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A time to revisit Barbara Kruger’s past, present and Futura times

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f you happen to be in London, Skarstedt Gallery revisits the early works of the conceptual artist Barbara Kruger, from the 10th of February until April 11. The exhibition features her seminal early works of the 1980s, the characteristic large-scale black and white photographs in an equally characteristic red enamel frame overlaid with quite provocative captions in bold Futura type; this body of works consists of the captions in her choice of font, though the artist has said that as far as the type of captions is concerned, whatever works!

Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1945, she studied in Parsons instructed by Diane Arbus, whom she considers to have been a great influence. After leaving Parsons, she started working as a graphic designer at Condé Nast Publications, where she learned how illustrations, messaging and mass media semiotics work but decided that this career was not for her so she transitioned and pursued a career in art. So far, she has created a very consistent body of works, an art form with an undeniably recognizable aesthetic.

Her background resulted in the continuous exploring of the themes of power, control, body, money, consumerism, identity etc. Barbara Kruger keeps challenging the American culture and society which has strongly influenced the whole world. Her chosen method is the overlaying of images she gathers from newspapers and magazines and small sentences, sort of slogans.

The artist communicates all these messages with an economy and consistency of typography and means. Her critique on society and culture is very dense and direct, both very important elements, especially in a time when the attention span of people is extremely limited. The observer simply cannot neglect Kruger’s work. Some emblematic captions such as “I shop therefore I am”, “Love for sale”, “Your body is a battleground”, challenge the sensitive themes of consumerism, identity, feminism and are open to multiple interpretations. She unfolds in a very laconic way hypocrisies and puts the observer in the position of the sinner and the saint, the criminal and the victim through her bold messages.

“When I need type that has to be set very tightly I always use Helvetica Extra Bold caps because it sets tighter than Futura. It cuts through the grease. That’s why I like it”

What is so powerful about her oeuvre is that it has proved to be timeless as she keeps expanding her work according to the changes of today maintaining their high criticality. The artist is always present, she observes the contemporary society and continues to form a critique with her own signature style taking into consideration the explosion of social media in the highly digital environment we live in. Kruger’s work still influences a lot of young artists and serves as food for thought every single time. There is one tiny concern though; the artist has undoubtedly created a group of works that is effective, powerful and emblematic. Having said that, one could wonder if people are equally overwhelmed with her typographic elements, her letters of choice, her works as they were in the past, since they get so much unfiltered information every day and possibly they tend to become a bit apathetic towards well-meaning provocation and criticism. But as she says,Talk is cheap. This is her story in her own words. 

On the letterforms she uses

“I’ve done pieces that don’t have Futura. Actually, when I need type that has to be set very tightly I always use Helvetica Extra Bold caps because it sets tighter than Futura. It cuts through the grease. That’s why I like it. I don’t like to talk about my influences, but certainly they include 30 years of New York tabloid newspapers, plus the films of Sam Fuller, that black and white stuff.”

On culture and American cities

“If most American cities are about the consumption of culture, Los Angeles and New York are about the production of culture, not only national culture but global culture. You can make good art anywhere. But these two towns have an incredible density of cultural producers: people who migrate to them in order to define themselves through their work.”

On how she perceives art making

“It is about objectifying your experience of the world, transforming the flow of moments into something visual, or textual, or musical, whatever. Art creates a kind of commentary.”

On her artistic vocabulary

“The so-called language of Barbara Kruger is vernacular language. Obviously, I pick through bits and pieces of it and figure out to some degree how to objectify my experience of the world, using pictures and words that construct and contain me.”

On fame and recognition

“It’s good to keep in mind that prominence is always a mix of hard work, eloquence in your practice, good timing and fortuitous social relations. Everything can’t be personalized. Prominence is cool, but when the delusion kicks in it can be a drag. Especially if you choose to surround yourself with friends and not acolytes.”

Words by Dimitra Nikolou, Art historian and Lawyer at art