In Focus

The Work of Jenny Holzer

Jenny Holzer's art inhabits the public domain in spaces ranging from museums and galleries to wall, billboards, storefronts, and confronts the viewer with thoughts and ideas directly connected to the contemporary socio-political world. Her work serves as an astute, disturbing commentary on language, meaning, and politics in a technological society.

In 1977, Holzer's anonymous posters of Truisms (1978-1987) and Inflammatory Essays (1979-1982) set in black italic type on white or colored broadsheet paper, appeared on lower Manhattan walls. These posters seem to offer information, but in fact are a conglomeration of opposing opinions that take the form of brief punchy phrases, immediately capturing the viewer's attention and inviting vigorous response. Not unlike Pop Art of the 1960s Holzer's underlying sources come from the world of commercial advertising, but instead of extracting and manipulating visual imagery, she employs written text to express her artistic conceptions. Incorporating a literal text in art is, of course, not new to twentieth century art. Picasso and Braque included phrases and individual words in their early collages as did the Dada artists in the work they created after World War I. More recently, one notes the importance of language in the work of Jasper Johns, and later, written text was at the core of the conceptual art movement. But Holzer's aphorisms or quasi-cliches, even more than the language used in earlier art, straddle the boundary between art and life and call into question the very definition of art and its role in everyday life.

"Truisms," which Holzer has been working on since 1977, is a series of over 400 statements, selections from which are listed in alphabetical order and reflect a diversity of ideological and political opinions. Most are simple declaratives often with a political bias such as "Private property created crime," "Abuse of power comes as no surprise" and "Government is a burden on the people." While others take the form of admonitions such as "You must remember you have freedom of choice" and "You must be intimate with a token few." With these seemingly disconnected sentences structured as quasi-cliches, the artist presents a universe of voices, all given equal weight, that at their heart question existing belief systems. The credible from the incredible must be determined by the individual viewer. With such phrases as "Murder has its sexual side" and "Your oldest fears are your worst," Holzer presents an art form whose greatest power is to push the viewer into a realm of socio/political future shock where all previous homilies are abandoned. Her substitutions are urgent messages that simultaneously persuade, provoke and electrify the viewer. Paradoxically the "Truisms" do not confirm truths but instead put them into question.

Holzer's writing style is direct and simple, almost deceptively honest, whose humor and familiarity invite easy recognition and response. The artist describes her writing style in this way, "Obviously I sit and worry about it. I make it longer and shorter and try to make the best possible sentence...I want people to pay attention to it. I try to make it either silly or funny or smart but at least quick so that people will be prone again to look at it and hopefully get the content of it."

Most recently Holzer has adapted electronic moving display signs, those most commonly found in sports arenas and stockbrokers offices, to communicate her unexpected messages. However, her approach to this innovative technological medium has a strong aesthetic character. Once her idea is clear she alters the typography, rhythm and color of the adage as it glides by on the screen. In this way the unique content of each phrase can be visually neutral yet have an official authoritative quality; and thus heeds her own Truism "Your actions are pointless if no one notices."

In 1983 Holzer initiated her "Survival" series whose texts are lengthier and read not as cliches but as suggestions for dealing with the anxieties and discomforts of urban living. She has incorporated this series into her electronic signs and also produced small silver stickers and aluminum and bronze plaques that include different survival texts. The artist places these smaller scale works in various unanticipated locations such as on parking meters, garbage cans, telephone booths or other public spaces thereby creating a tension between the means of communication, the message and the location.

Holzer's art has often been aligned with that of graffiti artists because she uses common media formats as a context for her work and physically integrates it into the fabric of ordinary street life. However, in describing her different intentions Holzer states, "Graffiti-people work in the public too, but in a very different way from what I do...A lot of train cars will have a text as well as an image, sometimes around one specific theme. I like to be entertaining enough. I don't really care about how my work looks so much as long as it looks good enough that people will both see it and think about it."

Fundamentally Holzer's art communicates how the power of language and media presentation manipulates and distorts one's ideas and perceptions. Through her written statements the artist pleads for a universal re-examination of priorities in order to establish an alternate way of life. Her works prod and provoke, ultimately leaving no escape routes for the viewer's attention. As earlier twentieth century artists questioned one's assumptions about what painting could be, Holzer's art encompasses a larger world view, and through it she questions assumptions not only about art but about life itself.

Adapted from

Sue Graze, Concentrations 10: Jenny Holzer (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1984), n.p.

Related Multimedia

AT&T Contemporary Art Lecture Series, "Crossing Boundaries"