CHICAGO – At the entrance to “Thinking of You. I think Me. I mean you. “The striking, flag-planting new Barbara Kruger retrospective (and elaboration) at the Art Institute of Chicago, you are greeted with one of the artist’s videos, installed as a blockade. It is of an image that is assembled as a puzzle that claps loudly with each new piece added.You stand in front of it as if you were staring into a Las Vegas slot machine – a tractor jet of tsk-tsk propaganda.When finished, the message is delivered with a thump: “I act therefore I am. “
It is well-known Kruger wisdom that uses the tools of mass communication shepherd to make the sheep think.
On the walls on each side of this work are paintings by Kruger copycats – derivative works that combine text and found material from media – by mostly anonymous designers and agitators. They record Kruger’s famous templates (colors, fonts, phrasings, and so on) for countless purposes and are collaged by the artist with abandonment: memes, marketing materials, metacriticisms. A still image of Patrick Bateman overlaid with “Die Yuppie Scum!” An image of Paris Hilton with the text “100% Natural.” An ad for Ségolène Royal’s French presidential campaign in 2008. Some scattered phrases pop up: “I’m junk.” “Wage slave.” “You are not yourself.” “iPhone That’s why I am.” “Abandoned.”
These glued-on arrangements are not the most elegant works in this exhibition, but they are perhaps the most telling. Their involvement is a skilful attempt to fully represent Kruger’s seemingly limitless effect, a loud conceptualist whose straightforward work gains full power the more it repeats itself in the world.
Or put another way: “It gives me Supreme vibes,” a young woman said as she looked up at them one afternoon recently.
Which, of course, it does. And it underscores the complexity of revisiting Kruger in this moment in image communication: Her rigorous, sticky approach to interrogating group thinking has become so defining, so signature, that her innovations are now core grammar. Her art is recombinant. It exists whether she is present or not.
“Think of You”Is brave and convincing, sometimes stubborn and sometimes mischievous. Partly backwards and partly revision and updating to the constantly moving present, it embodies and thickens Kruger’s break with the language of advertising and propaganda through an anti-capitalist, humanist lens.
Since the early 1980s, the engine of her work, and its efficiency, has been formatted – the apple-red bar with white sans serif type, reproduced in Futura Bold Oblique, which conveys aphorisms that could be mockery or prayers. Infinitely hashtaggeable, they predicted how modern telephone-centric communication would be reduced to the immediacy of the infinitely shared and the fluidity of the infinitely memorable.
But they began much more humbly, like paste-ups made by hand, an extension of Kruger’s work as a graphic designer at Condé Nast magazines. Twenty of her originals from the 1980s are displayed in a suboptimally lit walkway. Up against the room-sized works, they feel like modest reflections. But up close, they are deeply moving, almost innocent. Each of them compiles a gnomic sentence with a sharp black and white image, but on this scale they scan more like private prayers than global dictates – rave leaflets for young agitators.
Several works in the exhibition are basically remixes of Kruger originals, either recreated in a site-specific way for this show or updated in terms of media. In a nearby gallery, a sticker up – “Admit nothing. Blame everyone. Be bitter” – is the basis of a video that changes each word, one at a time, to those with opposite meanings. A few other videos here work in the same way, a commentary on how the composition of a message can be more potent than the message itself. But these videos are also about the ways we fumble over language, how we sometimes jump from one word to another because of the shape they take in our mouth or brain, without realizing that they are in opposition . Language is about words, but also about context and structure, and sometimes these things make specificity zero. The meaning is interchangeable, but the delivery system is not.
Sometimes, though, it’s the scale of a Kruger that’s the message. Much of her work overtakes and replaces its allotted space: “Why are you here?” on a wall at the museum’s main entrance; stairwells that say “Not Dead Enough”, “Not Loud Enough” and so on. There are, as one would expect, large pieces of text on the exterior of the building and sprinkled on walls, billboards and train platforms throughout the city – Kruger has always been obsessed with a graffiti impulse.
Kruger’s work is intrusive by design, but in an era of relentless selfies and Instagram backgrounds, some of her greatest works are being denatured in this setting. A vinyl floor about grotesque, desperate bodies and a gallery wall that touches on the many meanings of war ends up in their lively frugality simply places to pose, which many people did. Perhaps this is no different than standing in front of the Mona Lisa, but Kruger’s mandates must be read, not blocked.
In some places, however, the exhibition anticipates these reactions. A small gallery is marked with a disclaimer: You will be filmed. Inside, security cameras in the upper corners capture participants in front of a pair of text walls: “I hate myself and you love me for it,” “I love myself and you hate me for it.” Elsewhere, in other parts of the museum, four small monitors send the feed from people posing for their own images, and may not fully detect that they themselves are the art.
This exciting excitement – do you intrude on art or does art intrude on you? – had the same frisson as Kruger’s original radical whim. Spoken-word sound installations in the elevators were largely ignored by most passengers, creating a stalemate between the attentive and the ignorant. The sound working in the main room – “Take care of yourself”, “I love you” – was harder to ignore. They sounded like admonitions.
Kruger also engages the museum itself as a playground. There are a handful of her pieces sprinkled through other wings – most vivid, a statue depicting J. Edgar Hoover and Roy Cohn in a lip-locked embrace in a sculpture gallery, and a video monitor playing a loop of “Public Service Announcements” short videos on fear and isolation that Kruger made in 1996 in a gallery of Greek, Roman and Byzantine art. These videos are targeted and crisp, whereas Kruger’s multi-walled video installations are drained of their strength in the minutes it takes to unfold.
Her austerity also has limitations – it makes her ideology transferable and easy to destabilize or even undermine. It’s hard to inhale Kruger’s art without also ingesting the exhaust fumes from everything she inspired.
Kruger has occasionally been lured into the debate over his aesthetic children. In 2013, she issued a statement to Complex about a lawsuit between Supreme and a company that borrowed its red bar / white text aesthetic, which Supreme had of course hoisted from Kruger. “Completely ugly jokers,” she called them. She was not mistaken.
For many, however, the Krugerian aesthetic exists primarily through these raw material channels. She has also explored that path at various times over the years and published T-shirts with her work. Given that, the range of Kruger items in the gift shop was disappointing: magnets, socks, a “Too Big To Fail” wall clock, an $ 85 clutch embossed with “Money Talks” that doesn’t feel nearly smart enough in the Demna Gvasalia era. These haute tchotchkes feel like shrugs – what was once subversive is now commonplace.
Conversely, a reminder of how truly ubiquitous Kruger’s approach is now may lie in “Untitled (Our people),” a piece she originally showed in 1994. “Our people are better than your people,” it begins, and then continues. “More intelligent, more powerful, more beautiful and purer. We are good and you are evil. God is on our side.”
It’s about stupid pride and stubborn bigotry. However, by absorbing this white text on a red background, it was hard not to feel the ghost of another extremely traffic-recent recent use of white text on a fiery red background to convey messages of bombast and exclusion.