Barbara Kruger on Why She’s Remaking Some of Her Old Critiques of Power for Her New Museum Survey

Barbara Kruger likely needs no introduction. Her work is taught in art history classes and is instantly recognizable to the uninitiated as well (think of the ubiquity of Kruger’s November 2016 New York Magazine cover with ”Loser” printed across Donald Trump’s sneering face.) She’s also very publicly tangled with the streetwear brand Supreme, whose logo and entire branding seems to have pirated Kruger’s visual vernacular, causing a circus of copyright infringements that ultimately prompted Kruger to laugh it off: “What a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers.” 

Despite these outbursts in mainstream culture, Kruger has been rather inconspicuous in the art world in recent years. Her last gallery showing was in 2018 with Mary Boone, and while her slogans-as-statements have been spotted at art fair booths since, there really hasn’t been an important exhibition–until now. This past weekend, the Art Institute of Chicago unveiled the largest comprehensive exhibition of Kruger’s work in more than 20 years. It will be on view until March 2022 before heading to the L.A. County Museum of Art, through July 2022, followed by a stop at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Kruger, a powerful critic of contemporary culture, isn’t approaching the exhibition in a standard format. She’s taking over non-gallery spaces in the museums, as well as intervening into the public domain, alway seeking to offer her art in the most accessible modes. 

We spoke with Kruger about how she’ll be remixing some of her most famous works, the thousand-year persistence of power struggles, and her major new traveling museum survey.

Barbara Kruger, Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You. (2019). Digital image courtesy of the artist.

I was told you were calling this an “anti-retrospective,” but then I read that’s not true. What is the deal? 

To me, this exhibition is called “Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.” There we have the title of the show about our own ego constructions, our narratives, our ability to speak and listen, our investment in our voice, or others—all those shifting positions. So I would not call it a retrospective, it’s a conflation of new works and renovations of older works and changing them. 

This is just an open field, this isn’t a pushback, like “Wow, I have this terrific opportunity because these large-scale shows came a little later in my life.” I don’t have a MFA or an undergraduate degree. I loitered around for a few years before people knew my name. So I am appreciative not only to get to do a show like this, but of the great teams of people behind it. I take none of this for granted. I spent so many years doing all of this on my own before you knew my name, or anybody did, it’s a gift to me. I know how much labor has gone into this, and as someone whose parents traded their labor for wages, I have a great deal of respect for that. 

Tell me about the new works that are in dialogue with or a reevaluation of your previous works? 

There are different images of my work that have been altered through a very large scale of L.E.D. videos, in which I used motion graphics and animated a few of the works. Change meanings to make stillness move. There’s a large installation, Untitled (That’s the way we do it), which is basically a collection of images I’ve collected online over the last four or five years, and are folks’ renditions of my styles of work that I’ve incorporated into the installation. There are maybe 600 images? Things I’ve caught on Tumblr or Redbubble or Google Images and Instagram.  

In this exhibition there is the appearance of works that seem familiar to people, and the altering of the works (perhaps ruining them for some people) puts them in motion. Taking stillness and putting it into motion. There’s ambient audio throughout this exhibition, there are voices speaking to you in the halls and galleries, in the elevators and entries to the museum.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Truth) (2013). Collection of Margaret and Daniel S. Loeb. Digital image courtesy of the artist.

You’ve played a significant role in designing the exhibition. Tell me about that.  Similarly, why was bringing work out in the streets crucial? 

Architecture has long been an engagement of mine, and it was only mid or later in my work that I was able to specialize. In the beginning it was very small, I was paying for everything myself and carrying it up five flights of stairs from the E train from the photo lab. As I started working with installations it was a great opportunity to engage the various spaces that the work was trying to make its meaning in. That’s so integral to my work, whether it was wallpaper or floors or surfaces, or even multi-channel videos which can change in scale so easily. 

Aside from billboards and posters on the elevated trains, bus kiosks, windows along main streets, large billboards along the highway, and the Merchandise Mart there’s a very huge video that will run every night for the next two months on the walls outside the museum and along windows on Michigan Avenue. That was really gratifying. It’s really wow, it’s really a great opportunity for me, and I never take for granted being offered that opportunity. 

I’ve always worked outside the museum space, from early on whether it was Art Angel in London or the Public Art Fund in New York, or out in L.A. That’s been an important space in my practice. Early on it was my only mode, I would snipe posters before people really knew my name or my work. I’ve said this before, but it’s still a surprise to me that things have rolled out the way they have. 

