Barbara Kruger: Slogans that shake society

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Barbara Kruger's subversive one-liners often satirise the institutions in which they are displayed. As an exhibition opens in London, she tells Caroline Roux why she's not afraid to bite the hand that feeds her

Barbara Kruger, the American artist famous for her bold black, oblique type slogans (not least, "I shop therefore I am") is very hot.

She's just walked from the Victoria and Albert Museum to the café near Victoria station, where we are meeting. The sun is shining and she's wearing a charcoal-grey cashmere sweater. "It's quite a walk, right?" she says, fanning herself and ordering a mineral water and a cappuccino. "But I love walking here. And I got my Oyster card. Yesterday, I mostly took the Tube."

Kruger is also nervous. Just around the corner, her latest work, a multi-screen video piece called The Globe Shrinks, is being installed in a former Post Office sorting station – a big rugged space that her gallery, Sprüth Magers, has taken over just for this show. The piece has already been seen in Berlin and New York, where David Frankel, writing in Art Forum, said: "She's as in your face as ever, maybe more so" and gave it the thumbs up. But London is a different matter. "The culture here is very judgmental in a particular way," says Kruger. "Been there, done that, seen that. There's more of a half-life for artists and their work. This is such an incredibly trend-driven, fashion-driven city."

Kruger is still at pains to describe herself as a tourist, but she's been coming to London for years. It was the location for her first institutional show, when Iwona Blazwick, now director of the Whitechapel Gallery, decided to exhibit her work at the ICA in 1983. "When I first came, London was a very unglitzy place," she says. "Now it's the most expensive city in the Western world – and I don't mean the West End, I mean the whole city. It's hard for me to understand how working-class people support themselves."

Barbara Kruger isn't just paying lip service to the working class in the manner of certain politically engaged artists of her generation. It's where she comes from, born in 1945 in Newark, New Jersey to a legal secretary and a chemical technician who worked for Shell. She was good at drawing, so on leaving school, she went to Syracuse University for a year to study art. "I didn't know what I was doing. It was a foundation, that's all. Then I left and went to Parsons for a year, and that was sort of it. I have no degrees myself," she says.

Somehow her lack of education has made her passionate about delivering it and, though nearing 70, she still teaches at UCLA, living between a house and studio in Beechwood Canyon, Los Angeles, and a rented loft in New York's Tribeca. "Teaching at university isn't like teaching in an art school," she says. "It's a state-subsidised university – in a state that's bankrupt. And yet the Californian system is so great. I had 12 teaching class hours a week last quarter. It's not like in Europe where you come in with a beret on once every three months and say, "Make that green". We have government civil-service jobs and I love it. For many of the students, it's the first generation that's gone to college, and it's a fabulous opportunity for them. They don't pay $45,000 a year to go to art school. The parents could never afford that."

The "we" in Kruger's department includes other celebrated artists, such as Charles Ray and Catherine Opie. The kids, she says, rarely have a clue who their teachers are in illustrious artist terms, not even Barbara, the most famous of them all.

Her renown is tied in to the immediacy of her work, particularly the found black and white photography from mid-century magazines that she slathered with slogans in oblique Futura bold type, dealing with conformity, love, consumerism, the female condition, the problems of co-existence and more ("Think like us, Look like us"; "Your body is a battleground"; "Love for sale").

Her enduring proximity to popular culture – she still designs the odd magazine cover (most recently for W magazine in the US and Wallpaper in the UK), watches reality TV ("I see you have this British version of Jersey Shore that's something about Essex..."), and thrives on websites – perhaps explains why her work remains accessible and current.

She started making art in the late 1970s, after 12 years working on magazines, first as a designer at Mademoiselle, then as a picture editor at House and Gardens. (Diane Arbus, who taught her at Parsons, reocognised shades of Dorothy Parker in young Barbara and advised her to write.) After years of immersion in an industry promoting perfection and behavourial norms, Kruger decided to question them. Success was swift, though along with her peers – including Cindy Sherman, Louise Lawler, Ross Bleckner and Julian Schnabel – she never thought she'd make any money.

"My first dealer was Larry Gagosian. I did two shows with him out in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. I was the first woman he took on. We always got along, still do. It didn't surprise me that he became so big. Larry had a great eye and he was ambitious. I know he's a complicated guy, we all are, but I have a lot of affection for him," she says. "In 1983, you started to feel things percolating in the art market and I decided to address that in my work. I did a show with Annina Nosei [the New York gallerist] more focused on the commodity status of the art object: the ones that said "Buy me, I'll change your life". Those shows sold out in like two days. But I didn't have a pot to piss in." (In 2004, an original "I shop therefore I am" serigraph sold at Philips de Pury for $600,000, though Kruger herself never saw much profit from those early labours).

Kruger, like her contemporaries, has always refused to be defined by one medium (Schnabel has done everything from painting to ceramics to film-directing and interior decorating). She has printed her work on tote bags and billboards and created immersive videos since the early 1990s, working with multi-screens in architectural spaces because, she says, architecture is really her first love. The latest video installation – short scenes, played out on four huge screens, that include white male comics making light of human intolerance, depictions of the main world religions at their most ritualistic, and a smug director patronising his actress – questions everything from our relationship with technology to reality TV. Twice the viewer is plunged into darkness, captured in the space and unable to avoid a soliloquy of loss. The show is named after a quote by the post-colonialist critical theorist, Homi K Bhabha, now a professor at Harvard: "The globe shrinks for those that own it".

"I try to make work about how we are to one another," says Kruger. It is her mantra: you won't find an interview where she doesn't say this. "But I really resist categories – that naming is a closing down of meaning. Women's art, political art – those categorisations perpetuate a certain kind of marginality which I'm resistant to. But I absolutely define myself as a feminist." A self-confessed news junkie, she is currently thrilled by the role women have taken in the protests in Yemen, which she has watched nightly online on Al Jazeera.

Unafraid to question, if not nibble at, the hand that feeds her, in a three-year collaboration with Selfridges in the 2000s, her slogans, including "Buy me, I'll change your life" appeared in the aisles, directly critiquing the experience the store is offering. In the Hamptons last summer, the playground of just the sort of people who may well buy her work, she decorated the walls of the Guild Hall Museum with observations that included, "You want it, you need it, you buy it, you forget it". While currently in a group show at the Kunsthaus in Bregenz, Austria, she's taking a pop at the many designers and artists who have appropriated her own distinctive style, by creating Kruger-esque work of their own.

She has covered an entire wall with 550 examples that at best are homages and at worst bad copies. Yet since her own work is in her view a reflection of the outside world, she sees this as a dialogue and isn't weeping over copyright issues. "Wouldn't it be ironic if a so-called appropriation artist started complaining that she'd been ripped off. Forget it! I would never do that," she says, and heads round the corner – to worry about the lives of Londoners, and to tweak her screens.

Barbara Kruger: The Globe Shrinks, presented by Sprüth Magers (www.spruethmagers.com) at 10-12 Francis Street, London SW1 to 21 May

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