Barbara Kruger’s exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, “Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You” is epic in scope, occupying all of the vast Regenstein Hall and the atrium of Griffin Court, as well as many other sites in the museum, around its campus, and across the city. So much has been written, and will be written, about the content of Kruger’s work and its sharp social commentary that I decided here to focus on formal aspects of her large text installations produced as black-and-white digital prints on vinyl.
Several such works are architectural in scale: Untitled (Griffin Court), 2020; Untitled (Forever), 2017; Advertisements for myself (project for the New York Times), 2014/2020; and Untitled (Cast of Characters), 2016/2020, occupy entire walls and floors singly or in tandem with each other, an installation strategy Kruger has employed for many years. Many of the texts are reprised from other venues, and they have been edited and redesigned for their new sites at the Art Institute. With the spatial dimensions and subject matter of the texts all but fixed, most of the flexibility comes from typography. The texts are kerned and stretched horizontally and vertically, filling out or squeezing into their respective spaces, using Kruger’s signature Futura Bold font along with what looks like a version of English Gothic. One is fat; the other, thin. Both are sans serif fonts whose unadorned forms seek to carry the message through the power of the words, not the style of the letters.
Toward this end and to her credit, Kruger has always insisted on generic-looking typefaces that match the no-nonsense tone of her messages. In many of the walls, the tight leading is relieved by the separation of lines of text into alternating bands of black on white or white on black. The text works have been described as site-specific, but it might be more accurate to describe some of them as site-adaptable. The athleticism and plasticity of Kruger’s type also means that copious amounts of vinyl will be used again when this exhibition is remade for MoMA PS1 in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art next year. Given the role plastic plays in our precarious environmental situation, I am happy to see Kruger present text works as digital projections, as in the three-channel video installation Untitled (No Comment), 2020, which cuts streams of words with memes and maps. Unless the vinyl is recyclable, I would love to see her work continue in this direction.
Within the museum space, each work is thoughtfully installed along viewing paths that create organic connections and fulfill a spatial logic. The humorous collections of adjectives and nouns in Untitled (Cast of Characters) and Advertisements for myself (project for the New York Times) appear down the hall from each other: LOSERS, JERKS, HATERS, PLAYERS… in one gallery and A MAJOR ARTIST, A MINOR FIGURE, A TIRED HACK…. in the other. These two installations form reverberating bookends, bringing an element of comic timing to the viewer’s movement through the show.
Other works take advantage of the building’s and exhibition’s layout. Untitled (Forever), a room-size installation that wraps around four walls and the floor, greets viewers at the entrance to Regenstein Hall, addressing them with two huge YOU’s that warn them to take notice; they are implicated in what follows. The gallery space itself is generic, but this work’s position at the front makes it psychologically potent. Untitled (Griffin Court), an enormous text on the floor of the atrium that reads BLIND IDEALISM IS REACTIONARY SCARY DEADLY (with REACTIONARY and SCARY crossed out with huge green X’s) incorporates both levels of the museum, as it should be read from the second-floor balconies. At ground level, it’s illegible, a stunning black, white, and green abstraction of the slender letterforms’ elegant curves and angles.
As vinyl skins on architectural structures, the texts are imposing in scale and varied in their relationship to the viewer: Untitled (Forever) immerses the viewer in text on five sides, Untitled (Griffin Court) suspends the viewer above the text, and Untitled (Cast of Characters) and Advertisement for Myself confront the viewer face to face. This made me think about what Kruger’s works mean when they are installed in public versus when they are presented on a more intimate scale. As a 2014 project for the New York Times, Advertisement for Myself was once small. But Kruger doesn’t scale up gratuitously for the sake of spectacle. Through their large scale, her graphics become loud speech, pumped out visually as if spoken through a bullhorn. Kruger cranks up the volume to command public attention and enhance the reach of her message to entire communities. Through scale, the artist signals the authority of her voice and the urgency of her message.