I think it’s amazing that the works have entered public space and discourse, and I think it’s part and parcel of the times we’re living in. The flow of images has changed so much because of social media and our online lives, and our lives on screens and through screens. In many ways my early work as a magazine designer really did prepare me for the kinds of readings that would be accessible online.

Barbara Kruger, still from Untitled (No Comment) (2020). Courtesy of the artist, Sprüth Magers, and David Zwirner, New York. Digital image courtesy of the artist.

In an age where your works are shared so widely online, and consumed by internet culture to the point of appropriation, why do you keep your personal internet presence discreet?  

Well, I am online. I certainly read and look at everything. Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and every right-wing website you can imagine. I certainly keep up on that. It’s important for so many people to use Instagram and Twitter as a means of self-definition, and making themselves public by really communicating their loves, their hates, their projects, and I really have chosen not to. I don’t think it’s something that’s productive for me. It’s certainly part of my life. It’s not like I’m sealed off. 

I get input on my work a lot. I think it’s best for me to do my work and be as productive as possible. You can’t be everyone’s image of perfection, so what the hell?

This exhibition could be called, perhaps, “a moment of reflection.” What’s your take on your work’s prescience? Whether about consumerism, feminism, or the attention economy, you’ve been rather spot on when it comes to understanding the politics and crises of today.  

I am not clairvoyant! Absolutely not. I just think that the long shot, the big picture allows you to understand how history has worked. And I’m no historian. I certainly don’t know as much as I should, but I am vigilant about the machinations of power and trolling, fear, grievance and how they’ve played out over centuries. Of course, the difference is now that we’re more aware of it, because of the interconnection of a lot of the world. Certainly fears based on genders, race, and class are stalking us as never before. 

Barbara Kruger. Artist’s rendering of exhibition entryway at the Art Institute of Chicago (2011/2020). Digital image courtesy of the artist, source photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

You’re known for your bold stances. Do you think that society’s modes of outspokenness have changed in the last few years as politics has heated up, and has that affected your practice? 

It’s not really affected my work. I really think that my work has been concerned with a scrutiny of how we are to one another. How we love one another, adore one another, detest one another, damage one another, how we caress one another on both an intimate and global scale. The history of the past thousand years is fraught with power and its abuses. 

I did an installation I originally did in 1994, and re-did in 2004 in Zurich, and somebody thought it was my reaction to 9/11. Of course it was done years before. The conditions exist for punishment and damage globally are not hot news. It is just a perpetual slaughter. It’s really horrifying! 

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Forever) (2017). Installation view, Sprüth Magers, Berlin, 2017–18. Amorepacific Museum of Art (APMA), Seoul. Photo by Timo Ohler and courtesy of Sprüth Magers.

Your work has always been about the underlying systems and structures of society—power, capitalism, control, bodies, and identities. Has your view of contemporary culture become more or less critical in these times where the stakes are so high vis a vis your practice?

I wouldn’t say critical. I’m just trying, like most art or music or movies, to create a commentary—not literal—of how it feels to live another day, to watch the world turn itself inside out or try to turn us inside out. The sort of commentary of what I see and read. The resolute grievance, ignorance, and race we are seeing right now. 

You once said, “People will need to think very hard about how they are to one another.” And I’m curious after the almost two years we’ve had, what your thoughts are on that now?

I am certainly not cynical, but I feel that it’s tragic. It’s watching a slow-motion car crash of the destruction of so many lives and the economy (and I’m not talking about big corporations). I’m talking about people’s everyday lives and their livelihoods. And the ironies. I could see there’s a place for productive critique of the hierarchies of governmental structure but that’s not this. This is fueled by race and rage, and grievance. 

You could tell people anything now, and they would say “it’s just a lie, the truth is this or that.” It’s interesting because social media and the digital universe have enabled so many things and made connection so much easier, but then also allowed for a great deal of damage and distress and punishment, and everything in between. Both the pleasures and the punishment. 

How you feeling about Supreme these days? 

It’s not anything I think a hell of a lot about. 

