Jenny Holzer

American Conceptual Artist

Born: July 29, 1950
Gallipolis, Ohio
The anonymity was critical. I wanted people to consider the ideas but not give more than passing thought to who produced them.

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.


Progression of Art


Living Series: "Some Days..."

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.

Bronze Wall Plaque - The Museum of Modern Art, New York


UNEX Sign #1 (Selections from the Survival Series)

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.

LED Sign in Powder Coated Aluminum Housing - The Whitney Museum of American Art


Untitled Guggenheim Museum Installation

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.

Extended tricolor LED electronic signboard - Guggenheim Museum



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.

Human Bone, Engraved Silver, Wooden Table, 4LED Signs, Color Photographs


Xenon for Bregenz

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.

Digital Photograph of Xenon Light Projection on Glass and Steel - Bregenz, Austria


Presently in the United States

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.

Oil on Linen - Cheim Read Gallery (New York)

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."

Early Training

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.

Mature Period

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."

Current Work

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.

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