The Art of Barbara Kruger

Art, whether it be in the form of paintings, sculptures, music, or poetry, is one of the most defining features of society. It gives context to a time period, shapes people’s perception of beauty, and ignites a flame of emotion. Most people can name Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa just by seeing a picture of the paintings. Not only are these pieces widely recognized, but they also give rise to curiosities and adoration. Is ‘Mona Lisa’ actually smiling? The mystery always triggers a debate to determine whether her lips are curved upward. That is exactly how you create art that gets people to pay attention.

Some of the most powerful art pieces are the ones that provide social commentary on prominent issues such as inequality in our capitalist and patriarchal society. Barbara Kruger, an artist and photographer, took her art to the next level with socio-political statements in the 1970s and 1980s, and her feminist pieces are still turning heads.

According to the Guggenheim, Kruger’s career in art started in 1969 when she created wall hangings out of beads, sequins, and feathers. About seven years later, she put her creativity on hold to be a professor. However, Kruger couldn’t stay away from the world of art because in 1977 she pursued photography and later, took images from magazines to create collages with a deeper meaning.

Her most famous piece is “Untitled (Your Body Is a Battleground),” which takes a black and white picture of a woman’s face and writes the words “your body is a battleground” across the image. In 1989, this piece was printed and hung all over New York City to promote legal abortions and reproductive rights, and it became the image of the Women’s March on Washington that year. The message is still relevant today as the debate to overturn Roe v. Wade (1973) is heightened now that Amy Coney Barrett has taken a seat on the Supreme Court. According to The Hill, Barrett’s politics are “deeply conservative” and “anti-choice,” which threatens the reproductive freedom granted to women by Roe v. Wade. Kruger’s piece highlights the seemingly never ending battle between pro-life and pro-choice, feminist activists.

Another piece created by Kruger that is still equally as powerful as it was roughly 40 years ago is “Untitled (Your Gaze Hits The Side of My Face).”  The art maintains her signature format, depicting a black and white image of a woman’s profile, beautifully carved in stone with bold text written on the side. The piece references the male gaze, a feminist theory that views women and girls from the perspective of a heterosexual man, which commonly sees women as objects. Hence, Kruger uses the image of a female statue in place of a real woman.

Kruger is now 74 years old, and she’s still producing art with messages for society. On April 30, 2020, The New York Times printed a piece by Kruger that reads: “A corpse is not a customer.” The artwork, which was created for The New York Times’ Art in Isolation series, came in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Although Kruger has not publicly explained her thought process behind the piece, it is clear she is commenting on the rising death toll in the United States during the peak of the pandemic. COVID-19 has forced the world to weigh the pros and the cons of prioritizing public health over the economy. This piece of art, however, might be saying the economy cannot boom if large numbers of people are dying.

Her art continues to make us reflect on the current state of the country. With pieces about consumerism, feminism, and classism, Kruger may be putting a spotlight on the areas we as a society need to improve on. To see more of Kruger’s work, check out her interview in the recent issue of The New York Times Style Magazine.