It’s funny, in the first room of the exhibition, where you see all these internet images, there’s a huge L.E.D. of “I Shop Therefore I Am,” and there’s a collection of images I got from RedBubble with all these garments with quotes or tees with sayings with them. It’s a meditation for me on the difference between the figure and the body. Who’s become visible and who doesn’t is such a complicated conflation of arbitrariness, of social conditions and all that, and yet you become a name, this person, this figure. I find it thrilling, amusing and a little scary.  

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Here Are the 14 U.S. Museum Shows That Matter This Fall, From a Survey of 21st-Century Feminisms in Berkeley to a Radical Art Rediscovery in Atlanta

As museums begin to reopen in the United States, we cast an eye over upcoming exhibitions for those that promise the most urgent and notable art of our time. The resulting list contains a diverse roster of 14 shows—by solo practitioners and groups chosen by keen-eyed curators—coming to museums from coast to coast.

Some exhibitions will introduce you to artists you may not know, like Bani Abidi at the MCA Chicago, Michaela Eichwald at the Walker Art Center, and Nellie Mae Rowe at the High Museum. Others will offer new insight into artists or eras of artistic production you thought you knew, from a spotlight on Georgia O’Keeffe’s photography in Houston to a sweeping feminist art survey in Berkeley. 

Regardless of what city you’re in, this fall’s season of museum programming is bound to open both eyes and minds.


New Time: Art and Feminisms in the 21st Century
Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA)
August 28, 2021–January 30, 2022

Farah Al Qasimi, It’s Not Easy Being Seen 3 (2016). Courtesy the artist; The Third Line, Dubai; and Helena Anrather.

With 140 works by 76 artists and collectives, this exhibition at the U.C. Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive is one of the largest to date on contemporary feminist art, and will coincide with a year of public programming focused on feminist theory. Works by the likes of Laura Aguilar, Christina Quarles, Zanele Muholi, Wu Tsang, and Francesca Woodman are included, tackling such topics as the fragmented body, domesticity, female anger, and feminist utopias. 


Raúl de Nieves: The Treasure House of Memory
Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston
September 1, 2021–July 24, 2022

Raúl de Nieves, The Fable, which is composed of wonders, moves the more (2021). © Raúl de Nieves.

Multidisciplinary artist Raúl de Nieves is adored for his exuberant works that blend queer club culture, religious iconography, and folklore traditions from his native Mexico. Here, the artist continues his ongoing exploration of his culture and its traditions through a new body of work, created especially for the ICA, that looks at memory and personal transformation.

Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe
High Museum of Art, Atlanta
September 3, 2021–January 9, 2022 

Nellie Mae Rowe, This World is Not My Home (1979). Photo courtesy of the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.

Born in Georgia in 1900, the daughter of a formerly enslaved man, Rowe achieved fame as a self-taught folk artist. The first major exhibition devoted to Rowe in more than 20 years celebrates the late artist’s notable drawing career, which was only fostered later in her life, after the deaths of her husband and employer, in the 1960s. The museum bills the show as the first to position Rowe’s creative pursuit as a “radical act of self-expression and liberation in the post-civil rights-era South.”


Joan Mitchell
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
September 4, 2021–January 17, 2022

Joan Mitchell, Untitled (1992). Courtesy of Cheim & Read, New York.

This highly anticipated retrospective devoted to the queen of gestural abstraction contains over 80 works, encompassing everything from early paintings and drawings, sketchbooks, letters, and photographs to the large, color-drenched, multi-panel works that defined her later output.  


Selena Forever/Siempre Selena
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas
September 4, 2021–January 10, 2022

John Dyer, Selena (1992). Courtesy of the artist.

At the height of the beloved Tejano singer’s fame, it was photographer John Dyer whom she entrusted to produce the images of her that were seared into the American pop-culture consciousness. Over the course of two collaborative photoshoots, in 1992 and ‘94, Dyer captured the legendary Selena Quintanilla-Pérez in her signature gemmed bustier and red lip, pictures that became immortal after her tragic death in 1995.


Bani Abidi: The Man Who Talked Until He Disappeared
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
September 4, 2021–June 5, 2022

Bani Abidi, An Unforeseen Situation 4. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

Bani Abidi’s work infuses deadly serious subjects like militarism, nationalism, and memory with humor, holding up a mirror to power structures. The Pakistani artist, who lives in Karachi and Berlin, gets the survey treatment at the MCA, co-organized with the Sharjah Art Foundation, in a show that looks at over 20 years of her career and features new work alongside existing video, photography, and sound installations. 


Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen?
Museum of Modern Art, New York
September 18, 2021–January 30, 2022

Adam Pendleton, Untitled (WE ARE NOT) (2021). Image courtesy of the artist.

Pendleton, who has put forth a “Black Dada” framework inspired by Amiri Baraka, ambitiously takes over MoMA’s Marron Atrium with an immersive floor-to-ceiling installation described as a “spatial collage” containing text, image, and sound. All together, the show’s paintings, drawings, textiles, sculptures, and moving images seek to disrupt the 1:1 relationship of words and images, allowing a complex new vision of Blackness to emerge in abstraction.

The Art Institute of Chicago
September 19, 2021–January 24, 2022

Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground) (1989), at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2013. Photo by Susan Broman via Flickr.

The prolific Pictures Generation artist has collaborated with the Art Institute to map out a survey of her entire career that takes up the whole of the museum’s 18,000-square-foot gallery space. It’s all here, and squirm-inducingly relevant: her trademark “pasteups,” works on vinyl, animations, and video installations, plus a new site-specific work in the adjoining atrium. On top of this, Kruger has created work for the city at large, making billboards and designs for the Chicago Transit Authority, among other organizations.


Naudline Pierre: What Could Be Has Not Yet Appeared
Dallas Museum of Art
September 26, 2021–May 15, 2022

Naudline Pierre, Lest You Fall (2019). Courtesy of the Dallas Museum of Art.

Pierre is known for her colorful canvases that depict ethereal beings and explore power struggles in intimate relationships. The Brooklyn-based painter’s first solo museum exhibition will consist of existing works—one of which was recently acquired by the DMA—as well as new creations, with five major paintings making their debut. 


Greater New York
MoMA PS1, New York
October 7, 2021–April 18, 2022

Robin Graubard, selection from “Peripheral Vision” (1979–2021). Image courtesy the artist and Office Baroque, Antwerp.

One of the hottest survey exhibitions of new art from across New York’s five boroughs is back for its fifth iteration. This latest edition, curated by Ruba Katrib with Serubiri Moses, Kate Fowle, and Inés Katzenstein, was delayed by a year due to the pandemic, but still promises to showcase the best of artists and collectives currently working in the Big Apple, including Carolyn Lazard, Alan Michelson, and BlackMass publishing.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Photographer
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
October 17, 2021–January 17, 2022

Georgia O’Keeffe, Jimsonweed (Datura stramonium) (1964–68). © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe.

The artist best known for her paintings of flowers and Southwestern landscapes is recast here in the first exhibition to focus entirely on her photography, with nearly 100 prints from a newly examined archive to go on view. Described as a “Modernist approach” to the art form, O’Keeffe’s pictures document family members, fellow artists, and her travels. 


Soft Water Hard Stone
The New Museum, New York
October 28, 2021–January 23, 2022

Amalie Smith, Clay Theory (2019) (still). Courtesy of the artist.

The latest triennial from the downtown institution draws its title from a Brazilian proverb: “Água mole em pedra dura, tanto bate até que fura,” meaning “soft water on hard stone hits until it bores a hole.” Curators Margot Norton and Jamillah James have translated this idea into an exhibition of 41 international artists focused on how systems we once considered infallible have been, in fact, proven fragile by recent global crises. 


My Barbarian
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
October 29, 2021–February 27, 2022

My Barbarian, Broke People’s Baroque Peoples’ Theater, 2011–15. Studio photograph, courtesy of the artists.

For the occasion of the performance trio’s 20th anniversary, the Whitney has commissioned a new filmic piece, Rose Bird, about California’s first female chief Supreme Court justice, to accompany this two-part survey of My Barbarian’s work. A series of live events—including a play, a festival, a cabaret-style concert, and a “rehearsal-as-performance”―will be enacted alongside an exhibition containing footage of previous performances, in addition to sculptures, paintings, drawings, masks, and puppets.

Michaela Eichwald
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
November 14, 2020–May 16, 2021

Michaela Eichwald, Die Unsrigen sind fortgezogen (The Ours Have Moved Away) (2014). Collection Brian Pietsch and Christopher Hermann.

The Berlin-based artist and writer, who is primarily a painter, marks her first solo exhibition in the United States with a presentation looking back at the past ten years of her career. Her palimpsest-like paintings, sculptures, and collages contain surprising materials like candy and chicken bones, and often allude to her interests in philosophy and literature.

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