Jenny Holzer's Truisms. Short Bio of Jenny Holzer

By Mira, January 22, 2014

“Children are the cruelest of all.”

“Children are the hope of the future.”

These two statements of Jenny Holzer’s, which she calls “truisms,” shed some light on her approach to art. Then there’s the context. Imagine seeing “Torture is barbarous” on the left side of a triptych in an installation, and “Protect me from what I want” (all this is in capital letters) on the central panel. Imagine seeing “Protect me from what I want” somewhere in the street as an electronic sign, or “Abuse of power comes as no surprise” on the T-shirt of a young girl you cross paths with outside, on a T-shirt sold at a kiosk in Venice (she sold some items there during the 1990 Venice Biennale), or on an electronic board in Times Square, New York.

All these truisms, whether they come from the series of the same name of 1977-79 or from later series, play with the context of advertising billboards and statements of the obvious purveyed by the media in order to to subvert them, to make the viewer question all the authority of texts making rounds in the media and the advertising industry, to question their impersonality and power of manipulation.

Jenny Holzer at 7 World Trade Center

Jenny Holzer at 7 World Trade Center
Wikimedia Commons

Where does the real world end and art begin?

And where does the comfort of Jenny Holzer’s advice end and the disturbing note in her pronouncements begin?

Here are some more of her truisms:

“Moderation kills the spirit.”

“Men are not monogamous by nature.”

“Planning for the future is escapism.”

“Religion causes as many problems as it solves.”

“Worrying can help you prepare.”

“Thinking too much can cause problems.”

Signs everywhere

And some confusion

In 1989, Jenny Holzer had a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. The exhibition catalogue featured an interview with her by Diane Waldman. Waldman says, “It’s difficult now to disassociate any signs from yours. So I have a hard time when I walk around in New York, trying to figure out whether you’ve written this sign or not. It reverses the way that you think about something that is in the real world. I would assume that you like this aspect of it?”

Jenny Holzer responds, “I like that kind of confusion. I also like when my material literally is mixed in with advertisements or pronouncements of some sort or another. That lends a certain weight to my things, makes them part of the real mix of life. It also creates some freaky juxtapositions.”

Just who is Jenny Holzer?

Jenny Holzer was born in Gallipolis, Ohio in 1950. She received a BFA from Ohio University (after taking art classes at the University of Chicago) in 1972 and an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, RI in 1977 (the latter institution later awarded her an honorary doctorate as well). After that she moved to New York, where she was part of the Independent Study Museum (1976-77) and the art collective COLAB (founded in 1977).

Holzer made her name in the art world with her Truisms series. Her art based on aphoristic texts, with roots in graffiti art, has appeared on posters, billboards, LED signs, light projections on buildings, T-shirts, hats, condom wrappers, etc. Her first major exhibition in a museum was Untitled (Selections from Truisms, Inflammatory Essays, The Living Series, The Survival Series, Under a Rock, Laments, and Mother and Child Text), installed at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. It was followed by several other important exhibitions, from her installation in the American pavilion at the 1990 Venice Biennale (where she won the Golden Lion) to the one in the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston (1997), at the Neue Nationalgalerie, in Berlin (2001), and Protect Protect at the Whitney Museum of American Art (2009).

She lives in Hoosick Falls, New York, and continues to make art there, in her Brooklyn studio, and, of course, onsite. Her most recent LED displays are more elaborate in terms of the text message, and more sculptural as far as the projections of the LED lights. She is also making paintings now. Some of them are still word-based: declassified document documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (see a video here, on the Web site of the Whitney Museum), which her assistants silkscreen. By her own account, she has been involved in selecting documents for this project since 2004-2005, and has perused, according to curators at the Whitney Museum, tens of thousands of such evidence, looking, for instance, for interrogation techniques and medical issues, pertaining to the treatment of detainees.

Some of these government documents are severely edited, to the point where the whole page is nothing more than a series of blackened-out lines. She adds the imprint of a hand (if I understand her correctly – I can’t see them in the images shown online by the Whitney Museum), and sometimes some color as well -- “as a form of hope,” as she says in a dialogue with Kiki Smith for Interview Magazine. She also comments there on her use of words in her art, “I used language because I wanted to offer content that people -- not necessarily art people -- could understand.” It started when she was a graduate student at RISD: she wrote words over her paintings. Then when she arrived in NYC, she focused on the words.

She now uses the words of other people, mainly poets. In Projection for Chicago (2008) she projected the words of the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, a Nobel Prize winner, on several buildings, including the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Lyric Opera House, and the Chicago Tribune Tower.

You may see Jenny Holzer’s words on your mobile devices in the future. “I like placing content wherever people look,” she says.

Works Cited

Smith, Kiki. “Jenny Holzer.” Interview. http://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/jenny-holzer.

Waldman, Diane. Jenny Holzer [exhibition catalogue]. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989.

Whitney Museum of American Art. “The Politics of Jenny Holzer: Protect Protect.” Video. 13:12. http://whitney.org/Exhibitions/JennyHolzer/Video.


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