Since​ 1977 Barbara Kruger has explored the relationship between politics and power in text and image-based works that surprise, exhort, instruct, plead, insist, cajole and otherwise boss us about. In addition to her familiar wall-mounted billboards and projections on show at the current Serpentine retrospective (until 17 March), sound installations dotted about the gallery repeat stock phrases such as ‘Your call has been forwarded.’ ‘Take care of yourself’ can be heard in the loos. A cheery ‘hello’ runs on loop. It seems welcoming at first, but quickly starts to grate.

The famous pieces on display include untitled works with the slogans ‘Your body is a battleground’ and ‘Who owns what?’ pasted over generic black and white images. The most overtly feminist messages tend to be pasted over images of demure 1950s housewives. Kruger’s preferred fonts are Futura Bold and Helvetica Ultra Compressed, printed in a combination of black, white and red. Her work takes on questions of class and gender, and the ways each is shaped by capital and consumerism. She understands the power of the media and advertising, which helps these works avoid seeming too preachy.

Untitled (I shop therefore I am) from 1987 began life as a lithographic silkscreen on vinyl. It shows a hand clasping a red sign, stamped with the title phrase in white on red lettering, a format that is reproduced on the wallpaper which covers the room at the Serpentine. Transformed into a giant digital video, the phrase ‘I shop therefore I am’ becomes a jigsaw puzzle that shatters and reforms on repeat. Each time it reappears the words are jumbled and adapted, Kruger’s appropriated cliché turning into other, more compelling statements: ‘I shop therefore I hoard’; ‘I need therefore I shop’; ‘I love therefore I need’; ‘I sext therefore I am.’ In the three-channel remake of Pledge, Will, Vow (1988/2020), the text of the US Pledge of Allegiance tracks across the screens, as though typed in real time. Every now and then the typing falters and individual words are deleted and replaced. ‘Adoration’ becomes ‘Anxiety’; ‘Republic’ becomes ‘Resentment’. One video recreates the process of making a piece for Artforum in 2016. The editors asked Kruger and other artists to respond to a brief about identity politics; Kruger countered by editing the brief. In the video, the copy quickly becomes saturated with comments and queries. Like the best of Kruger’s work, it is witty both in form and sentiment. A paragraph with the phrase ‘identity is back’ appears circled in red pen, with an editorial comment from Kruger: ‘When and where did it go?’

Kruger was born in Newark in 1945 to a working-class family and spent only a year at art college. Her tutor at Parsons School of Design, Diane Arbus, told her she spoke like Dorothy Parker and suggested she become a writer instead. Kruger didn’t exactly take Arbus’s advice, but it left its mark. By 1969 she was working as a freelance picture editor and graphic designer for House and Garden and Aperture, after a stint as head designer at Mademoiselle. During the 1970s and 1980s she taught, wrote and made art, including textile-based work and abstract assemblage paintings. By the end of the 1970s she was involved in the post-punk no wave music scene and more or less lived at the Mudd Club in New York. Criticism and gender theory began to make their way into her work.

In the 1980s Kruger was associated with the Pictures Generation of artists, named after the influential exhibition at Artists Space in New York in 1977. Its members, who included Sherry Levine and Cindy Sherman, were united not by a shared aesthetic so much as shared politics. Citation, reframing and appropriation were strategies common to their critiques of media culture. Kruger drew on her design skills to establish her now familiar style, mimicking the codes and customs of commercial advertising and political sloganeering, and repurposing them to her own ends. ‘Your gaze hits the side of my face’ runs the length of a photograph of a classical statue in profile. You don’t need a lesson in the male gaze to grasp the power dynamics in play.

‘Replay’ is Kruger’s term for her reworkings of the early iconic screen prints, transferred from their original formats to free-standing LED video screens. In one, a black and white photograph of a ventriloquist’s dummy is overlaid with the words ‘Our leader’, serving just as well for Trump in 2020 as it did for Reagan in 1987. The words ‘Admit Nothing/Blame Everyone/Be Bitter’ span an image of two male hands about to shake in agreement over a map. This is the Kruger blueprint: levity shot through with something altogether darker.

A series of collaged boards mounted on the walls resemble double-page spreads from a Barbara Kruger fanzine – which, in a way, they are. In recent years, Kruger has trawled the web for images that imitate her style; she then collages them together, chaotically overlaid, and juxtaposed. Photographs and digital appropriations appear emblazoned with Kruger-esque tag lines and polemical statements: ‘I want to look like you’; ‘Buy me’; ‘You’ve not won yet’ and ‘We were never meant to have your children.’ In an uncanny mise en abyme of influence and appropriation, Kruger includes magazine covers and commercial images that have reappropriated her work, as if repaying her debt to them. Aside from the informal adoption of her style online, Kruger’s work – in both licensed and unlicensed forms – has appeared on everything from tote bags and T-shirts to beach towels, kitchen stools and subway cards. Instead of sending in the lawyers, Kruger gets on board, though sometimes I wish she wouldn’t. There’s an invitation on the Serpentine’s website to make your own ‘Barbara Kruger’ via TikTok, using a special effect she has created for the show. Kruger has always displayed her work in public spaces: hoardings, billboards, skate parks. For the duration of the Serpentine show, three black cabs will drive around plastered in Kruger’s texts, and a digital installation, Silent Writings (2009/2024), is appearing on wraparound public screens in Central London.

The three-channel video installation Untitled (No comment) is a fast-paced compilation of clips culled from the web – a love song to the internet, to doom scrolling, to our truncated attention spans. Found selfies and blurred images, short clips of gymnasts, GPS maps, memes, ads, snips of pop music and hairstyle tutorials are interspersed with scrolling text. There are cats – lots of cats. Animated wise-talking cats, sweet cats, naughty cats, cats in toilet bowls (it’s a thing). The accompanying text is a mixture of direct questions and floating quotations, from authorities as diverse as Voltaire and Kendrick Lamar. The soundtrack contains snatches of contemporary speech, all vocal fry and upspeak, which draw attention to the textures of our speech, not just what we say.

One side of the gallery has been transformed into an immersive environment. The walls and floor are covered in black and white text of varying sizes (a bit like the prologue to Star Wars). A quote from Nineteen Eighty-Four is pasted on the floor. One wall has lines by Virginia Woolf. On the back wall, the text morphs as though seen through a magnifying glass; a giant ‘YOU’ is placed at the centre – the perfect spot for a selfie. It could all be a bit naff, or overbearing, but Kruger knows this. She’s neither bully nor bore.

Kruger’s style has remained consistent for almost forty years. Untitled (Your body is a battleground), Kruger’s most famous work, shows a black and white photograph of a woman’s face, split vertically down the middle, the right-hand side the negative of the left. The words of the title are stamped across it. The piece was originally designed as a flyer for a pro-choice rally in Washington DC in 1989. The current digital version is not the first time the work has been ‘replayed’. It has been repurposed many times in the intervening years, translated into different languages and carried as a banner in political protests. It has accrued something with age and repetition, an accumulated frustration, an unhappy sense of déjà vu.

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