‘The Availability of My Work Is Important to Me’: Watch How Barbara Kruger Coopts the Language of Advertising to Reach to Audiences Beyond the Art World

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Barbara Kruger at the Guild Hall Summer Gala in 2010. (Photo by ADRIEL REBOH/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
Barbara Kruger at the Guild Hall Summer Gala in 2010. Photo by ADRIEL REBOH/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images.

As a young girl growing up in New Jersey, Barbara Kruger found art confusing and galleries intimidating. As she later went on to become an artist herself, “the availability of my work was important to me,” she said in an exclusive interview with Art21 reflecting on her career path, “because I was that viewer who didn’t understand… didn’t know the codes.”

After stints as a telephone operator and a billing clerk, and after studying at Parsons School of Design, Kruger landed a job at Condé Nast as an entry-level designer, where she found herself immersed in the language and codes of advertising. Soon, she say, “I realized I could use the fluencies as a designer to make my work,” opting for sans serif fonts and stark color combinations to capture the attention of viewers.

Speaking to Art21, Kruger explained that when she began garnering a reputation alongside other artists in the early 1980s, “our work was about being part of the discourse.” In many ways, it still is: “issues about power, value, unfortunately do not grow old,” she said.

Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Barbara Kruger: Part of the Discourse." © Art21, Inc. 2018.

Production still from the Art21 “Extended Play” film, “Barbara Kruger: Part of the Discourse.” © Art21, Inc. 2018.

By using the familiar design of advertising and commercialism, her works are both accessible and provocative with images and text echoing ads seen on billboards and in magazines. “Something to think about,” she says, “is what makes us who we are in the world that we live in, and how culture constructs and contains us.”

In 2017, as part of a commission for Performa, she transformed a Lower East Side skatepark into an art gallery, plastered with massive text-based works that assaulted passersby with fire engine red and white graphics that read, among other things, “Money talks” and “Whose values?”

She created he work, titled My body is a battleground, to draw attention to a march for women’s reproductive rights, she says. “These are just ideas in the air and questions that we ask sometimes—and questions that we don’t ask but should.” 

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s series Extended Play, below.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.


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