Installation shot of work using LEDs by Barbara Kruger from the 2021 exhibition "THINKING OF YOU. I MEAN ME. I MEAN YOU.” Credit: Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

Barbara Kruger, collagist, conceptual artist, and Futura Bold Oblique font savant, will turn 77 two days after her exhibition “THINKING OF YOU. I MEAN ME. I MEAN YOU.” closes at the Art Institute of Chicago on January 24.

The expansive exhibition, which opened in September after being delayed almost a year by COVID-19 concerns, is the artist’s largest in 20 years, and her first solo exhibition in the U.S. since 1999 (mounted by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles). 

Make no mistake: despite Kruger’s age and decades-long career, this exhibition is not a retrospective—even if that’s exactly what it feels like. And that’s exactly the point.  

The earliest of Kruger’s works included in the exhibit are pasteups from her days at Condé Nast in the 1980s. While some of her older, most widely recognized works, such as 1988’s Picturing “Greatness” and Pledge, Untitled (Who Speaks? Who is Silent?) from 1990, are included too, this is mostly done to afford Kruger a limitless canvas for recontextualizing that older work (some of which is reworked) and showcase it alongside her previously unseen work from the past 20 years. 

Kruger’s 1988 work Picturing “Greatness” installed in the exhibition. Credit: Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

According to Robyn Farrell, an associate curator in the Art Institute’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, and cocurator of “Thinking of You,” of the nearly 80 works in this exhibition, 28 of them predate the 1999 MOCA retrospective, while 48 of the works have been produced since 2003. Of that latter 48, a whopping 40 were remade or newly produced for the Chicago presentation of the exhibition. 

“I would describe the exhibition as a space where the past and present are simultaneously in conversation with one another,” says Farrell. 

And that’s a conversation that the collective “we” also seem to be in the midst of right now. 

One of Kruger’s most widely recognized works is Untitled (Your body is a battleground), which she originally produced for the Women’s March on Washington in 1989, a year when—much like this one and the last several—waves of antiabortion laws were introduced to chip away at Roe v. Wade. The Broad Art Foundation, where the original of Your Body lives, notes about the work, “The woman’s face, disembodied, split in positive and negative exposures, and obscured by text, marks a stark divide. This image is simultaneously art and protest. Though its origin is tied to a specific moment, the power of the work lies in the timelessness of its declaration.”

Back in September, during the opening week of “Thinking of You,” news of the updated abortion restrictions in Texas was breaking, which really hammered home the long-lasting relevancy of Kruger’s work. In this endless loop of pandemic pandemonium and its ensuing effect on the social and political culture, life itself feels like a slightly reconstructed retrospective. 

“Barbara’s work always resonates . . . because her work is about how we are to one another,” Farrell says. “It’s essentially about the human condition, and how the human condition is responsive to the institutional constructs that inform our daily lives. And therefore, the work is unfortunately always relevant, because people don’t often change.”

When viewers first enter “Thinking of You” in the Art Institute’s Regenstein Hall, they are met with a large-scale, mind-bending work that sets the tone for the rest of the exhibit. In stark black-and-white font, “You” are invoked for the first of many times, because this is a show that centers around the idea that the personal is political, but also that the political is personal, especially if you’re a woman. You are led to take this very politically charged exhibition very personally. 

“You. You know that women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.”

That’s one of the first invocations greeting visitors to the exhibit that rejects the concept of a traditional retrospective, and in doing so, challenges the timeline of an artist’s relevancy, which is . . . relevant. By pushing back on the usual parameters, Kruger rejects the idea that any artist, but particularly a female-identifying one, one who has consistently embraced the personal nature of politics, is ever in a position to cease that exploration, to say that it’s done and dusted. This reinforces the idea that women’s contributions to culture are indelibly prescient and of the present, no matter when they were first concepted, created, or recreated. 

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Truth), 2013. Collection of Margaret and Daniel S. Loeb (digital image courtesy of the artist). Credit: Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

In Claudia Durastanti’s new book, Strangers I Know, she writes, “Rereading yourself means inventing what you’ve gone through, identifying each layer you’re built upon: the crystals of joy or loneliness beneath, the result of some evaporated memory, everything that’s been carved out, then flooded, only for you to realize that time’s not healing after all: there’s a breach that can’t be filled. The only thing time will do is carry dust and weeds along with it, until that crevice is covered over and transformed to a different landscape, distant, almost a fairy tale, where you no longer recognize the language spoken, that might as well be Elvish.” If time itself isn’t healing, why should we limit ourselves to merely looking back? Why not transform? That’s what Kruger’s asking us—me and you—to do. As a new year dawns, what a perfect opportunity to dive into that transformation. 

Farrell tells me, “In her practice, Barbara has tracked culture over time, and it’s always been through a mode of media communication. Whether that be a printed page or a large-scale vinyl, or a billboard, or a bus or a wrapped facade, she’s always mimicked the primary mode of communication.”

And to that end, “Thinking of You” is a multi-sensory exhibition, with reverberatory audio throughout, and massive, state-of-the-art, large-scale LED installation displays in nearly every room.

“It only makes sense that this most recent body of work is communicated through screens,” says Farrell. “That was Barbara’s decision, and it was something that she knew she wanted to do immediately, and I think it seems inevitable that would be the case because the mode by which most of us receive information on a daily basis are across the flat screen, whether it be a laptop or a smartphone. So it makes sense that she’s sort of mirroring society. She’s always tracked the cultural zeitgeist, but she’s reflected that commentary through whatever the technology of the day might be.”

“THINKING OF YOU. I MEAN ME. I MEAN YOU.”
Through 1/24: Thu-Mon, 11 AM- 5 PM, The Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan, 312-443-3600, artic.edu, general admission $14-$35 (see website for free days, discounts, and a breakdown of admission fees)

There’s irony in the fact that Kruger’s work, in theory a caustic skewering of capitalism, is perfectly mounted to be captured through today’s primary technology du jour—Instagram—itself a thinly-masked hand tool of capitalism. 

Farrell concludes, “The urgency of her work, as it migrates from a printed page to a screen and interior to exterior walls lies perhaps less in its graphic immediacy, than in its fluency and the ways that her work can be continually replayed, redeployed [and] broadcast for a particular site and for particular audience.” 

Just as we are Kruger’s audience, we experience her work with our own ever-present, personal audiences in tow, and a retrospective is really all we get—at the conclusion of our career, a year, or decades of constitutional protections of our bodily autonomy. The siren’s call to curate is amplified by our desire to control the narrative, to try our vainest to meter the lasting impression we leave, to make sure everyone knows—we were not only always in on the joke, but we also wrote the punchline.