Art media

Barbara Kruger Zwirner and MoMA Shows Talk Past and Present

Long associated with the Pictures Generation of the early 1980s, Kruger had in fact emerged a decade earlier as part of the feminist wave sweeping through the art world. In keeping with the era’s attempts to revive and elevate the craft traditions of “women’s work”, Kruger fashioned wall hangings from yarn, beads, sequins, feathers and ribbons, earning her a place in the Whitney Biennial in 1973. But in the late 1970s she became disenchanted with this approach and turned to conceptual photography that combined seemingly random illustrations with meditations on the nature of power. These works, however, lacked the scale and pizzazz of what followed.

During this period, Kruger supported herself by serving as artistic director for Miss magazine, a job that required marrying images and text in eye-catching layouts enhanced by display fonts and color accents. Such tricks of the trade inspired Kruger’s signature juxtapositions of black-and-white photos from mid-century advertising with red banners or boxes stacked in white sans serif. The most famous example, that of 1987 Untitled (I shop therefore I am), depicts a hand holding a card printed with the eponymous slogan. A testament to their visual power, Kruger’s design ideas were taken up wholesale by skateboard maker Supreme and street artist Shepard Fairey.

Parts of Zwirner’s show are devoted to what are essentially remixes of Kruger classics, with I buy therefore I am transformed into an installation centered on a large digital animation integrated into a freestanding partition. It begins with the original image collapsing into a pile of jigsaw pieces at the bottom of the frame, which reassemble to create editorial upgrades such as “I buy therefore I accumulate”, “I love therefore I need” and “I am therefore I hate. The surrounding walls are covered in a mural depicting repeated views of the iconic hand – which, instead of a message, contains various iterations of previous works by Kruger, pasted with additional ephemera like Instagram posts referencing the artist.