A contemporary artist who was made popular by mass media is Barbara Kruger. Barbara Kruger is a conceptual artist whose work emerges from existing sources such as the media. What she does is enlarges the photograph, often times large enough to cover a billboard, and overlaps it with phrases such as “you”, “your”, “I”, “we”, and “they” which in turn questions the viewer about concepts such as feminism, consumerism, and desire. Two works that are most recognizable as Barbara Kruger’s include “I shop therefore I am,” and “Your body is a battleground,” which will be analyzed later on. Furthermore, Kruger has not only been a graphic designer and artist but she is now currently a teacher at the University of California. Most importantly, Kruger’s style, art, and use of conceptualism set her apart from all other feminist artists.
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Barbara Kruger was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1945. She attended Syracuse University in 1964, leaving her hometown, where she then began to develop an interest in various arts, some of which include graphic design, poetry, and reading. After a year of attending Syracuse University she decided to change schools and attend Parsons School of Design where she then began to study photographers and fashion magazine. A year later, Kruger left Parsons School of Design and began working as a graphic designer at a well renowned magazine, Mademoiselle Magazine. After working for a year at the magazine, she was promoted to head designer. While she enjoyed working as the head designer, she later decided to move on throughout her career and began working different aspects of the fashion industry such as a graphic designer, art director, and picture editor in her later years at Mademoiselle.
Kruger’s work dates back to 1969 but today’s works which are those we remember her by are from 1979 on. She began taking images from the mid-century print-media sources and collaged words directly on top of them. Both the pictures and words Kruger used in her works are derived from television, films, newspapers and magazines which show the media’s powerful ability to communicate and enable Kruger to pick and choose certain words and images to display an even more powerful message than the media (broadartfound). Most collages up until about 1987 were solely black and white and always consisted of an image with bold typeface on a black or white text bar until she began to emphasize the text even more with a red text bar. She then began to experiment with even more colors sometimes using one color uniformly for an entire work. Kruger’s work demonstrates the techniques she had learned as a graphic designer and enabled her to show her feminist views and comments on various issues that were going on during that time. Some of which include, but not limited to, sex, religion, racial and gender stereotypes, consumerism and power. She not only displayed her work in various galleries and museums but also on buses and billboards around the world. Kruger has the ability to not only address those who visit the local galleries and museums but a much greater audience by displaying her works on local and nationwide buses, billboards, and public areas such as the walls of buildings, streets, etc.
This leads to the questions, “What is conceptual art?” and “What makes Barbara Kruger a conceptual artist?” Conceptual art is intended to convey an idea or concept to the perceiver and need not involve the creation or appreciation of a traditional art object such as a painting or sculpture. Conceptual art is dependent on the text, not so much the actual art, or picture, surrounding the word or words depicting the true meaning of the work. Conceptual art is a reaction to modernism but addresses a wider range of social and political outlooks. Often times, conceptual art leads to debate and controversy because it has the tendency to provoke extreme reactions in its viewers. Kruger’s practice of conceptualism not only questions the viewers of her works but society as a whole. Her choice of words and the way she uses them makes her a conceptual artist and her style of incorporating them into her works really sets her apart from others.
“I shop therefore I am” is one of Barbara Kruger’s most talked about pieces. The meaning of this piece of work comes from the French philosopher René Descartes famous quote, “Cogito ergo sum” which translates to “I think therefore I am”. In Kruger’s terms, she takes that phrase to a materialistic level which in turn means that a person is not defined by what they think, but what they own. Kruger uses the term “shop” to evoke that what they own is done through shopping. The image focuses on the world as being a consumer culture, that is, the theory that human society is strongly influenced by consumerism. Kruger’s intention of this work is to portray what excessive consumers we are today and how many of us have turned shopping into a lifestyle. This is one of many of Kruger’s works that has a sense of consumerism being one of the problems she sees today. Not only does this work question individual’s morals and values in life but also society as a whole and how consumerism affects everyone more and more as the days go on.
Another commonly known work of Barbara Kruger’s, titled “Your Body is a Battleground,” expresses her interest in addressing political matters that are being the most talked about during that time. When viewing this work you notice how the image is of a women’s face that is symmetrically split dividing the canvas into two sections, a left and a right, one side that appears to be a positive and the other a negative. Various views of why Kruger does this include highlighting the ideas of “positive versus negative, white versus black, good versus bad” (Love for sale p87). Barbara Kruger boldly puts the words “Your Body is a Battleground” down the center of the work to stress her view and how she felt about certain political and social issues of the time. When she created this piece in 1989, it was in support of women’s rights and the pro-choice march that took place in Washington, D.C. in March. What we see today is the large scale reproduced version which no longer includes various meaningful words, some of which include “Support Abortion, Birth Control, and Women’s Rights”(faculty.txwes.edu). Today’s composition is 112 x 112 inches in size.
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With varying points of view, others may portray Kruger’s “Your Body is a battleground” as the problem many women face today which is their own self-image. One issue most women deal with today involves their weight and how to manage the way other people see them. Some may think Kruger is trying to show a sense of insecurity that women have with themselves concerning their body. When looking at her work in this sense you can now see how some may think this is what Kruger is trying to express, the left being what society sees or what you want them to see, and the right side showing how you see yourself. The second wave of feminism came into effect in the mid-twentieth century when feminist artists, such as Kruger, began displaying issues with self-esteem and body image within their artwork.
After doing multiple searches on Barbara Kruger and reading different passages from various texts, it is very clear to me that she was indeed a feminist as well as a conceptual artist. Some of her works were not very clear to me, meaning I did not understand the message or messages she is trying to convey. The two works which she is most known for were made very clear after doing my research and allowed me to have a different kind of mind set when viewing her artwork. Not only does she make the words she wants to emphasize big and bold but also place them on a red textbox offsetting them from the rest of the photograph. Although “Your Body is a Battleground” was solely intentional for the women’s right and pro-choice march, I do agree with others viewpoints in that it could very well be interpreted as the fight women have over their body day in and day out.
All in all, Barbara Kruger’s work can easily be distinguished amongst a variety of other feminist and conceptual artists. Kruger’s use of black, white and red text bars with bold typeface enables the viewer to get a strong sense of reality and recognize the main points of the image as well as what exactly she is trying to portray to her viewers. Her work is easily seen in places including billboards and on the outsides of buses, along with various other common areas around the world. Kruger’s use of the phrases such as “you”, “your”, “I”, “we”, and “they” are often times short segments, open questions, or concrete requests which then questions the viewer as to what she is asking and/or telling the world as a whole. The two pieces analyzed show how Kruger uses conceptualism to address problems of the times. In her work, “I shop therefore I am”, Kruger makes it a point to her viewers that consumerism is a key point in today’s society and that you are what you buy, which is associated with the famous quote “I think therefore I am”. In her other most common piece of work, “Your Body is Battleground”, she makes it obvious to her audience that your body is your choice and your right to do what you want with it. In support, Kruger made this piece for the women’s rights and pro-choice protest that took place in 1989. While this is the reason behind “Your Body is a Battleground”, some believe that Kruger may have created this work due to the constant issues women have due to society. The hope and wish many women have to have the body image every woman wants lowers one’s self esteem resulting in your body being the thing every woman tries to fight.
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