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Barbara Kruger: the consecration of a pop icon

Updated: Jan 17, 2022

2021 is an important year for Barbara Kruger. In September, the American artist will inaugurate her biggest retrospective to date at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago. This exhibition is the recognition of a brilliant four-decade career whose influence goes far beyond the art world. A socially conscious artist, Kruger became famous for challenging her public on social issues through shocking images and provocative wordings. Her criticism of modern society—whose topics range from consumerism to feminism—remains an endless source of inspiration for the 76 year-old artist still actively working today.

One of Kruger's classic artworks from the mid-1980s

Born in 1945, Barbara Kruger studied graphic design in New York in the 1960s before working at Condé Nast—the mass media company that owns prestigious publications such as Vogue, Vanity Fair and GQ. At the age of 22, she became the head designer of the group. This position enabled her to learn and master the codes of advertising which later had a tremendous influence on her work as an artist

In parallel to her professional activity, Kruger started producing her own artworks from the late 1960. At that time, she focused on weaving and painting to create abstract compositions from a feminist perspective. Although her early works started gaining momentum in the early 1970s—some of them were exhibited at the Whitney Biennale in 1973—she ended her painting practise to focus on teaching.

"Your body is a battleground"

A few years later in 1977, she started working with photo and text collages. But the true turning point in her career occurred in 1979, when she developed her own innovative style combining advertising and pop imagery with striking slogans. From then on, she started using black and white photographs with provocative sans serif wordings. This simple yet efficient style is inspired by the techniques developed in the advertisement industry—one Kruger knows very well—to capture the attention of viewers and encourage them to question their beliefs on key social topics.

Her favourite subjects are consumerism, feminism, western individualism and its influence on personal desire. The artist uses irony to tackle them through short aphorisms such as "I shop therefore I am" or "Money talks" mostly written in Futura Bold on a red background. Her graphic captions became her trademark throughout the 1980s, where she rose to prominence as part of a new generation of conceptual artists including Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine and Jeff Koons.

One of Kruger's past exhibitions at the Hirshhorn museum

Since the 1980s, Kruger has designed merchandising such as posters, tee-shirts or pieces of furniture as well as large-scale billboards featuring her well-known wordings, thus pushing the boundaries of art even further. Her practice became a great source of influence for numerous artists, including in the fashion industry. To take just one famous example, the highly successful luxury brand Supreme used Kruger’s caption design for its logo.

This Untitled piece from 1985 holds Kruger's auction record

Kruger’s notoriety kept growing at the end of the century, and she had her first major mid-career retrospective at the MOCA in 1999 which traveled to the Whitney Museum the following year. Since then, she has exhibited her works in the world’s leading institutions and events such as the Venice Biennale, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Tate Gallery and the MoMA.

Market wise, Gagosian became her first historic dealer in the early 1980s. Kruger later moved to Mary Boone gallery, before joining David Zwirner’s stable in 2019. It was soon followed by the announcement of a major late-career retrospective at the Art Institute in September 2021, which will soon travel to the LACMA and the MoMA.

And yet, despite the artist’s institutional prestige and influence on pop culture, her prices remain lower than most of her male counterparts. Indeed, her auction record—dating back to 2011—was broken with one of her classic works from the mid-1980s—Kruger’s most sought-after period. It was acquired for $902,500 at Christie’s New York. Despite several satisfying results in the past few years, the artist has yet to reach $1 million at auction—even though works were sold in this price range on the private market. This situation is accentuated by the short supply on her market with only a handful of important works selling at auction.

As a consequence, Kruger’s market has an important margin of progression. This is especially true given the coming exhibitions in three leading contemporary museums in the United States.



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