CHICAGO — Blunt words printed in Futura Bold, in room after room of Barbara Kruger’s comprehensive exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, face off like military battalions, invading our mental spaces. The visitor must stand on top of and within these typeset missives and decode message after message. I exited the show feeling exhausted, only to stumble back into a world where the nearby T-Mobile store employs similarly immersive, cajoling tools of visual enticement. This is what Kruger does best: she reveals the scaffolding of capitalist culture; how power dynamics play out in messaging. Her first solo exhibition in the United States since 1999, Thinking of You, I Mean Me, I Mean You, is a full-throttle mix-tape of room-wraps, videos, audio installations, billboards, floorboards, products in the gift shop, words on stair risers and windows, and a few classicized figurative sculptures. 

Barbara Kruger’s words have been part of visual culture in the United States since the early 1980s, when they interrupted the painterly excess of Neo-expressionism with stabs of red, white, and black commentary. Kruger’s often feminist-leaning 1980s work emerged, along with Guerrilla Girls’ posters, from second-wave imperatives for women to be more visible within a male-skewed art world. Women needed to scream to be seen. This all made sense amid Kruger’s fellow Pictures Generation artists’ explorations of the dialogical contingencies of media. As the first generation to grow up watching television, these artists were born to provide critical analysis of their new epoch. 

Installation view of Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You, I Mean Me, I Mean You at the Art Institute of Chicago (image courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago)

Some of Kruger’s early works, such as “Untitled (Your Body Is a Battleground),” produced in 1989 for the Women’s March on Washington, remain sadly relevant today, as abortion legislation lingers in the courts. Her 1987 work “Untitled (We Don’t Need Another Hero)” offers a cheeky jab at gender dynamics as a boy flexes his muscles for a little girl, primer-book style. This intertextual style embeds multiple histories and references (for instance, Rosie the Riveter, war propaganda) within succinct statements and visuals. Kruger’s early work was smaller and more  intimate, coming from her background in magazine typesetting and design. These collages or “paste-ups” (1981–89) have a DIY aesthetic that later bloomed into wall-sized works and billboards. Twenty of her 1980s cut-and-paste collages are displayed near the center of the show as a plumb line or kind of hand-wrought orientation to the clamorous installations elsewhere.

The exhibition opens with a bang: viewers enter through a causeway where a projection of puzzle pieces click into place and form Kruger aphorisms, including the white-on-red type “Untitled (I shop therefore I am)” (1987/2019). Like much of her work, this marvelously pithy anti-capitalist barb easily breaches party lines. I remember seeing it as a magnet on my conservative sister-in-law’s fridge, as confirmation of her consumer lifestyle. Nearby, wallpapered images present giant hands holding cell-phone screens collaged with Google-sourced images of commercial appropriations of Kruger’s aesthetic. She never seemed to mind that the very world she critiqued co-opted her style and spit it back into advertising. Kruger herself happily offered T-shirts and totes, crossing that great divide between art and product. 

Installation view of Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Forever) (2017) (photo by the author)

Stepping through this entry space, the huge, immersive first room (70 by 30 feet) of floor to ceiling black and white signage pulsates. The viewer is flanked at either end by two oval-shaped signs that begin with the word YOU. To the right is a quote from Virginia Woolf: “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.” Yes! I immediately felt that tingle of feminist assertion, even in this funhouse installation. 

Kruger’s oeuvre hinges on the malleability of language, and how removing it from its everyday context can weaponize it. What seems benign as a headline, advertisement, or billboard becomes aberrant, even violent, when isolated in an enormous exhibition space. When she intones, “Bad is Good, Up is Down, Happy is Sad, Right is Wrong, Truth is Fiction, Anything Goes” (2020), this tumult of empty phrasing somehow effectively describes our upside-down world, underscoring how a shifting cultural context shapes our reality. The other large oval in this room reads, “You are here, looking through the looking glass, darkly seeing the unseen, the invisible, the barely there. You. Whoever you are. Wherever you are. Etched in memory. Until you, the looker, is gone. Unseen. No more. You too.” Ominously, Kruger reminds us that YOU are contingent, temporal, abstract. 

The show’s towering walls of typography create an architecture of containment. The installations position the audience to perform — you may wonder: Is this one giant set up for Instagram? Are we mice in a maze? Visitors start snapping as soon as they enter. Kruger continues to show how the media addiction that characterizes contemporary culture prevents so many of us from fully seeing and understanding the power of what we succumb to. It is too easy to ignore surveillance in favor of convenience and enjoyment, to forget the illicit marketplaces where our identities are stalked and sold. Perhaps the show was structured to be self-generating: visitors’ photos float onto social media channels, expanding and contracting Kruger’s messages as part of the act. 

Installation view of Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You, I Mean Me, I Mean You at the Art Institute of Chicago (image courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago)

Cell phone cameras also help nullify the sting of these words, shielding us from the direct confrontation of Kruger’s statements, which are often too abrasive to approach unarmed. One room-sized installation, Untitled (Selfie) (2020), insists that the visitor only enter if they have a cell phone. A sign says, PLEASE DO NOT ENTER UNLESS YOU CONSENT TO BE PICTURED WHILE PICTURING. A PHONE/CAMERA IS NEEDED FOR ENTRY. THANKS. Inside, there is nothing to photograph but the sense of your own complicity. Two security cameras record visitors meandering in front of two opposing wall texts printed in white, green, and black that read: “I Hate Myself and You Love Me For It” and “I Love Myself and You Hate Me For It.” 

It is easy to overlook the formal beauty of Kruger’s work. Her stacks of words shimmer and glow in light gradients. Artfully color-coded, stretched, and densely packed letters are scaled like monuments. But it is the sense of participatory energy that truly electrifies the exhibition, which was co-designed by the artist. We are in this together, shuffling a bit guiltily within this morass of language, the accusatory flame of words. Our oblique self-images flicker. Even escaping to the gift shop, an audio feed showers us with a voiceover, “May I help you,” again and again, ad infinitum. 

Barbara Kruger represents a significant chapter in art history, but she is more than simply a 1980s bookmark. Her work has shifted focus from feminist ideology to the ominous abuse of power, echoing Roland Barthes’s statement, “Language is never innocent.” As Kruger might say, thank you for visiting the show, “It’s Our Pleasure to Disgust You” (1991). But I still want the tote.

Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You, I Mean Me, I Mean You continues at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through January 24.

The exhibition was organized by the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. It was co-organized by James Rondeau, President and Eloise W. Martin Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Robyn Farrell, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. The exhibition will be travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from March 20, 2022 to July 17, 2022, and the Museum of Modern Art from July 18, 2022 to January 2, 2023.

Debra Brehmer is a writer and art historian who runs a contemporary gallery called Portrait Society in Milwaukee, WI. She is especially interested in how portraits convey meaning.