Looking at Barbara Kruger’s work, you, the viewer, are always made aware of your status as a spectator, a consumer, and a reader. “Your body is a battleground,” the artist’s work says. “YOU ARE HERE, LOOKING THROUGH THE GLASS, DARKLY.” “You thrive on mistaken identity.” It’s all about “you.” But then, sometimes Kruger’s bizarre admonitions, rendered in chic Futura Bold Oblique or Helvetica Ultra Condensed text, are about “me.” In her 2008 work Untitled (The war for me to become you), the titular phrase appears against a firetruck-red background on a torn sheet of paper. Beneath it is another hand holding a lit match with a mysterious text superimposed on it: “Don’t turn me inside out.”
Kruger’s work often plays on this slippage between “you” and “me”—between subject and object, between the surveillant and the surveilled, between owning and being owned. It’s fitting, then, that a new traveling show by Kruger comes with a name making prominent use of those pronouns: “THINKING OF YOU. I MEAN ME. I MEAN YOU.” Opening this Sunday at the Art Institute of Chicago, this “anti-retrospective,” as Kruger has called it, will also travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (Its Art Institute of Chicago presentation is curated by James Rondeau and Robyn Farrell.) On display will be a number of Kruger’s photo-based works and videos, many of which have been reformatted or newly produced for the exhibition.
Since the 1980s, Kruger has been producing her punchy art, which mimes the look of advertising and uses it toward more propagandistic ends. Her work—which has been copied by fashion brands, sometimes with Kruger’s blessing and more often without it—is graphic, sharp, and attractive. It is also disturbing, odd, and frequently difficult to parse. Kruger’s unsettling art considers the ways ideas are transmitted through mass media and how those concepts inform our own identities. Below, a guide to five of her essential works.