Jenny Holzer - Biography and Legacy
American Conceptual Artist
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."
As an undergraduate at Duke University in North Carolina from 1968 to 1970, Holzer's passion for art was rekindled. She transferred to the University of Chicago to pursue a BFA in drawing, printmaking, and painting, with the intention of becoming an abstract painter. She transferred again and completed her BFA in 1972 at Ohio Christian University in Georgia. Holzer worried about the lack of financial stability in art, changing majors several times over the course of her choppy undergraduate career. After briefly contemplating law school, she went on to earn an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1975. "It was only when I was in my 20s, I realized 'being normal' was out of reach (and that maybe I was okay with that) so I went back to art" Holzer remembers.
In 1976 she moved to New York City. There, she participated in the Whitney Museum's Independent Study Program. The Whitney program believed in training artists as intellectuals, and featured a reading list incorporating global literature and philosophy. These writings resonated with Holzer, who felt that ideas could be simplified into phrases everyone could understand. Her first public art project, "Truisms" (1977-9), consisted of such summaries, printed in black italics on white paper and pasted anonymously on buildings, phone booths, and signs throughout lower Manhattan. Most consisted of a single short sentence, such as 'Abuse of power comes as no surprise.' Later, she expanded the "Truisms" series to incorporate more pedestrian messaging platforms such as posters, stickers, and t-shirts. At the time, she had little interest in showing her work in a gallery setting. In the March 2010 issue of Dazed, Holzer observed, "I still wasn't sure I was an artist, or that I could be or deserved to be - I thought of my practice more like standing on a soapbox, but without actually being there. The anonymity was critical. I wanted people to consider the ideas but not give more than passing thought to who produced them."
Despite her initial skepticism about the impact of the work, and professed desire to remain anonymous, the work attracted so much attention from influential critics and curators in the New York art world that Holzer quickly became famous. In 1982, the Public Arts Fund sponsored an installation in which nine of her "Truisms" flashed at forty-second intervals on a massive electronic signboard in Times Square. This was her first use of LED technology, which became her signature medium.
Holzer left Manhattan in 1985 and moved to upstate New York with her husband, Mike Glier, a landscape painter she had met at the Whitney Independent Study Program. Their new home in Hoosick Falls, once a center of agricultural production with a population of thousands at its peak in the late-19th century, was a picturesque ghost town surrounded by green hills and farmhouses. In 1986 and 1988, respectively, the couple adopted a filly named Lily and had a daughter named Lili. They have since acquired a menagerie of animals, and Holzer, a self-described "hillbilly" finds it "good to be able to be in the dirt and the scratch bugs." The move outside the city did not prevent her career from skyrocketing, with a number of high-profile exhibitions of her work in New York in the 1980s, including the Guggenheim Museum in 1989. She also collaborated on a dance project with the legendary Broadway choreographer Bill T. Jones. In 1990, she became the first woman to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, and won the festival's prestigious Golden Lion award.
On her unexpected success and the backlash from it, Holzer reflects, "the move from the street into museums was not the most comfortable one." By 1990 her work had grown larger and more expensive to produce, and some critics dismissed it as elitist (the opposite of her original intention, which was to reach as wide an audience as possible). Struggling to balance the demands of motherhood with those of a high-profile artist, Holzer withdrew from the art world for a few years, reemerging in 1993 with a fresh approach and a new emphasis on political engagement. In October of 1993 she took part in a virtual reality exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum. The following year she produced her next series, Lustmord, inspired by war crimes against women and children in Bosnia.
In 1996, Holzer embarked on an ongoing creative partnership with the Austrian minimalist clothing designer Helmut Lang. For the inaugural Florence Biennale she created an installation inspired by the designer's new fragrance, with LED text intended to evoke the lingering scent of one's lover on bedsheets. She later helped Lang design two retail stores in New York that incorporated her pieces into the space, a daring merger between art and fashion.
Originally, Holzer's projections used her own words, often from earlier series, such as Truisms and Survival. Since the mid-1990s, however, her work has focused primarily on the words of others in war-torn regions, especially the former Yugoslavia and The Middle East. In 2004 Holzer began using text from declassified government documents available through the Freedom of Information Act in LED installations and projections. These used National Security Archive materials that focus on government surveillance and injustices of the American military. Many of these newer LED works use double-sided signs that can be read from different angles, and text that jumps, changes shape, or slips past the viewer in unintelligible doubled-up layers. In a 2012 interview with fellow artist Kiki Smith, she elaborates on her motivations for investigating these documents: "Many reporters and publishers were cautious about what was covered and how it was covered. So I went to the NSA and others to get what was written in the moment by soldiers, officers, the FBI, detainees, politicians, lawmakers, policy makers, the Administration, the President, and attorneys for the government. I wanted to know what had gone on."
Somewhat surprisingly, Holzer's work with declassified documents has brought her back to painting. In 2006, she released a series of silk-screened canvases which incorporated a PowerPoint presentation used to brief President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney on the 2002 invasion of Iraq. A series of paintings from 2014 examines the story of a young Afghan soldier, Jamal Nasser, who died during his detainment by the U.S. military. Holzer maintains an apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side and a studio in Brooklyn, but continues to live and work primarily in Hoosick Falls.
The Legacy of Jenny Holzer
As her reputation has grown, so have the dimensions, scope and audience for Holzer's work. Her approach to language, choice of unusual settings, and focus on issues of social and cultural importance have influenced a generation of neo-Conceptual artists. Christopher Wool, Martin Firrell, Glen Ligon and Robert Montgomery are among the most successful artists whose light and text-based work is visibly indebted to that of Holzer. Holzer's recent work focusing on political abuses of power and war has mobilized American abstract painters like Gerald Laing and Steve Mumford to engage more directly with political subjects. Perhaps most notably, Holzer's paintings based on declassified military documents are the evident precedent for journalist Laura Poitras, whose surveillance-based images are now garnering attention in the post-September 11th world.