Jenny Holzer is my favorite artist because she combines writing with art-making, private thoughts with public space, and provocation with sincerity and compassion. Her works affect me in a way that purely art, literature or poetry cannot – it’s the haphazard combination of words, environment, and circumstance that makes her work so special to its viewers.
Jenny Holzer’s art takes many forms, appearing on anything from posters, benches, billboards, condoms and race cars, to huge projections and large scale museum installations. But the main focus of her work is always just a simple line of text – an aphorism, saying, idea – or as she calls it, a “Truism”.
Some lines by Holzer include:
SELF AWARENESS CAN BE CRIPPLING.
LACK OF CHARISMA CAN BE FATAL.
ROMANTIC LOVE WAS INVENTED TO MANIPULATE WOMEN.
YOU ARE A VICTIM OF THE RULES YOU LIVE BY.
MEN CAN’T PROTECT YOU ANYMORE.
Just reading these statements produces a visceral instinct from within: identification, disgust, paranoia. Now imagine stumbling across that line plastered all over an anonymous wall. Projected in huge letters onto a building across the street. Or on a giant billboard in Times Square.￼
Holzer’s first major (and arguably, most famous) series of work is Truisms, where she wrote hundreds of one liners and scattered them all over New York City. She conducted the series from 1977 – 79, before she was a recognized artist with huge art grants and funds and things. In Truisms, Holzer printed anonymous sheets of text and wheat-pasted them to buildings, walls, and fences. She printed her Truisms onto t-shirts, stickers, and carved them into public benches. Very few photographs of the original works exist anymore, although a full list of the writings can be viewed here (http://www.cs.utexas.edu/~field/holzer/truisms.txt), and have since been reused in many of her later works.
My favorite thing about Truisms is how raw and unplanned it all seemed to be. Now, people go deliberately to see Holzer’s installations. Her work’s been analyzed and canonized, I’d read all her texts and seen photos of her work before ever experiencing it in the flesh.
But imagine the shock and surprise of seeing art like this for the very first time in the late 70‘s. Some people who saw it probably didn’t even recognize it as art, they just read the text, felt something deep inside of them stir, and knew it had to do with the pain, sadness, happiness and fear within all of us. The romantic in me always imagines someone going home from work and stopping by one of Holzer’s posters. They read it closely and love it, continue on with their lives with that one phrase stuck in their minds, but never hear of the artist Jenny Holzer again.
￼Other works by Holzer include Inflammatory Essays (1979-82), where she brought texts inspired by Emma Goldman, Rosa Luxemberg, Hitler, and Mao onto the streets. The Living series (1980-82) was shown on bronze plaques and hand-lettered signs, a contrast from her previous underground posters. And the Survival series (1983-85) marked the biggest change of Holzer’s work, as she progressed into using public LED screens and billboards, gaining a much larger audience for her work.
Holzer has also written words on literal skin and bones in Lustmord (the German word for “lust-killing”), lifted text from torture documents from the Iraq War, and explored subjects as diverse as AIDS, war, and motherhood. She’s had entire museum shows made up of flashing LED signs, and once, she wrapped up the rotunda of the NY Guggenheim to look like a flashing, circular billboard. Her latest works are light projections onto buildings, which transform and envelope public spaces into gigantic pieces of art.￼
Holzer is incredibly prolific, and her infiltration from the streets to galleries and museums has also found its way onto the internet. With Twitter, Tumblr, and our culture of reblogging one pithy one liner after another, Holzer’s Truisms have never been more relevant or meme-esque.
In fact, Holzer had been getting on on Web 2.0 before it even existed – her collaboration with the website adaweb, entitled Please Change Beliefs, began in 1995. It invites users to rewrite Holzer’s aphorisms, and add their own Truisms to hers. By 1998, over 10000 new truisms were posted onto the site.
There’s also been a whole slew of Twitter feeds inspired by her writings, including parodies such as “Jenny Holzer, Mom”, “Jenny Holzer, Cat“, fan-written aphorisms “Fake Jenny Holzer” and “Also Jenny Holzer”, and impostors of Jenny Holzer herself.
Some choice quotes from these Holzer-inspired Twitters include:
ANGER OR HATE CAN BE A USEFUL MOTIVATING FORCE BUT CAT TREATS TASTE BETTER.
REAL UNFETTERED FREEDOM CAN CRIPPLE YOU SO WEAR YOUR SEATBELT.
RESPECT MUST BE EARNED AND PUSHING YOU THROUGH A BIRTH CANAL COUNTS AS EARNING IT.
Although much of her art is site-specific, works by Holzer can be found everywhere. I once spent a month at Barnard College before finding a bench on campus that was engraved with her line STUPID PEOPLE SHOULDN’T BREED. I don’t know if anyone’s actually found (and used) a Jenny Holzer condom.
But what’s great about Jenny Holzer’s art is that it’s also easy to make it your own – for months, I had this line taped across the top of my computer monitor:
IT IS IN YOUR SELF-INTEREST TO FIND A WAY TO BE VERY TENDER.