American Conceptual Artist
Summary of Jenny Holzer
The text-based art of Jenny Holzer appears in places one wouldn't expect to find it. On t-shirts, billboards, parking meters and LED signs (Holzer's signature medium), her stark one-liners call attention to social injustice and shed light on dark corners of the human psyche. "PRIVATE PROPERTY CREATED CRIME," "ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE," and "PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT" are intended to generate debate and make us think critically. A political activist as well as an artist, Holzer's aim is to disrupt the passive reception of information from damaging sources. As her reputation has grown, so has the ambition and scope of her work, which has traveled to public spaces in much of the world. In her profound skepticism toward power, Holzer joins the ranks of anti-authoritarians in art from the birth of modernism (which is itself a rebellion against tradition) through the 21st century.
- Both message and medium are equally important in Holzer's work. Her iconic LED signs use the same technology that transmits dates, speeds, temperatures and other impersonal information in public places. This allows her to launch a sneak attack on the urban environment, short-circuiting the system when, in place of the impersonal signage we expect to encounter, we find private, personal, or politically sensitive information.
- While usually discussed in the context of video art and electronic media, Holzer's practice is deeply rooted in several earlier art movements. Her interest in the language of advertising aligns her with Pop art. Her light-based text owes a direct debt to Minimalists Dan Flavin and Donald Judd. Finally, the site-specificity of her work aligns her with Land Art (Earthworks). Just as Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty is a part of the Great Salt Lake, Holzer's LED signs are part of the urban landscape.
- Keenly aware of audience, Holzer always calibrates her work to the situation and has a surprising range. She can be flashy, as in her 1989 installation at the Guggenheim Museum that transformed the high modernist architecture into a dazzling electronic arcade, or blend in so as to be almost unnoticeable, like her installations in Times Square.
- On the basis of its high cost and the challenge it might present to an inexperienced viewer of Conceptual art, Holzer's work was once criticized as elitist. More recently, it has become clear that her life-long commitment to displaying her work in public reflects an egalitarian ambition to reach the broadest cross-section of humanity.
- A pioneer in using public art as social intervention, she was one of the first artists to use information technology as a platform for political protest. Her success has encouraged a generation of artists to build public platforms, in cyberspace and real space, for sharing political views.
Biography of Jenny Holzer
Jenny Holzer was born in Gallipolis, Ohio, at the coincidentally named Holzer Hospital. Her father was a car salesman, and her mother had a passion for horses and riding that she shared with her daughter. Holzer was interested in art from a young age, but suppressed this interest during her adolescence, commenting, "I drew madly and happily until I was five or six years old, but in my teenage years I tried to become normal."
Important Art by Jenny Holzer
In the Living Series, Holzer used bronze plaques, the sort on which names of donors, historical dates and other information are typically inscribed. Instead of institutional signage, however, Holzer's plaques address the viewer directly. Enigmatic, often inconclusive phrases address the necessities of life: eating, breathing, sleeping, human relationships, and daily anxieties. Even in a gallery, this work blends into the environment, rather than standing out. When we do read the text, it is inconclusive, articulating a train of thought that may strike us as humorous, or anxiety provoking, depending on the day and the viewer, but which ultimately leaves us hanging. In the Living Series, she claimed her aim was "to have the look of a voice of authority, of the establishment" while remaining anonymous. Here, at an early moment in Holzer's career, we see the germ of an idea that would carry her career forward: the notion of blurring the boundary between public and private, and making us want to know more about the source of authority that displays written information.
LED technology was relatively new in the early 1980s. Signboards were capable of displaying blocky letters in varying fonts, colors, and simple graphics. At first glance, this piece could easily be mistaken for an electronic signboard transmitting public announcements, instructions, or advertisements. Its fifty-four statements and messages spin through a single LED sign, ranging from humorous to disturbing, and communicating private thoughts many of which are inappropriate in polite conversation. One includes a computerized Spectacolor graphic of a woman's face alongside the words, "What urge will save us now that sex won't?" Other statements draw attention to social injustices such as sexism and homelessness. Some issue direct commands to viewers. The point of the work and its value as art forces us to question our relationship with the technology we often take for granted.
Among the most visually striking of Holzer's works, her installation at the Guggenheim in 1989 contained blinking messages from her various series, spiraling down the interior ramp of the famous building. The messages drew from a variety of voices, perspectives, beliefs, and biases, prompting viewers to choose which messages to agree with or discard, highlighting that truth is relative, not absolute. Whereas in other contexts Holzer's signs were about blending in, in the context of the Guggenheim it was about clashing with the austere formalism of the famous 20th-century spiral building. Roberta Smith of the New York Times called it "a vast darkened cave with glowing embers at its center." In bringing her art from the street to the museum space, Holzer understood she was shifting her focus to a more narrow audience, one that was presumably already familiar with conceptual art. By flooding this hallowed space with technology not normally considered art, Holzer pushed the everyday into confrontation with the eternal.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Jenny Holzer
- Jenny HolzerOur PickBy Jenny Holzer, David Joselit, and Joan Simon
- Jenny Holzer: Truth Before PowerBy Henri Cole and Peter Glotz
- Jenny Holzer: EndgameBy Jenny Holzer
- Jenny Holzer: SignsBy John Simon
- Jenny Holzer: RetroBy Cary Levine
- Jenny Holzer: War PaintingsEdited by Thomas Kellein
- Jenny Holzer: For FrankfurtBy Henri Cole
- This Is What Happens When Frida Kahlo and Jenny Holzer Get TogetherBy Robert Benson / Elle / June 11, 2015
- Interview with Kiki SmithBy Kiki Smith / Interview / December 4, 2012
- Jenny Holzer Texty LadyOur PickBy William Oliver / Dazed / March 2010
- At Home With Jenny HolzerBy Edward Lewine / The New York Times Magazine / December 16, 2009
- And Now, a Few Words from Jenny HolzerOur PickBy Grace Glueck / The New York Times / December 3, 1989
- Art in an Age of Mass CultureOur PickTrailer. Directed by Michael Blackwood
- Interview with Jenny Holzer by Andrew Graham DixonOur Pick2010 interview for The Culture Show (BBC)
- Whitney Focus Presents: Project Protect (2009)Overview of several significant works by Holzer made since 1995
- Video Recording of Light Projection: "For the Guggenheim" (2008)
- Holzer's (Fake) Twitter Feed