J.D. Welch - User Experience Design

Inside Outside Upside Down

The architecture of Barbara Kruger

While Barbara Kruger is of course not an 'architect' in the sense of one who makes buildings, many of her works can be read to take on the presence of architecture, including many large public projects as well as room-sized gallery/museum installations and outdoor billboard/bus/etc. pieces. Her architectural sensibility is expressed in the programmatic planning and design of physical space; in this case the creation and transformation of disparate spaces with elements we have come to accept as 'art.' Instead of brick and mortar, Kruger builds with photomontages and slogan-cum-wallcovering text.

Kruger uses the greater world as her gallery. Never limited to showing in the 'official' venues for art, she shows her work on the cover of Newsweek, in the subways, on buses and buildings-- even on t-shirts and matchbooks. So, then, her gallery installations are almost the exception to her 'public' style. By bombarding viewers with imagery she brings the in-your-face attitude of the street inside. She re-creates the architecture of the space in a barrage of words and images to coincide with the confrontational nature of her outdoor work. While her 'public-sphere' pieces have the sensibilities of advertising, placed in the private, elitist institution of the art gallery the same words and pictures become significantly more jarring and out of place. Kruger wallpapers the floors, the walls and even the ceilings of galleries and museums with the elements of her work. By doing so, she intervenes in architectural space and subsequently takes on the role of architect.


Barbara Kruger was born in 1945 in Newark, New Jersey, an only child. She attended Syracuse University for a year and at Parsons for another. She worked on a portfolio of book covers and got a job as second designer at Mademoiselle. She was promoted to head designer in 1967 and she continued with them for four more years, after which she left the commercial world to begin her disparate "artistic" practices. In 1981, Kruger established the visual style that has served her well ever since: "pronoun-heavy phrases in blocky letters (Futura bold italic) silhouetted against a solid-color strip (usually red), with a powerful, high-contrast, black-and-white photo behind them (Rubenstein 1)." Out of this style, we are given the wonderfully humorous yet scathing phrases like: "it's a small world, but not if you have to clean it," "when i hear the word culture, i take out my checkbook," and "i shop therefore i am."

Though it is generally (and reasonably) regarded that her slick style is taken from her extensive experience in graphics and advertising, this only accounts for part of the formal presence of much of her mature work. The other half deals with issues of scale, placement-- issues that could naturally be bound together under the heading spatial or 'architectural.' She says herself: "Architecture is my first love, if you want to talk about what moves me-- the ordering of space, the visual pleasure, architecture's power to construct our days and nights... This stuff really means a lot to me (Goodeve 96)."
Even from her earliest works, architectural experience is important to Kruger. An early series called Picture/Readings consisted of a series of diptychs and constitutes her first words/pictures piece. On one side, a photo of a house. On the other, text. Kruger says, "Picture/Readings was an early indicator of my interest in exterior and interior spaces and how they form us as much as we form them (Tillman 189)."

Next we move to a couple of specifically architectural projects, most notably Imperfect Utopia, a large-scale collaborative installation begun in 1989 for the North Carolina Museum of Art. Consisting of the phrase "Picture This" carved, planted and otherwise marked in the landscape and equipped/made practical with seating and projection facilities, the installation is described by the artist to "loiter around the ideas of history, culture, race power and so on (Goodeve 95)." The piece is a bizarre fusion of architecture, landscape design and graphic design on a monumental scale. The site is marked in this case with forms that resolve themselves, yet only from a distance, into text. 'Is the land a billboard?' and 'What role should words play in architecture?' seem to be some of the issues raised, in addition to the more 'content' related themes of history, race, etc. Another outdoor installation, Unoccupied Territory, was a 1989 proposal for Los Angeles Park along the same lines.

From there, Kruger moved inside to present a series of large-scale installations at a variety of galleries in New York and Europe. Kruger characterizes her installation works from this period as "a particular type of visual arrangement; a way to activate space. If, in fact, we live in a designed universe, then the visual organization of space is always at work in some way (Tillman 190)." The universe that she designs in the gallery is all-encompassing, her messages of political and social critique are inescapable, transmitted in the photographs and text the constitute the walls, floors and ceilings of the galleries.

Characterized as a "literalization of the experience of being shouted at (Frankel 1)", the 1997 installation Power/Pleasure/Desire/Disgust uses text "[to] surpass the limitations of wall and floor space (Relyea 2)," in a move even more spatially attuned than Kruger's earlier gallery installations. In this piece, the entirety of the viewer's experience of the physical space is defined by constantly changing, projected 'walls.' She has taken the (slightly) more passive billboard-type delivery of earlier projects and made the assault on the viewer kinetic. Adding to the movement of text, the installation includes three 'tunnels' at the end of the gallery featuring video that shows a "personalized account of the uphill battle to express personality within a society bound by alienated exchange," according to Relyea, "suggesting the intimacy of face-to-face dialogue, but the suggestion remains frustrated by the rapid-fire channel surfing (2)."

