An American Neo-Conceptualist artist, Jenny Holzer (born 1950) utilized the homogeneous rhetoric of modern information systems in order to address the politics of discourse. In 1989 she became the first female artist chosen to represent the United States at Italy's Venice Biennale.
Jenny Holzer was born July 29, 1950, in Gallipolis, Ohio, into a family of two generations of Ford auto dealers. She completed her undergraduate degree at Ohio University in Athens after attending Duke University and the University of Chicago. While enrolled in the Rhode Island School of Design, Holzer experimented with an abstract painting style influenced by the color field painters Mark Rothko and Morris Louis. In 1976 she moved to Manhattan, participating in the Whitney Museum's independent study program.
Language as Art
Holzer's conception of language as art, in which semantics developed into her aesthetic, began to emerge in New York. The Whitney program included an extensive reading list incorporating Western and Eastern literature and philosophy. Holzer felt the writings could be simplified to phrases everyone could understand. She called these summaries her "Truisms" (1978), which she printed anonymously in black italic script on white paper and wheat-pasted to building facades, signs, and telephone booths in lower Manhattan. Arranged in alphabetical order and comprised of short sentences, her "Truisms" inspired pedestrians to scribble messages on the posters and make verbal comments. Holzer would stand and listen to the dialogues invoked by her words.
The participatory effect and the underground format were vital components of Holzer's "Truisms" and of her second series, the "Inflammatory Essays, " which laconically articulated Holzer's concerns and anxieties about contemporary society. Holzer printed the "Essays" in alphabetical order, first on small posters and then as a manuscript entitled The Black Book (1979). Until the late 1980s, Holzer refused to produce them in any non-underground formats because of their militant nature. Her declarative language assumed particular force and violence in the multiple viewpoints of the "Essays, " ranging from extreme leftist to rightist.
Holzer initiated the "Living Series" in 1981, which she printed on aluminum and bronze plaques, the presentation format used by medical and government buildings. "Living" addressed the necessities of daily life: eating, breathing, sleeping, and human relationships. Her bland, short instructions were accompanied with paintings by the American artist Peter Nadin, whose portraits of men and women attached to metal posts further articulated the emptiness of both life and message in the information age.
Art and Technology
The medium of modern computer systems became an important component in Holzer's work in 1982, when nine of her "Truisms" flashed at forty-second intervals on the giant Spectacolor electronic signboard in Times Square. Sponsored by the Public Arts Fund program, the use of the L.E.D. (light emitting diode) machine allowed Holzer to reach a larger audience. By combining a knowledge of semantics with modern advertising technologies, Holzer established herself as a descendant of the conceptualist and pop art movements. She again utilized the electronic signboard with her "Survival Series" (1983-1985), in which she adopted a more personal and urgent stance. The realities of everyday living, the dangers, and the underlying horrors were major themes. Correlating with the immediacy of the messages, Holzer adopted a slightly less authoritarian voice. Her populist appropriation of contemporary "newsspeak" crossed the realm between visual art and poetry and carried a potent expressive force. Her attempt to make sense out of contemporary life within a technological framework also suggests the limitations of the information age, in which the world of advertising consumes everything, yet an underlying message no longer exists.
After the "Survival Series, " Holzer's installations became more monumental in scale and more quasi-religious. Her "Under a Rock" exhibition combined the modern media of the communications industry, the electronic signboard, with marble benches printed in the block letters used in national cemeteries. The language measured angst and violence with the apathetic reportage of the most seasoned news personae: CRACK THE PELVIS SO SHE LIES RIGHT, THIS IS A MISTAKE. WHEN SHE DIES YOU CANNOT REPEAT THE ACT, etc. The vivid juxtaposition between horrifying subject matter and the authoritarian voice, coupled with flashing diodes and cold marble, jars the spectator with its apparent paradox and brutal insistency. By utilizing the pronoun "she, " Holzer allied the victimization with the female. The new urgency of the "voice" in Holzer's "Under a Rock" installation, first exhibited in 1986 at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York, revealed a Holzer more overtly building images that suggest male power and control over women.
The birth of her first child in 1989 inspired Holzer's "Laments, " perhaps the most personal and angst-ridden series she had done. The "Laments" address motherhood, violation, pain, torture, and death in the voices of "thirteen assorted dead people" (J. Holzer). The personae range in sex and age, yet a common insistency permeates their disembodied words. One passage suggests infanticide: IF THE PROCESS STARTS I WILL KILL THIS BABY A GOOD WAY. The contradictions inherent to the rhetoric, "to kill" but in "a good way, " shape the negations and arbitrariness of contemporary linguistics. Holzer accessed the language structure and media of contemporary politics and advertising in order to reveal the tensions and male domination apparent in the contemporary linguistic system.
The multimedia extravaganzas of Holzer's later installations, such as the 1989 Guggenheim exhibition, are exemplified by a 535-foot running electronic signboard spiraled around the core of Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture, flashing garish lights on the monumental stone benches arranged in a large circle on the floor below. In 1989 also, she became the first female artist chosen to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, the international art world's premiere event. For the Biennale, Holzer designed posters, hats, and t-shirts to be sold in the streets of Venice, while her L.E.D. signboards and marble benches occupied the solemn and austere exhibition space. Her words were translated into multiple languages in order to communicate to an international audience. Despite the fact that she had won the prestigious Golden Lion award at the Biennale, Holzer also started to draw more negative reactions to her work. The size and expense of her exhibits, as well as her growing popularity in the art world, led some to accuse her of becoming elitist.
Holzer withdrew from the art world for a few years and then returned in 1993 with a fresh approach to her work and a new emphasis on the immaterial. In October of 1993 she partook in a virtual reality exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum. The following year she produced her next series, "Lustmord, " which opened at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York. The title is taken from a German word that means murder plus sexual pleasure. She was inspired by the violence of the war in Bosnia, formerly a republic of Yugoslavia. In 1996 she participated in the First Biennale of Florence. By accepting multivalent formats for her media-conscious verbal imagery, Holzer created a populist art of expressive and poetic force.
Further Reading on Jenny Holzer
A number of important exhibition catalogs provide analysis and excellent color reproductions of Holzer's works. See especially Michael Auping's Jenny Holzer: the Venice Installation (1991) and Diane Waldman's Jenny Holzer (1989), the exhibition catalog for the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Earlier catalogs include the 1986 Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center's Jenny Holzer and Cindy Sherman: Personae; the Israel Museum's Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger (Jerusalem, 1986); and the Knight Gallery's Holzer. Kruger. Prince (Charlotte, N.C., 1984-1985).
Additional Biography Sources
Howell, John. "Jenny Holzer: The Message Is the Medium." ARTnews (Summer 1988): 122-127.
Schwartzman, Allan. "After Four Years, The Message is Murder." New York Times, 8 May 1994.
Snider, Ben. "Jenny Holzer: Multidisciplinary Dweeb." Art and Design 9 (Summer 1994): 17-19.
Taylor, Paul. "Jenny Holzer: I Wanted To Do A Portrait of Society." Flash Art 151 (March/April 1990): 116-119.
Teixeira, Kevin. "Jenny Holzer: Virtual Reality: An Emerging Medium." Art and Design 9 (Summer 1994): 9-15.
Turner, Jonathan. "Transporting Truisms." ARTnews (January 1997): 29.
Wei, Lilly. "Jenny Holzer." Art in America (September 1991): 126-127.