Polemic Graphics

I shop therefore I am. It’s possible that Barbara Kruger’s (b. 1945) witty recycling of Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” is even better known than the French philosopher’s words two centuries earlier. The now famous slogan appeared in a 1987 print emblazoned in Futura Bold Oblique typeface on a red-framed black-and-white found image – the artist’s trademark style. Where Descartes’ statement put the self at the centre of Western philosophical thought, Kruger (b. 1945) updated it in a critique of consumerism that, ironically, would pop up a few years later on the shopping bags of Barcelona’s Vinçon department store and in the branding of US skate label Supreme. 

A new book of Kruger’s work, published to accompany a retrospective exhibition planned at the Art Institute of Chicago but postponed due to the Covid pandemic, presents a tour de force of her work over five decades. In analogue paste ups from the 1980s through to the 2016 New York Magazine cover dubbing Donald Trump a “loser”, multi-channel videos and installations commissioned for this show, these bold works slice through the media noise, revealing how images and words collude to transmit ideological messages – and how they can be subverted.  

Communication is a world Kruger knows from the inside, having studied graphic design at the Parsons School of Design, landing her first job laying out pages for a women’s fashion magazine, Mademoiselle and working for 10 years as a designer and picture editor. She started making artworks in the late 1960s using textiles and weaving: a feminist reclaiming of craftwork. Gender, together with consumerism, was a theme that continued to shape her work. Her 1989 poster created for the Women’s March on Washington in support of abortion rights with the words “Your body is a battleground” has become an iconic artwork.

“I try to be vigilant about the ways in which power is threaded through the everyday,” Kruger is quoted as saying in the book. With social media, this has become more complex. Influencers feed advertising into our consciousness, fake news infects Facebook feeds. Public spaces have been branded, universities commercialised. The government encourages us to spend as an act of citizenship, to eat out to help out. Consumption is so embedded into identity that it appears to be natural. Kruger’s work, as relevant as ever, continues to question this – inspiring a new generation of activists and artists to weaponise words and images for their own ends.

Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You is published by DelMonico Books/Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Find out more here.

Words: Rachel Segal Hamilton.

Image Credits:
1. Barbara Kruger, Artist rendering of Untitled (That’s the way we do it) (2011) at the Art Institute of Chicago, © Barbara Kruger, source photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.