One of the best known American conceptual artists of the contemporary era, Barbara Kruger is a woman who effortlessly blends her bold feminism with eloquence to convey powerful messages through her works of art. Most famous for creating pieces of art characterized by overlaying declarative captions over photographs, she manages to create artworks that are not only aesthetically appealing, but also mentally stimulating. Aware of the fact that human beings have a short attention span, she chooses brief yet forceful words to express her views on issues of social relevance. A feminist at heart, she is also frustrated by the rampant materialism and consumerism in the modern American society and strives to critically analyze prevailing social, cultural and political norms through her works. To create her unique artworks she collects photographs, mostly black and white, from magazines and other sources and overlays them with bold messages. She liberally uses the color red in her works, immediately attracting the attention of the viewer by conveying a sense of urgency and imminent danger. Blessed with a strong social conscience and great aesthetic sense, she studied art and design in college before embarking on a career as an independent artist. She has held several solo exhibitions and also writes for the ‘New York Times’.
Childhood & Early Life
Barbara Kruger was born on January 26, 1945, in a middle-class family, in New Jersey. Her father was a chemical technician while her mother worked as a legal secretary. She was an only child and had a typical childhood growing up in a middle-class neighborhood.
She went to the Weequahic High School in Newark. She was artistically inclined from a young age and decided to pursue her higher education in art and design.
She enrolled at the Syracuse University as an undergraduate where she studied art and design. After spending a year at the University she moved to New York City to take advanced art and design classes at the Parsons School of Design. Her instructors at the college included the American photographer Diane Arbus and graphic designer Marvin Israel.
Even though she was very enthusiastic about the course when she joined, she started becoming disillusioned with art school. Her mentor Israel encouraged her to prepare a professional portfolio which rekindled her interest in the subject.
During the initial stages of her training she focused on architectural photography, painting, craft, and erotic imagery.
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She joined Conde Nast Publications in 1966 after leaving school. With her talent, creativity and determination she easily found work in a number of publications.
She worked as a graphic designer, art director, and picture editor in the art departments of publications like ‘House and Garden’ and ‘Aperture’. Simultaneously, she also undertook freelancing work designing book jackets and editing pictures for other publications.
She was appointed as an entry-level designer by ‘Mademoiselle’ magazine. Her seniors were much impressed with the young woman’s work and she was promoted to the role of a lead designer within a year of her joining.
She was just 22 and already enjoying the success many graphic designers aim for, but she was not satisfied. She desired to venture into a career in art as she felt that designing work did not provide her the creative outlet she craved.
She got a big break in 1973. During her early career as a visual artist she used to crochet, sew and create vivid erotically suggestive objects using beads, sequins, feathers and ribbons. Curator Marcia Tucker displayed some of these artworks in the 1973 Whitney Biennial.
However, Kruger was still not satisfied with the way her career was progressing. She quit art making in 1976 and moved to Berkeley, California, to teach at the University of California. There she immersed herself in the writings of Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes.
She started exploring the art of photography in 1977 and produced a series of black and white photographs which she paired with bold text. She published her work as an artist’s book, ‘Picture/Readings’ in 1979.
During the 1980s she decided to abandon original photography and started incorporating already existing photographs from newspapers and magazines into her art work.
She had also developed an interest in poetry and realized how powerful words could be in conveying messages. So much was her love for literature that she even wrote poetry and narratives at a point of time. However, her true passion was always creating artworks with underlying feminist motifs.
By this time she had developed her own unique style of creating artwork. She used large-scale black and white photographs juxtaposed with ironic and sarcastic comments. She often made use of the color red in her works. Her works were also characterized by the usage of pronouns like “I” and “You”.
During the 1990s she also started incorporating sculpture into her works of art. She has created public installations of her work in galleries, museums, public transports, billboards, etc. Images of her works are popular on mugs, T-Shirts, handbags, and other personal items.
Her poster ‘Untitled (Your Body Is a Battleground)’ is considered one of her iconic works. Portraying a woman’s face bisected into positive and negative photographic reproductions overlaid with the text “Your Body Is a Battleground”, it was used during the 1989 Women’s March on Washington in support of legal abortion.
Awards & Achievements
In 2001, she won the MOCA Award to Distinguished Women in the Arts.
The Leone d'Oro for lifetime achievement was bestowed upon her in 2005.