Known worldwide for her iconic text-based works that examine consequences of capitalism, bodily autonomy, and more, Barbara Kruger is one of the most famous artists of the current moment. Her pieces often take the form of cryptic statements written in a sans serif font that recalls advertising copy; they’re printed on vinyl and black-and-white photographs, and have appeared in museums and public spaces around the world for four decades. With her work in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in York, Tate in London, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and other international institutions, Kruger will be the subject of a landmark exhibition scheduled to open at the Art Institute of Chicago and set to travel to the Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1 in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Initially due to take place in 2020, the show has been delayed by the pandemic.) The guide below traces developments in Kruger’s long career and some highlights from her groundbreaking body of work.
Kruger showed work internationally in the 1980s.
Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1945, Kruger spent a few years studying at Syracuse University and Parsons School of Design, where photographer Diane Arbus was one of her instructors, in the mid-1960s. She later created illustrations and designs for several Condé Nast magazines, and the artist showed work in the 1973 Whitney Biennial and had several solo exhibitions throughout the decade—at John Doyle Gallery in Chicago in 1976 and at Franklin Furnace Archive in New York in 1979. Additionally, she had created a window installation for Printed Matter in 1979, one of her first public-facing projects.
In the 1980s, Kruger’s star began to ascend, and she had solo presentations at a bevy of international institutions and galleries, including the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York, the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles, Mary Boone Gallery in New York, the Kunsthalle Basel in Switzerland, Monika Sprüth Galerie in Cologne, and the National Art Gallery in Wellington, New Zealand, and others. Among Kruger’s numerous public artworks of the 1980s was a digital billboard displayed in New York’s Times Square as part of the Public Art Fund’s “Messages to the Public” series. For that project, Kruger projected messages like “I’m not trying to sell you anything” and “I just want you to think about what you see when you watch the news on t.v.”—critiques aimed at both the media and its consumers. In 1988, a billboard by Kruger emblazoned with the message “We don’t need another hero” went on view in Brooklyn. “I was lucky to have early support from places like the Public Art Fund, which allowed me to do projects I never could’ve done on my own,” Kruger told Interview Magazine in 2013 of her early public art projects.
The artist’s solo shows and public works continue apace in the following decade.
In 1990, Kruger’s monumental wall work Untitled (Questions), 1990/2018, was first installed on the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles’s exterior south wall. (The work would be reinstalled on the facade of the museum’s Geffen Contemporary building in 2018 and is set to remain on view through November 2020.) During this decade the artist had solo outings at Mary Boone Gallery in New York, the Guild Hall in East Hampton, and MOCA in L.A., among other venues. She also participated in many group shows around the world, quickly becoming a household name, both within the art world and beyond. In 1992 and 1996, Kruger’s art featured in the exhibitions “More Than One Photography: Works Since 1980 From the Collection” and “Thinking Print: Books to Billboards, 1980-95,” respectively, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as well as a group outing with Cindy Sherman and Jenny Holzer at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. Her public pieces took on new valences, too. For one such work, Bus (1997), Kruger wrapped a New York City bus with vinyl textual works, including the words, “The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism.”
In the early millennium, Kruger creates large-scale installations around the world.
Kruger hit the ground running in the new millennium with a mid-career retrospective that ran from 1999 to 2000 and traveled from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, to the Whitney Museum in New York. A few years later, she debuted her storied 2002 work Untitled (Shopping), which covered the Kaufhof Department Store facade in Frankfurt as part of the Schirn Kunsthalle’s exhibition “Shopping: A Century of Art and Consumer Culture,” organized by the institution’s erstwhile director Max Hollein. The mural Untitled (Shopping) bore in German the words “You want it. You buy it. You forget it.” Other landmark projects of this decade include Kruger’s site-specific installations at the Kunst-Station St. Peter in Köln in 2003 and the 2005 Venice Biennale. At the Biennale, she covered the Italian pavilion with a vinyl mural with Italian and English messages, including “Admit nothing blame everyone” directly above the entrance.