Whereas something like Power/Pleasure/Desire/Disgust brings the noisy, jumbled, overwhelming quality of fragmented images from the urban experience indoors, Kruger also takes her art outdoors, using transit stations, subways, billboards and buildings to install works.

There is a wonderful exchange between Kruger and interviewer W.J.T. Mitchell in which she discusses the significance of one installation of We Don't Need Another Hero on a billboard on Los Angeles:

Mitchell: ...it said 'A Foster and Kleiser Public Service Message' along the bottom of it. Did you have control over that text?
Kruger: Oh, no, they just had that on the billboard... And I was so happy that is was there, because it in fact puts these words in the mouths of this corporate group which i s great!
Mitchell: Yes. 'This is a public service message. This is not something that comes from the art world.'
Kruger: But it really isn't something that comes from the art world because I don't feel l like I'm something that comes exclusively from the art world (304).

Who doesn't need another hero? The people at Foster and Kleiser? The girl in the photo? Us? The political message in this work is fairly clear (tyranny of the patriarchy), but what makes it outstanding is its placement in the public sphere. Her work makes us aware of our place in this sphere and defines each person who looks at it as 'the public.'

In an installation that is still up, the photomontage It's a Small World, but Not if You Have to Clean It, is hung on the side of a building on the "new 42nd " street block in New York. The piece is entertaining enough in a gallery, but blown up to 15 or 20 stories, the piece takes an extremely ironic tone. Additionally, the specific installation of the work on the newly renovated section of 42nd street makes a sly comment on Guiliani's 'urban renewal' efforts and perhaps even an anti-commercial jibe.

On the other hand, however, the diversity that makes Kruger great may come back to undermine her own goals. Lane Relyea comments on Kruger's foray into mass-market merchandise in the context of her recent retrospective:

That artist is now just one of several occupations notched on Kruger's resume... is a fact MOCA has bravely tried to own up to, even though doing so has led to some pretty absurd curatorial moves. For example, standing in one pristine gallery is a Plexiglas vitrine safeguarding a tastefully arrayed sampling of Kruger-designed coffee mugs, notepads, and umbrellas, the very same merchandise stocked in bulk and available for purchase in the museum's gift shop downstairs...(2)

In many of the works we have examined, Kruger's sensitivity to spatial context richly enhances and animates the presentation of what would otherwise end up a stoic, static object on a gallery wall. We have seen that by her careful placement and bold style, the spaces in which she works are manipulated, activated. She has taken the spatial turn.


Deutsche, Rosalyn. 2000. "Breaking Ground: Barbara Kruger's Spatial Practice," in Goldstein, Ann (see below).

Goodeve, Thyrza Nicholas. 1997. "The Art of Public Address," Art in America, November, 93-99.

Frankel, David. 1998. "Barbara Kruger (Mary Boone Gallery, New York)," Artforum, February, available at http://www.findarticles.com/cf_0/m0268/n6_v36/20544490/p1/article. jhtml?term=%22barbara+kruger%22

Kruger, Barbara and [organized by] Goldstein, Ann. 1999. Barbara Kruger. MOCA, Los Angeles, distributed by MIT Press.

Kruger, Barbara and Linker, Kate [text]. 1990. Love for Sale: The Words and Pictures of Barbara Kruger. New York: Abrams.

Mitchell, W.J.T. 1991. "An Interview with Barbara Kruger." Critical Inquiry, Winter, 434-48. Reprinted in Joan B. Landes, ed., Feminism: The Public and the Private. Oxford and London: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Relyea, Lane. 2001. "Barbara Kruger: MOCA." Artforum. February ,1-2 [page numbers from website], available from: http://www.findarticles.com/cf_0/m0268/6_38/59923233/p1/article.jh tml?term=%22lane+relyea%22

Rubernstein, Raphael. 2001"Barbara Kruger at the Whitney Museum." Art in America, March, n.p., available from: http://www.findarticles.com/cf_0/m1248/3_89/71558215/p1/article.jh tml?term=rubenstein+and+kruger

"Talk Like Us - Barbara Kruger." available from http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/Cafe/9747/who.html

Tillman, Lynne. 2000. "Interview with Barbara Kruger." in Goldstein, Ann (see above).

Traditional Fine Art Online. 2000. "Barbara Kruger." available from http://www.tfaoi.com/aa/1aa/1aa667.htm