Barbara Kruger’s Iconic Work Endures

Barbara Kruger, the American conceptual artist well known for her collage and graphic design work, rose to prominence in the 1980s with her iconic black and white photographs overlaid with bold, pithy text examining the themes of feminism, capitalism, and politics. Her concise message and sociopolitical relevance stand the test of time, especially in today’s meme-driven culture. The poster for the 1989 Women’s March on Washington supporting reproductive rights was her historic piece Untitled (Your body is a battleground). It features a bisected woman’s face accompanied by the text “YOUR BODY IS A BATTLEGROUND” in bold red and white type. It was this image, originally a silkscreen print, Kruger reimagined for the cover of the May 9th, 2022 issue of New York Magazine, highlighting the work’s relevance in today’s political climate.

Untitled (Your body is a battleground), Barbara Kruger 1989

Kruger’s unique style draws from her early career as a graphic designer. After briefly attending Parsons School of Design, she secured a job at Condé Nast Publications, first as a designer for Mademoiselle and later as a photo editor for Aperture and House and Garden. Her command of typesetting, layout, and photo manipulation results in bold pieces. “She takes images from the mass media and pastes words over them, big, bold extracts of text; aphorisms, questions, slogans. Short machine-gun bursts of words that, when isolated, and framed by Kruger’s gaze, linger in your mind, forcing you to think twice, thrice about clichés and catchphrases, introducing ironies into cultural idioms and the conventional wisdom they embed in our brains. (Rosenbaum, Smithsonian Magazine, July 2012)” Barbara Kruger creates art that you cannot ignore. There is no subtlety, and she lets the message speak for itself.

I think that there is an accessibility to pictures and words that we have learned to read very fluently through advertising and the technological development of photography and film and video.

Barbara Kruger, 1991
Barbara Kruger exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C.

As an artist, Kruger keeps a critical eye on popular culture and the current political climate. Her earliest works date to 1969, large scale wall hangings of yarn, beads, feathers, and ribbons which were the epitome of the resurgence of craft during that period. Although Kruger included her pieces in the Whitney Biennial in 1973 and solo exhibits in New York at Artists Space and the Fischbach Gallery in the mid 70s, she became dissatisfied with her work, feeling it lacked a connection to her growing social and political concerns. In the fall of 1976, Kruger eschewed making art and instead focused on teaching at the University of California, Berkley. In 1979, she took up photography, and by the early 1980s, she began producing art with found photographs, employing the techniques she perfected as a graphic designer. Mid-century, mass-media black and white photos with a juxtapositioning of text, in her signature oblique Futura bold type, became her new artistic aesthetic and showcased the artist’s ongoing social and political commentary on consumerism, sexuality, religion, and social stereotypes. In a 1991 interview with W.J.T. Mitchell discussing her motivation, Kruger explains, “I think that there is an accessibility to pictures and words that we have learned to read very fluently through advertising and the technological development of photography and film and video. (Caldwell)”


During the 1980s, Barbara Kruger perfected and expanded her agitpop style. She uses tight cropping, bold type, and a distinctive white, red, and black color motif, and her use of personal pronouns forces the viewer to consider who the piece’s subject is. In the late 80s and early 90s, Kruger’s work was widely distributed, with the artist’s permission and supervision, on various media, including postcards, tee-shirts, tote bags, and posters, blurring the lines between art, commerce, and poetry. In 1989, Kruger created the piece Untitled (Your body is a battleground) before the Women’s March on Washington to protest a series of legislative acts that threatened to undermine Roe vs. Wade. Originally a large silkscreen piece, she distributed the image before and during the event as flyers, which became the focal point of the rally. This multifunctionality as art, political statement, and call to action is the hallmark of Kruger’s mature body of work and what makes her pieces universally relevant.


Over thirty years have passed since Untitled (Your body is a battleground) made its debut, and the political climate in which it was created remains unchanged. The leaked draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito earlier this month cited that “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start. Its reasoning was exceptionally weak, and the decision has had damaging consequences. And far from bringing about a national settlement of the abortion issue, Roe and Casey have enflamed debate and deepened divisions. (Justice Samuel Alito in an initial draft majority opinion)” In a callback to one of her most famous works, Kruger created a new version of the “Your Body is a Battleground” imsagery in response to the leak. This one graced the most recent cover of New York Magazine. The initial image, the bisected woman’s face (half in negative), remains the same but the bold text that covers it reads, “Who Becomes a MURDERER in Post-Roe America?”

Untitled (We Don’t Need Another Hero), Barbara Kruger, 1987

Kruger had hoped that the piece’s original message would have become obsolete over the last three decades. However, current events show us that it’s as significant as it was in 1989. When explaining her new iterartion, Kruger remarks, “The quetion, Who becomes a ‘murderer’ in post-Roe America? -and I put murderer in quotes for a reason; it is the discourse of the right – is really the crux of the issue that few on the right have the candoe to ask or answer. Who is punished in a worls where abortion is ‘murder’? (Mantha)” It’s a question that begs as answer, especially for those working to preserve womens rights. Kruger’s work aims to spotlight uncomfortable political and ciltural topics, and she shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.


Resources:

Cascone, Sarah “Barbara Kruger Explains Her Cover For New York Magazine, a Politically Charged Polemic Agaist the End of Roe vs. Wade,” Artnet News, 11 May, 2022

Rosenbaum, Ron “Barbara Kruger’s Artwork Speaks Truth to Power,” Smithsonian Magazine, 1 July, 2012

Caldwell, Ellen “The History of ‘Your Body is a Battleground’,” JSTOR Daily, 25 February, 2020

Mantha, Priyanka “Who Becomes a ‘Murderer’ in Post-Roe America?” New York Press Room, 9 May, 2022


Photo Credits:

Barbara Kruger by racor is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Barbara Krugerby John Neidermeyer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

We Don-t Need Another Hero by Barbara Kruger by Amaury Lapporte is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Leave a Reply