The artist takes her monumental messages to multiple museum and gallery interiors in the 2010s.
Several of Kruger’s projects in the following decade took up space on the walls and floors of museums and galleries around the world. She debuted the four-channel, 13-minute video installation The Globe Shrinks at Mary Boone Gallery in New York in 2010; the immersive work ponders, in part, what kinds of meaning can be gleaned from everyday occurrences. The Globe Shrinks features wide-ranging depictions of physical violence, religious worship, and interpersonal interactions along with text components bearing phrases like “Tempt it,” “Shove it,” “Fear it,” “Shame it,” “Doubt it,” “Buy it,” and more.
She continued making works in that vein throughout the course of the decade. A sprawling installation by Kruger went on view at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow in 2011 that included black-and-white and vibrant green components. One of the floor elements of that work reflects the format of a newspaper, its headlines replaced with uneasy phrases like “Why women have never had it so bad,” while columns between the black-and-white and green sections of the piece bear the bolded words “Power” and “Envy.” In 2012, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. put her work Belief + Doubt on view in its lower level lobby. That red, black, and white work, which is still up at the museum, spans the space’s walls, floors, and escalators, and bears messages like “Plenty should be enough” and questions like “Who is beyond the law?” and “Who is free to choose?” A few years later, in 2016, Kruger debuted a wall painting, Untitled (Blind idealism is…), that presided over the High Line in New York, and in 2017 she presented the site-specific piece Untiled (Skate) at Coleman Skatepark on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which was commissioned by Performa and poses the questions “Whose hopes?,” “Whose fears?,” “Whose values?,” “Whose justice,” and other messages.
A collaboration with Volcom for a New York biennial becomes one of her most well-known works.
In 2017, the artist collaborated with Volcom, a clothing brand that centers skate culture, for her contribution to the Perfoma 17 biennial in New York. She created a pop-up shop in the city’s SoHo neighborhood where T-shirts, beanies, sweatshirts, and skateboards were up for sale, and, according to a report by W Magazine, the event drew robust crowds. “I walk around New York and L.A., and you see people lining up at a number of stores—not just one,” the artist told W. “The idea of sitting in chairs and waiting for a group or a brand or a text is the kind of alignment and social relation I’ve made my work about for years, so this was a chance to actually quote that.”
Kruger’s project for Performa also included a site-specific installation of text-based works at Coleman Skatepark on the Lower East Side. Of course, by the time Performa 17 opened, the skater brand Supreme had already spent years producing merchandise with a red and white logo bearing a strong resemblance to Kruger’s artwork. The artist responded in 2013 to Supreme’s lawsuit against a rival streetwear company with a sharply worded statement: “What a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers. 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’s star rises further as her art addresses global issues.
Kruger’s latest works aim to draw attention to systems of power, current events, and existential quandaries. For the 2020 edition of Frieze Los Angeles, the artist presented a series of 20 questions—including “Who do you think you are?” and “Who dies first? Who laughs last?”—displayed across digital billboards, street banners, landmarks, and public spaces throughout the city. For the New York Times‘s feature “Art In Isolation: An Ongoing Visual Diary in Our Uncertain Times,” an ongoing series of artworks created amid the pandemic, Kruger created the work Untitled (A corpse is not a customer), which appeared in print and online. Kruger has insisted, however, that she does not characterize her work as “political art,” telling Interview in 2013, “I never say I do political art. Nor do I do feminist art. I’m a woman who’s a feminist, who makes art.” In 2019, following the closure of Mary Boone Gallery, Kruger joined David Zwirner, which represents her with Sprüth Magers. When it opens at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2021, the artist’s next big exhibition is poised to be a blockbuster, though she has commented to the Cut that success is “brutally arbitrary,” remarking that “who is seen and who is not seen is always a result of historical reckoning, social circumstances, and good luck.”