Barbara Kruger was born on January 26, 1945, in Newark, New Jersey. She spent a year at Syracuse University in 1964 and a semester at Parsons School of Design in New York in 1965, where she studied with Diane Arbus and graphic designer Marvin Israel. In 1966, she took a job with Condé Nast, working in the design department of Mademoiselle. She was named that magazine’s head designer a year later. For the next decade, Kruger supported herself doing graphic design for magazines, book jacket designs, and freelance picture editing. In the late 1960s, she also developed an interest in poetry, attending readings and writing.
Kruger’s earliest artworks date to 1969. Large woven wall hangings of yarn, beads, sequins, feathers, and ribbons, they exemplify the feminist recuperation of craft during this period. Despite her inclusion in the Whitney Biennial in 1973 and solo exhibitions at Artists Space and Fischbach Gallery, both in New York, the following two years, she was dissatisfied with her output and its detachment from her growing social and political concerns. In the fall of 1976, Kruger abandoned art making and moved to Berkeley, California, where she taught at the University of California for four years and steeped herself in the writings of Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes. She took up photography in 1977, producing a series of black-and-white details of architectural exteriors paired with her own textual ruminations on the lives of those living inside. Published as an artist’s book, Picture/Readings (1979) foreshadows the aesthetic vocabulary Kruger developed in her mature work.
By 1979, Kruger stopped taking photographs and began to employ found images in her art, mostly from mid-century American print-media sources, with words collaged directly over them. Untitled (Perfect) (1980) portrays the torso of a woman, hands clasped in prayer, evoking the Virgin Mary, the embodiment of submissive femininity; the word “perfect” is emblazoned along the lower edge of the image. These early collages, in which Kruger deployed techniques she had perfected as a graphic designer, inaugurated the artist’s ongoing political, social, and especially feminist provocations and commentaries on religion, sexuality, racial and gender stereotypes, consumerism, corporate greed, and power.
During the early 1980s, Kruger perfected a signature agitprop style, using cropped, large-scale, black-and-white photographic images juxtaposed with raucous, pithy, and often ironic aphorisms, printed in Futura Bold typeface against black, white, or deep red text bars. The inclusion of personal pronouns in works like Untitled (Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face)(1981) and Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am) (1987) implicates viewers by confounding any clear notion of who is speaking. These rigorously composed mature works function successfully on any scale. Their wide distribution—under the artist’s supervision—in the form of umbrellas, tote bags, postcards, mugs, T-shirts, posters, and so on, confuses the boundaries between art and commerce and calls attention to the role of the advertising in public debate.
In recent years, Kruger has extended her aesthetic project, creating public installations of her work in galleries, museums, municipal buildings, train stations, and parks, as well as on buses and billboards around the world. Walls, floors, and ceilings are covered with images and texts, which engulf and even assault the viewer. Since the late 1990s, Kruger has incorporated sculpture into her ongoing critique of modern American culture. Justice (1997), in white-painted fiberglass, depicts J. Edgar Hoover and Roy Cohn—two right-wing public figures who hid their homosexuality—in partial drag, kissing one another. In this kitsch send-up of commemorative statuary, Kruger highlights the conspiracy of silence that enabled these two men to accrue social and political power.
Major solo exhibitions of Kruger’s work have been organized by the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London (1983), Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (1999), and Palazzo delle Papesse Centro Arte Contemporanea in Siena (2002). She represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1982. Kruger lives and works in New York and Los Angeles.