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Roni Horn - Biography and Legacy

American Sculptor and Photographer

Born: September 25, 1955 - New York

Biography of Roni Horn


Born in New York in 1955, Roni Horn was the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. She has said of her childhood: "I grew up in a typical secular Jewish household where humor is absolutely the most important thing in keeping people connected." Her father, Arthur, owned a pawnshop in Harlem, but moved the family upstate to Rockland County while Horn was still a child.

Horn was originally named Rose after both her grandmothers, but being in touch with her sexuality from a very young age, she decided to change it to the more gender-neutral Roni. She also recalls having a moment of sensual awakening when she discovered she was attracted to the actress Monica Vitti.

Early Training and Work

At the age of 16, Horn quit high school and enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design. After three years of study, she graduated at the age of 19 and decided to take a trip to Iceland with her girlfriend. At the time (the early 1970s), Iceland was a cheap destination for Americans on their way to Europe. Horn fell in love with the landscape and climate and realized it was a place she wanted to return to repeatedly.

The Vesturhirn Mountains in Iceland epitomize the vast and stark landscape that attracted Horn to the country.

Later she described her passion for the place as, "having gone there, there evolved a relationship that I couldn't separate myself from. Each time I'd go, there would be engendered the idea to go back and back and back. I guess the real reason is the relationship to yourself that is possible in a place like that. There's nothing mediating it."

After returning to the US, Horn enrolled at Yale University for an MFA in Sculpture, where she studied from 1976-1978. It was here that Horn established some of the key interests of her career, and also where drawing became a fundamental part of her practice - something she continues to do daily. While at graduate school, Horn met artist Robert Ryman, who helped her establish a following in Europe.

Mature Period

Horn made a name for herself as a serious artist quite quickly, learning to use her life experiences wisely. For example, in the early 1980s, she worked for a businessman whom she has described as "seriously shady," in order to finance her piece Gold Field (1982). This resulted in her desire to remain independent and self-fund her work.

It also allowed for a certain freedom of expression. Her rise coincided with the era of the AIDS crisis, which she suggests made people more willing to engage with sexuality publicly. For her, this opened up the idea that one could embody their own unique stance in regard to sexuality, which inspired her freedom to avoid specifying her gender or sexual identity. Androgyny is still a key part of Horn's personal identity. As she puts it: "I've lived my life in a mild state of drag but that's about it. I don't identify strongly with either gender so it was never important for me to announce myself one way or the other." She has claimed that this means people sometimes don't know what to do with her or her work, and has prevented her from being too closely associated with the queer art scene.

This ambiguity would cross over into her artwork, leading her to become an artist who escaped narrow classification and instead focused on making art. For example, during her mature period, Horn counted Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Donald Judd as among her close friends. Judd was particularly important in helping her find her voice and promoting her work. This led to Horn's association with the Minimalist movement, particularly because of her close attention to the properties of artistic materials. Yet upon further development of her practice, this connection proved superficial, as Horn is primarily concerned with the connection between the work and the audience. She has said: "In many ways, my work is a criticism of minimalism. Using geometry isn't enough to place it in the context of minimalism. The attitude towards making objects as separate from human experience is not one I can participate in."

Stykkishólmur, Iceland; the location of Roni Horn's 2007 work <i>Library of Water</i>.

In 1990, Horn received both the Guggenheim Fellowship and NEA Artist's Fellowship. She also continued to travel frequently to Iceland, making work inspired by its landscape. However, she has noted that visiting the country became "less compelling" in the 1990s, when it became more of a tourist destination. Nevertheless, she continued to work in the country and established a studio there, where she created her best-known work Library of Water (2007). The piece consisted of tall, transparent columns filled with melted water from glacial sources, and marked her first major foray into public art with a focus on community.

She saw major success in the early 2000s, with solo shows at Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 2003, the Dia Center for the Arts in New York in 2004, and both the Whitney Museum of American Art and Tate Modern in 2009.

Current Work

Roni Horn at Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona in 2013.

Today, Roni Horn has a reputation for being forthright and determined. However, she claims that her reputation for being fierce "is probably protection. Compensation against general nonsense, hypocrisy, and injustice." She works primarily in solitude, with large studios in New York's Chelsea area and also in Reykjavík, Iceland.

In terms of her relationship with the art world, Horn has said: "I do what I have to do. I'm not sure to what extent the art context has ever been a particularly rewarding one for me and that is why I tend to isolate myself from it." She also remains private about her personal life, giving little away about her relationships and sexuality. Despite having a significant circle of creative friends, including Helmut Lang, Douglas Gordon, and Juergen Teller, she nevertheless insists that "I'm not a very social person," preferring primarily to work alone.

The Legacy of Roni Horn

One of Roni Horn's major contributions to the development of contemporary art is her role in developing the visual and material language of Minimalism. From the 1980s onwards, she began to create sculptures that picked up on the movement's interest in materials, yet ventured into Post-Minimalism by emphasizing the centrality of the viewer's mind and body to the work's meaning. Horn was pivotal in helping to reintroduce a more human element into sculptural practice.

She has also had a direct influence on a number of other artists. For example, in 1990 Felix Gonzalez-Torres saw Horn's Forms from the Gold Field, and in response made Untitled (Placebo-Landscape-for-Roni) (1993). Horn made a further work in reply after Gonzalez-Torres' death, Gold Mats, Paired-For Ross and Felix (1994-1995), dedicated to the artist and his partner. In 2016, Roni Horn co-curated a three-part exhibition of Gonzalez-Torres' work.

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Content compiled and written by Anna Souter

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Roni Horn Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Anna Souter
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 20 Nov 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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