Barbara Kruger's Work, Sending Important Messages Forty Years On

November 15, 2018

The early 1970s saw the rise of the second wave of feminism, primarily practiced through the intersection of theory, activism, and visual arts. A great number of women involved with the movement became highly influential figures whose emancipatory approaches and strategies reformed certain structures of the society. The world changed significantly since then, unfortunately in a negative direction; it seems that patriarchy is back on track thanks to the raising neo-conservatism and right-wing discourse.

Therefore, critically-charged works made during the seventh decade of the past century are still highly relevant and are exploring gender inequality and violence. A good example is a series of fourteen mix-media works produced in 1978 by renowned American artist Barbara Kruger, currently on display at Mary Boone Gallery celebrating their fortieth anniversary.

Barbara Kruger - Installation view
Barbara Kruger - Untitled (Body), 1978. Text/photograph, 19 inch by 96 inch

The Historical Context

These works by Barbara Kruger are can be perceived as early examples of her use of image and text; they are actual four-part strips which suggest narratives of maltreatment performed upon women in the American context. Kruger is best known for her bold, black, white and red silkscreens centered on the message in Futura typeface. Her later installation and public works became literally iconic for the 1980s feminist art along with the works by Jenny Holzer and Cindy Sherman.

Furthermore, her 1978 series have to be perceived in a broader cultural, social and political context of the times. The Regan government and the trending conservatism, AIDS epidemics and cultural wars provoked Kruger to react to what was happening in American society.

Barbara Kruger - Installation view
Barbara Kruger - Untitled (Body), 1978. Text/photograph, 19 inch by 96 inch

The Installment

Even forty years after they were produced, the Untitled (Body) series is in sync with the contemporary moment and issues of (female) gender, identity, and sexuality. Kruger was intrigued with larger cultural questions before they found their full expression in the mainstream media.

One of them, for example, starts with a photograph of a trash bin and a graphic sketch of a child’s face surrounded by two doctors which are contrasted with the following text: The technology of early death / The providing of consumer goods to a dying populace / The manufacture of plague / The denial of epidemic.

Barbara Kruger - Installation view
Barbara Kruger - Untitled (Body), 1978. Text/photograph, 19 inch by 96 inch

Barbara Kruger 1978 at Mary Boone Gallery

This is a chilling, yet important selection of works which dissect the American society and politics in a given period, yet their power did not decrease due to a recent #MeToo movement and current political climate.

The artist does not perceive her practice as political, which she explained to Christopher Bollen in a 2013 conversation for Interview magazine:

I never say I do political art. Nor do I do feminist art. I’m a woman who’s a feminist, who makes art. My work has always been about power and control and bodies and money and all that kind of stuff.

Despite her statement, these series are apparently equally disturbing and fierce as they were forty years ago.

Barbara Kruger 1978 will be on display at Mary Boone Gallery at 745 Fifth Avenue in New York until 21 December 2018.

Featured images: Barbara Kruger 1978 – Installation View. All images are courtesy of the artist and Mary Boone Gallery.

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