209 3/16 × 2 1/2in. (276.5 × 531.3 × 6.4 cm), Gift from the Emily Fisher Landau Collection, ©Barbara Kruger Courtesy, Mary Boone Gallery, New York.


Addressing issues of language, mass communication, consumerism, power, control, identity, and the binomial Picture/Readings (the title of her 1979 art book), Kruger took on found, stock images from adverts and magazines. Her feminist, postmodern communicative approach challenges the viewer and the narrow confines of the so-called political art. “I replicate certain words and watch them stray from or coincide with the notions of fact and fiction”, Kruger said in 1982. 


Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Questions), 1990/2018, © Barbara Kruger, Courtesy MOCA, Los Angeles.


An example of “narratives of falsity” is her early work Untitled (We don’t need another hero) (1986), a clear reference to a famous wartime poster, We Can Do It! by J. Howard Miller, to encourage the women’s production of military goods in American factories. However, Kruger’s commentary remains implied and open to the spectator’s interpretation. Against cliched gender roles, must we, perhaps, reject traditional dogmas?

One of Kruger’s best-known work Untitled (Your body is a battleground)- a woman's face bisected into positive and negative exposuresfor the 1989 Women’s March on Washington, in support of legal abortion - is a direct assumption of truth. The posters were fly-posted across New York City, as an “artivist” intervention in a public space. The power of the image lies in the absolute nature of its declaration. Any woman, at different latitudes, can sense the meaning of “battle”, throughout her life.



Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Your body is a battleground), 1985, photographic silkscreen on vinyl 112 x 112 in. (284.48 x 284.48 cm), © Barbara Kruger.


But, in the end, can Kruger’s slogans shake society? Her largest wall work to date Untiled (Questions), 1990 - installed on The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) - definitely attacks the religious conservatives, the present forces of the white nationalist movement, and their right to censor or judge social and artistic morality. “Who is beyond the law? Who is bought and sold? Who is free to choose?” are the fearless, aggressive questions - printed in the colors of Jasper Johns’ 1954 flag - which resonate in any context they are pronounced and heard. The questions can be also philosophical. “Who will write the history of tears?”, asks Kruger to pedestrians - through green stickers stuck on the asphalt of L.A. - for Frieze 2019. 

Let yourself be challenged by the compelling, mini survey on Sprüth Magers’ website, that scan the emblematic and, above all, timelessness truths of Barbara Kruger. 


Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Who will write the history of tears?), 2011, archival pigment print, in artist's chosen frame framed: 33½ by 51½ in. 85.1 by 130.8 cm., edition of 10. © Barbara Kruger Courtesy Sotheby’s.


Cover image: Barbara Kruger, Untitled (We Don't Need Another Hero), 1987, screenprint on vinyl, Overall: 108 7/8 × 209 3/16 × 2 1/2in. (276.5 × 531.3 × 6.4 cm), Gift from the Emily Fisher Landau Collection, ©Barbara Kruger Courtesy, Mary Boone Gallery, New York.

Written by Petra Chiodi

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