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Jenny Holzer Photo

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."
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Jenny Holzer Signature
"I think about bleak stuff, and the world keeps serving up war, terror, murder, totalitarianism, sex, kindness, and the most astounding beauty that needs reporting."
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"I don't see so many young people addressing social circumstance, or ecological circumstance, or economic circumstance through art today."
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"There's someone pretending to be me on Twitter. At least they're using my stuff. I wouldn't tweet. I like when my work is anonymous and public."
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"What could be better than having another artist handy to bounce art questions off? When it's working, it's divine to have another artist to call over and ask, 'Does this stink? Does this have legs? Does it stink but have legs?'"
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"Working in great buildings is always utterly terrifying, but also gratifying when I don't blow it."
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"Going from the street to the museum partly came from the need and desire to be a better artist."
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"I disappoint myself routinely. If you are an artist and you are honest, you are never good enough."
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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.


  • Both message and medium are equally important in Holzer's work. Her iconic LED signs use the same technology that transmits dates, speeds, temperatures and other impersonal information in public places. This allows her to launch a sneak attack on the urban environment, short-circuiting the system when, in place of the impersonal signage we expect to encounter, we find private, personal, or politically sensitive information.
  • While usually discussed in the context of video art and electronic media, Holzer's practice is deeply rooted in several earlier art movements. Her interest in the language of advertising aligns her with Pop art. Her light-based text owes a direct debt to Minimalists Dan Flavin and Donald Judd. Finally, the site-specificity of her work aligns her with Land Art (Earthworks). Just as Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty is a part of the Great Salt Lake, Holzer's LED signs are part of the urban landscape.
  • Keenly aware of audience, Holzer always calibrates her work to the situation and has a surprising range. She can be flashy, as in her 1989 installation at the Guggenheim Museum that transformed the high modernist architecture into a dazzling electronic arcade, or blend in so as to be almost unnoticeable, like her installations in Times Square.
  • On the basis of its high cost and the challenge it might present to an inexperienced viewer of Conceptual art, Holzer's work was once criticized as elitist. More recently, it has become clear that her life-long commitment to displaying her work in public reflects an egalitarian ambition to reach the broadest cross-section of humanity.
  • A pioneer in using public art as social intervention, she was one of the first artists to use information technology as a platform for political protest. Her success has encouraged a generation of artists to build public platforms, in cyberspace and real space, for sharing political views.

Biography of Jenny Holzer

Jenny Holzer Life and Legacy

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."

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 - Museum of Modern Art


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)

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Content compiled and written by Jen Glennon

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Ruth Epstein

"Jenny Holzer Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jen Glennon
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Ruth Epstein
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First published on 22 Feb 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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