Barbara Kruger’s Timeless Text Art Satisfied Short Attention Spans Long before Twitter and TikTok
Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Truth), 2013. Courtesy of the artist and the Art Institute of Chicago.
In the late 1970s, Barbara Kruger began overlaying snippets of text set in clean type over generic images sourced from 1950s mass media. Though Kruger wasn’t yet the art provocateur we know her as today, she was well on her way. Trained as a magazine designer and picture editor, Kruger was steeped in the world of advertising and understood how to grab an audience’s attention in the split second that it takes to turn a magazine page. Kruger has been demanding our attention ever since, challenging the public—herself included—to interrogate how we construct our identities and how images shape public discourse.
Currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, “THINKING OF YOU. I MEAN ME. I MEAN YOU.” is a wide-spanning survey of Kruger’s 40-year career. In particular, the comprehensive exhibition highlights how the artist’s use of pithy soundbite-style phrases preempted today’s ever-shrinking attention spans and the ubiquity of short-form media on platforms like Twitter and TikTok.
Barbara Kruger, installation view of Untitled (Forever), 2017, at Sprüth Magers, Berlin, 2017–18. Photo by Timo Ohler. Courtesy of the artist and Sprüth Magers.
At once familiar and wholly new, Kruger’s signature combination of text and image immediately entices viewers. This is the artist’s specialty: using the visual language of dominant culture to interrupt our thought patterns. By delivering an artwork that looks like an advertisement, or a video that looks like a TV show, Kruger creates easy-to-grasp art that attempts to sow doubt in our understanding of popular visual culture, which has an iron grip on our consciousness.
A small black-and-white wheatpaste poster from 1981 proves that Kruger’s rarely exhibited early works still pack a punch. The poster, Untitled (Your Gaze Hits The Side of My Face), features the image of a dramatically lit, chiseled Greco-Roman bust of a woman photographed from the side. The text, which reads “Your gaze hits the side of my face,” is stacked word by word on the left side of the composition, with an analog drop shadow enhancing every other line.
Barbara Kruger, installation view of “Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.,” 2021. Courtesy of the artist and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Kruger’s vinyl-wrapped rooms on view in the exhibition’s main gallery bring to mind the recent proliferation of immersive art and pop culture experiences like Immersive Van Gogh, the Museum of Ice Cream, and the Friends Experience. In Kruger’s version, the exhibition’s floor and walls are covered in black and white text, enveloping the viewer in direct, confrontational phrasing. In Untitled (Forever) (2017), the right and left walls feature near mirror images. Both contain giant magnifying glasses with the word “You” taking up most of the space, identifying and implicating the viewer directly. Meanwhile, the floor features an ominous quote from George Orwell’s 1984: “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” For Kruger, who has been pointing out the violence of patriarchal politics for decades, the future is decidedly bleak.
Several video works are also on view throughout the show, with varying degrees of success. Untitled (Artforum) was originally created in 2016 as a commission for the cover of the magazine’s summer issue. The work features Kruger’s annotations on text sent to her by the publication. In the more recent video version on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, Kruger’s annotations are made in real time; her commentary offers a glimpse into her seemingly endless capacity for critical thinking. Running under five minutes, the video reads like a more sober version of a TikTok explainer, wherein some sociological-minded person breaks down and refutes a baseless assumption or insufficient viewpoint.
Barbara Kruger, still from Untitled (No Comment), 2020. Courtesy of the artist, Sprüth Magers, and David Zwirner, New York.
Untitled (The Work Is About…) (1979/2019) is similarly straightforward. Like much of Kruger’s work, the video seems to take direct aim at the art world, offering adages like “sex and perpetual churn” and “being bought and sold.” Meanwhile, the newest video on view, Untitled (No Comment) (2020), mimics the absurdity and randomness of surfing the web, moving from a singing cat meme to a bizarre hairdo tutorial to Instagram photos of people posing in front of Kruger’s work. The audience on the day I visited was visibly entranced, laughing out loud and posting it to their own social media feeds, creating a feedback loop. Kruger hooks the viewer with the sort of internet discourse we are used to—memes and mindless visuals—and adds her own twist, like pictures of political figures overlaid with text reading, “This is about the failure of imagination and the end of shock.”
Kruger has long noted how digital culture has been both devastating and liberating. “It’s enabled the best and the worst of us,” she said in a recent interview with The Art Newspaper. This exhibition, in both subtle and obvious ways, asks us to participate in that culture a little more carefully, to become, as one vinyl wall text puts it, “a believer in doubt.”