Words matter and Barbara Kruger has been making the point for more than 40 years. She does it with red-lettered phrases taken from popular culture superimposed on black and white photos taken from popular magazines. If you’re a Kruger fan, you’re not going to like this.

Personal best

Probably her best-known work is a photo of a woman's face split down the middle - one half-developed film and the other a negative - overlaid with the caption: “Your Body Is A Battleground.” The “body” in feminist parlance is the combat zone for reproductive rights.

But if we step away from feminism (which Kruger seldom does) and see a larger picture, “Your Body Is A Battleground” could also be the dual drives warring in all of us between the good and the not so good.

Her focus on feminist issues makes any other interpretation beside the point.

The Art Institute of Chicago is currently offering a comprehensive look at Kruger’s work with the show title “Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.” According to Leticia Pardo, Creative Director of the Art Institute, Kruger’s show is “unique” because it’s so “expansive.”

But when you’re talking about work that’s been around and around and around mostly about the same things – feminism and consumerism - the word “unique” doesn’t fit. Maybe it’s Kruger’s annoyingly quirky show title that has me thinking fondly of her fellow text-artist, Jenny Holzer who talks straighter, tougher about wider subjects, and without pictures.

Au contraire

Art historian Nancy G. Heller sees Kruger’s work differently. In her 1987 book Women Artists, she said that her text-art makes “inflammatory statements about America’s social and political realities. I’m not seeing that. “I Hate Myself, “You Are Not Yourself,” and “Just Be Yourself” sound more like lines in a therapy session in the TV series “In Treatment.”

That goes double for her exhibit title “Thinking of You.

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I Mean Me. I Mean You.” (By the way, with a show of hands, how many think the shrink Paul Weston should have stayed in therapy?)

Unlike Holzer, there’s seldom a larger picture, a world view with Kruger. Even when Holzer addresses feminism in her text-art, she gives a wide focus. Her “Lustmord” series (that’s German for sex murder), refers to the Bosnia War where women were systematically raped and killed.

Heller acknowledged that Holzer makes “provocative statements” that are “impossible to ignore.”

In the 1990 book Women, Art and Society art historian Whitney Chadwick lists the variety of concerns in Holzer’s “provocative statements: “aging, pain, death, anger, fear, violence, politics.” Feminism, too, but it’s not predominant.

Word power

Something Holzer told The Guardian in 2018 during the Trump presidency suggests how her realities turn into text-art: “I’m aghast, scared and disgusted” became “Abuse of power comes as no surprise.”

One of Holzer’s most “provocative statements” could be what she wrote in 1982 under the title “Inflammatory Essays,” which she taped onto lampposts, walls, and construction sites: “It will be demonstrated that nothing is safe, sacred or sane.” That sounds like something written today, not 40 years ago. As if she were a seer, she prophesized the mess we’re in now.

Meanwhile, Kruger gives us “A Corpse Is Not A Customer,” “I Shop Therefore I Am,” and “Are We Having Fun Yet?”