Known for her provocative phrases of incisive social and psychological observations, American artist Jenny Holzer has captivated international audiences with her text-based works for more than three decades. Born in 1950 in Gallipolis, Ohio, she currently lives and works in Hoosick, N.Y. She studied at Duke University and the University of Chicago before completing her B.F.A. at Ohio University in 1972 and her M.F.A. at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1977. Holzer subsequently moved to New York City, where she entered the Independent Study Program at the Whitney Museum of American Art and began using language exclusively in her art.
Using a variety of voices, biases, and beliefs, Holzer’s messages typically express ideas that question the ideologies of mass culture. Her texts evolved from a list of aphoristic statements gleaned from assigned texts and classroom discussions, and they later became known as Truisms (1977–79). “Discard objects,” “Bad intentions can yield good results,” and “Romantic love was invented to manipulate women,” among other declarations, have been displayed and published via a range of media in various, often surprising, ways. The “truisms” are usually on LED signs and monumental xenon light projections, but they have also appeared on t-shirts, billboards, condoms, phone booths, picnic tables, sarcophagi, and banners attached to a squadron of planes.
The earliest works were broadsheets posted throughout Manhattan. Although Holzer prefers to be anonymous by featuring disembodied texts in generic yet bold fonts, she gained notoriety for her agitprop street art in 1982 when Truisms were displayed on the enormous Spectacolor board in Times Square. Following this first appropriation of electronic signage, Holzer began to deploy mass communication technologies to defy notions of how, when, and where art should be shown, and especially to whom. She co-opted advertising and communication strategies and presented carefully orchestrated flowing texts in LED signs.
After becoming the first woman to represent the United States in the Venice Biennale (1990)—an exhibition that won the Golden Lion Award for best pavilion—Holzer began to deeply engage with issues of violence and trauma, subject matter that remains of interest to her today. In Lustmord (1993–95), she dealt with genocidal rape in Bosnia, and in Redaction Paintings (2008), she reproduced declassified memos from political prisoners that describe military abuses. During the late 1990s, Holzer produced the first of many monumental projections in which she illuminated poetry and prose onto various landmark buildings and natural landscapes, including the Arno riverbank in Florence and the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, as well as a ski jump in Lillehammer and ocean waves in Rio de Janeiro. In 2001, after a long period of focusing on ghastly and thorny subjects, she stopped writing her own texts. To continue to address war, disease, power, violence, and oppression, she began quoting texts by celebrated writers and public figures. In For the City (2005), for instance, she projected poems by Henri Cole, Mahmoud Darwish, Wislawa Szymborska, and others onto the exterior of Rockefeller Center. In contrast to the ephemeral, fleeting nature of LED signs and illuminations, Holzer later inscribed granite benches and bronze plaques to convey authority and establish permanence. These static presentations seem to be departures; however, they retain an aspect of surprise typical of Holzer’s art in the unexpected placements of text. Via media that is regularly consumed in daily life and typically viewed with casual indifference, these and other works by Holzer subtly access and disarm the average passerby. By inserting the unexpected into the routine, she exploits the power of the media to reach an expanded audience outside the context of museums, and critiques its role in the dissemination of the ideologies that her words displace.
Televised Texts (1990) exemplifies these guerrilla tactics. Originally presented as 10 to 15 second television spots intermittently slipped in between regular programming, Televised effectively brought a selection of Holzer’s pithy, ironic, and often disturbing truisms into people’s homes. Following broadcast signals and static, an impassive baritone voice recited Holzer’s dictums, which flashed in capital letters across, into, and out of a black background. The kamikaze-style texts were designed to provoke thought and disrupt passive viewership. “Murder has its sexual side” and “It’s a gift to the world not to have babies,” among other maxims, appeared and disappeared quickly to reinforce a sense of assault upon the viewer. Nonetheless, the varying and sometimes contradictory sentiments refused to homogenize viewers. The work represents the vagaries of the public and counters the formulaic marketing strategies used by advertisers and producers. Despite and because of the usual mass-media degradation, Holzer’s Televised Texts subversively inserts some (possible) truths. —Kanitra Fletcher