1983: Barbara Kruger

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The Institute of Contemporary Art in London mounted the exhibition We Won’t Play Nature to Your Culture: Works by Barbara Kruger in 1983. The show featured Kruger’s first works executed in what would become her signature style— large-scale, black-and-white images appropriated from popular culture, overlaid with red or black bands, bearing cryptic texts rendered in Futura drop out-letters. Several of the works were also included in the 1983 Whitney Biennial.

When Mary Boone stated that her gallery’s roster of artists was all male because women artists didn’t sell, she was spoke a little too candidly about an ugly reality of the art market. Barbara Kruger had made it clear that not only could work by women artists sell, but that work by polemical, uncompromising, feminist artists could, and did, sell. Boone responded by signing Kruger, her first woman artist, in 1987, and giving her carte blanche to transform the West Broadway space for her first show in the same year.

Feminist art of the 1970s was largely concerned with the recuperation of craft traditions, which resulted in earnest, handmade objects. Kruger, who had learned the arts of visual persuasion while working as a commercial layout designer (specializing in text) at Condé Nast, took a different approach. Like the Russian Constructivist graphic artists, who used avant-garde means to accomplished radical political ends, believing that a revolution required revolutionary art, Kruger presented feminist political thought in a clean, modern, professional style on an assertive billboard scale.

The combination of meticulous graphic design, concise, yet eliptical, slogans and ironically-recontextualized, popular imagery made feminist agit-prop seem hip, confident and current. Like Keith Haring, another commercially-trained artist, Kruger knew how to use images to get the public’s attention and her visual style, like Haring’s, caught on immediately. Just as Haring’s art did much to incite action to fight AIDS, Barbara Kruger’s art played a significant part in the re-energizing, expansion and changing of the public’s perception of the feminist movement that took place in the 1980s, role for which she has yet to be fully acknowledged.

By the end of the 1980s Kruger, now an established art star, stepped up from the insular art world to the national stage, where she exerted a clear influence on the shaping of public affairs through the creation and deployment of stark images like with memorable rallying cries like Your Body is a Battleground. Designed for the Women’s March for Reproductive Rights on on Washington DC in 1989, the poster went on to become the standard of an entire movement. In a decade of political art, Kruger’s set a benchmark that has yet to be surpassed in terms of its political prestige, influence and widespread instant recognition.

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