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Jenny Holzer Artworks

American Conceptual Artist

Jenny Holzer Photo
Movements and Styles: Conceptual Art, Installation Art

Born: July 29, 1950 - Gallipolis, Ohio

Artworks by Jenny Holzer

The below artworks are the most important by Jenny Holzer - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Living Series: "Some Days..." (1981)

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.

UNEX Sign #1 (Selections from the Survival Series) (1983)

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.

Untitled Guggenheim Museum Installation (1989)

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.

Lustmord (1993-6)

Though always political, from 1993 onward, Holzer became more explicitly and directly engaged with the physical and mental impacts of violence and trauma. The organized, systematic rapes committed against Bosnian women during the war in the former Yugoslavia inspired this piece, and the title is taken from a German word that mingles murder and sexual pleasure.

Components of this piece include a table of human bone remnants, LED text boards, and photograph of words written on skin. Holzer purchased the bones from a dealer in New York (they are not bones from actual victims), and displays them as if for scientific examination. Many of the bones represent parts of the body typically associated with feminine beauty and sensuality: teeth, shoulders, thighs, ribs, back, fingers, and pelvis.

The bones are adorned with rings engraved with text from three poems in English and German, each offering the perspective of a perpetrator, a victim, or an observer. Text from these poems also appears on LED boards, and on the skin in the photographs, mixing the material, so that it is impossible to determine who is speaking. Evidence of Holzer's range as an artist and story teller, this focused, close-up, highly personal exploration of the devastating consequences of war offers a dramatic counterpoint to the detached, electronic mediation we have come to expect from her.

Xenon for Bregenz (2004)

In her light projections dating from 2004 onward, Holzer has been focusing on large-scale text-based images projected onto the sides of buildings. Xenon, the title of this series, is a technical term for part of the lamp used in a projector. The work seen here is projected onto the side of the Kunsthaus Bregenz building - the contemporary art exhibition center in Austria. The series is based on declassified documents made public following the Freedom of Information Act. Concentrating on documents that have been partially or almost completely redacted with censor's marks, Holzer calls viewers' attention to the fact that while these classified documents have been made public, much of their significance remains hidden. While ostensibly protecting American citizens and military personnel, these documents may also be concealing government abuses of power. Holzer's work highlights the tension between secrecy and transparency, a fundamental element of American foreign policy. In Xenon for Bregenz, the interplay between light and shadow in the projection itself is a powerful metaphor for this tension.

Presently in the United States (2014)

Holzer's ongoing work on declassified National Security Archive information led her to partially or completely censored documents. Here, in the space below the yellow bar, the barely visible painted text appears: "A group presently in the United States plans to conduct a terrorist operation involving the use of high explosives." The date appears in the bottom right corner - 24 May, 2001. Vertical bands of color radiate across the rest of the canvas in a manner reminiscent of mid-century Color Field Painting.

In this work, Holzer is returning to her roots as an abstract painter. Her insistence, however, on calling attention to a contemporary and controversial subject, however, could not be more different from the aims of mid-century abstraction. Rather than seeking transcendence Holzer is calling for action. The addition of text calls attention to its absence elsewhere in the image. Language, in this case its selective omission and absence, remains Holzer's steadfast focus.

Related Artists and Major Works

Charred Journal: Firewritten V (1951)

Artist: Morris Louis (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

Charred Journal: Firewritten V is executed in a traditional Abstract Expressionist style, and its gestural brushwork and all-over composition are influenced by Jackson Pollock's action painting. Although it measures only about two feet wide, this work manages to achieve a remarkable sense of dynamism within a relatively compact space. Its title alludes to the Nazi book burnings in which supposedly subversive literature was destroyed in the 1930s; its pale markings against a raw, dark background evoke a written language set against a threatening void. This canvas predates Louis's exposure to Helen Frankenthaler's stain paintings in 1954, after which he began his mature Color Field work.

Untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim) 3, 1977 (1977)

Movement: Minimalism (Read Movement Overview, History, and Artworks pages)

Artist: Dan Flavin (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

Flavin's works differ in some ways from those of other Minimalists, who shared the same interests in prefabricated materials, transforming the traditional viewing experience, and honoring the influence of Russian Constructivism in their use of repetitive, modular forms. In Flavin's work, however, the work of art is not comprised of the material itself, in this case the fluorescent light fixtures and colored tubes, but is instead the shape and color of the light emitted by the tubes. Flavin literally sculpts and defines spaces with colored light, creating a completely new form of art that is most notable for its lack of materiality, yet seemingly solid presence that almost appears to invade the viewer's space.

He used only prefabricated commercially available tubes in their standard sizes, thus eliminating the hand of the artist, but he would often arrange the fixtures to create various shapes. In this example, the fixtures are placed to form a grid, a traditional Minimalist shape because of its strict geometry and mathematical precision. The work is dedicated to Harold Joachim, a British idealist philosopher of the early-20th century, who studied truth and specifically how humans arrive at their knowledge or truth claims. By naming the work after Joachim, Flavin may be making an argument for the essential truth-value of his art and for his art as the pared down essence of art.

A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant (2014)

A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant (2014)

Artist: Kara Walker (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

This work, Walker's largest and most ambitious work to date, was commissioned by the public arts organization Creative Time, and displayed in what was once the largest sugar refinery in the world. The monumental form, coated in white sugar and on view at the defunct Domino Sugar plant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, evoked the racist stereotype of "mammy" (nurturer of white families), with protruding genitals that hyper-sexualize the sphinx-like figure. Attending her were sculptures of young black boys, made of molasses and resin that melted away in the summer heat over the course of the exhibition. Sugar in the raw is brown. White sugar, a later invention, was bleached by slaves until the 19th century in greater and greater quantities to satisfy the Western appetite for rum and confections. Sugar cane was fed manually to the mills, a dangerous process that resulted in the loss of limbs and lives. This site-specific work, rich with historical significance - calls our attention to the geo-political circumstances that produced, and continue to perpetuate, social, economic, and racial inequity. A powerful gesture commemorating undocumented experiences of oppression, it also called attention to the changing demographics of a historically industrial and once working-class neighborhood, now being filled with upscale apartments. Sugar Sphinx shares an air of mystery with Walker's silhouettes.


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