They circulated as postcards, magazine clippings and unauthorized photocopies, stuck to the refrigerator with magnets, tacked to your dorm-room corkboard or taped to the composition books in which you recorded lecture notes. Some people wore them on their bodies, emblazoned on T-shirts at anti-apartheid protests and ACT UP marches for AIDS awareness.
You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.,” an extensive and engaging Kruger exhibition that opened at the Art Institute of Chicago last month, is her first major solo show in two decades. In the four decades since Kruger emerged as one of this country’s most uncompromising conceptual artists, the media landscape has changed almost beyond comprehension. But Kruger has kept up with it, turning to different modes of presentation and media, refining her messages, sharpening her wit. As new generations encounter her work for the first time, they will find it as bracingly smart as when their parents discovered it.
Kruger’s text-based art emerged from her experience as an artist and a magazine designer and from her wide reading in feminism, critical theory and other disciplines. Early works from the 1980s and ’90s, known as paste-ups because they were made with the same cut-and-paste design method common to magazine and print layout, combined trenchant and ironic distillations of social theory with found images. Kruger, 75, now works in both New York and Los Angeles, where she is on the faculty at UCLA’s School of the Arts and Architecture.
Pithiness was part of her work’s appeal. But also, truth. Kruger was a natural at literary and philosophical condensation, and presented her insights with a visual sophistication born of close study of advertising and propaganda. For students drowning in recondite texts about feminism, media and Marxism, Kruger’s work cut through the theoretical verbiage with razor-sharp epigrams.
Several of those early works are on view in Chicago, along with more recent installation pieces, sound works, video and wall-size text pieces that recast earlier motifs and ideas. An untitled 1988 work combines the words “we don’t need another hero” with a campy image of a girl admiring a boy flexing his nonexistent biceps. The image underscores the innocence that precedes masculine bravado, and then deflates the very idea of heroism itself, a daring idea in a society that uses the word reflexively and often indiscriminately to valorize state power.
And Kruger’s 1982 combination of an image from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel with the words “You invest in the divinity of the masterpiece” is as vital and true today as when she made it. The “you” could refer to the art world, which traffics in art as a commodity while pretending it is somehow sacred or beyond ordinary terrestrial valuation, or to the art-loving tourist, who consumes energy and other resources only to stand before a painting and mutter meaningless platitudes about its divinity.
Kruger’s epigrams differ from other forms of reductionism, including the journalistic sound bite and the political slogan. Epigrams are a genuine literary form, akin to poetry, and she joined them to images chosen with the same acuity and insight that photographers use when deciding what piece of the world they want to isolate and frame. Her words were addressed directly to the viewer, in either the first person “I shop …” or the second, “Your body …” And thus, unlike debased rhetorical forms meant to coax us painlessly past thought, they demanded that we give some kind of assent or refusal before moving on.
This direct address, and the visual clarity of her preferred typeface, Futura Bold Oblique, were quickly appropriated by the fields Kruger sought to criticize. The exhibition in Chicago begins with a room covered in commercial and cultural appropriations of Kruger’s style — on clothing, in advertisements and throughout the popular media. This is more than just the flattery of imitation. Few artists have produced work as genuinely unsettling to established ways of thinking — including establishment thinking within the museum and art world — as Kruger. The appropriation of her work is, at least in part, about defanging it through ubiquity and over-familiarity.
Kruger’s work has never really been about messages. Rather, it is about critical consciousness, introducing the viewer to just enough distance from the world in which he or she resides, to see how thoroughly our identities and desires are constructed by consumerism and political hegemony. You can read George Orwell on the corruption of language, Pierre Bourdieu on art and class, John Berger on advertising and art, Walter Benjamin on the circulation of images, and all the ideas gleaned therefrom may never gather the force of a genuine epiphany about the soul-crushing force of state power and capitalism. But Kruger can get you there.
Especially if you are young, and haven’t yet invested in masterpieces, or a mortgage. Kruger’s work seems particularly attuned to youth, not because the young are impressionable in a lazy-thinking sort of way, but because they are uniquely susceptible to the social forces (now including Instagram) that construct identity. The evolution of her work since the 1980s, on view in video works, digitized images and a “selfie room,” is a race against the ever increasing power of media and consumerism to destroy lives.
In a 2015 work, “Untitled (Connect),” the hand that once held the words “I shop therefore I am” now holds a smartphone with icons that contrast the stark, Manichaean possibilities of online life. In white, the words “Pleasure,” “Knowledge,” “Clarity” and “Empathy” speak to new powers of access and circulation, while the dark side is limned in red — “Ignorance,” “Hubris,” “Murder” and “Spam.” In a 2020 video, “No Comment,” cat memes, online mapping programs and a stream of surreal text and images seek to dislodge the viewer from taking online narcissism for granted.
Kruger’s work may be aimed at the young, but we never age out of it. The forces arrayed against humanity are more powerful than ever, and the beneficiaries of this onslaught have never been richer or more powerful. Advertising and propaganda are the oldest forms of misinformation, which has metastasized through such new media as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and their even more disreputable cousins such as Parler and Gab. The current mania to demonize critical race theory is yet one more insidious denial of how power really works, intertwining systems of race and economics and politics in ways that become so pervasive they are essentially invisible. Kruger has spent a lifetime trying to make those connections visible.
Most sane people will, by necessity, toggle between two approaches to understanding the world and the powers that govern us. Some days, we see things clearly, understand certain truths as absolute and imperative. Other times, we see only complexity and nuance and the impossibility of absolute judgment. Kruger obviously spends more time in the former position, keeping us honest. But she doesn’t lack sympathy for complexity.
In an exhibit room with text on the floor, a 2007 work, “Untitled (Brain),” uses a lurid image of the brain to speak to the gray areas of our gray matter: “In the beginning there was crying/ In the middle there was confusion/ In the end there was silence.” Thus, the three ages of man, or woman: childhood, adulthood and death. It is a dark message, and seems almost to let us off the hook by steering us away from politics and social life and into the solipsistic darkness of our own mortality.
Life is short, mostly tragic and ends in death. But it is the text on the floor that matters. To read it, you must slowly back out of the room, away from its fear and embodied anxieties, and back into the rest of the exhibition.
A few works by Kruger misfire, but so do many epigrams. Recent pieces sometimes focus more on paired words or little poetic dyads, rather than fully fleshed-out ideas, as if she is struggling to keep up with the fracturing and obliteration of language as it is overtaken by emoji and abbreviated grammatical structures.
But since I first encountered it, in the 1980s on a refrigerator in a small apartment near the volatile counter cultural enclave of Tompkins Square Park in New York, Kruger’s work has struck me as almost always more true than that of most other artists and thinkers. And more than that, it is true in a humble, genuine way. When Kruger says “you,” she always means “we.” And Kruger’s wisdom is this: We have a lot of work to do before we will ever be us.
You. I Mean Me. I Mean You. Through Jan. 24 at the Art Institute of Chicago. artic.edu.