The Life and Art of Jenny Holzer, Artist of Text-Based Truisms

Jenny Holzer at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

 Getty Images

Jenny Holzer is an American artist and political activist. Best known for her series of Truisms, text-based art exhibited in public spaces in the form of plainly worded statements written in bold, her work ranges in content from the neutral to the political.

As both an exhibitor in public and private spaces, Holzer is keenly aware of the effects of her work on both the intentional and the casual passerby. She is inspired by reading, world events, and the contexts of her own life, though she seeks to be “out of view and out of earshot” in order to lend her work a voice of truth and trustworthiness.

Fast Facts: Jenny Holzer

  • Occupation: Artist
  • Born: July 29, 1950 in Gallipolis, Ohio
  • Education: Duke University (no degree), University of Chicago (no degree), Ohio University (BFA), Rhode Island School of Design (MFA)
  • Selected Works: Truisms (1977–79), Inflammatory Essays (1979–1982)
  • Key Accomplishments: Golden Lion for Best Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (1990); member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters
  • Spouse: Mike Glier (m. 1983)

Early Life and Education

Jenny Holzer was born in Gallipolis, Ohio, where she grew up the oldest of three children. Her mother was an active participant in the community and her father was a car salesman. Holzer’s upbringing was rooted in Midwestern traditionalism, an attitude from which she believes the frankness in her art derives. “They want to get things done so they do it in the most expeditious way,” she has said of her fellow Midwesterners. “Expeditious as in fast and right.” It is perhaps for this reason that her work is so often reproduced, as its split second appeal is derived from its keen ability to distill truths about our culture into digestible phrases.

As a teenager, Holzer moved to Florida to attend Pine Crest Preparatory in Boca Raton before enrolling at Duke University for college. Holzer’s next few years were itinerant, seeing her leave Duke to enroll at the University of Chicago and then at Ohio University in Athens, where she received her BFA in Painting and Printmaking. Holzer would go on to receive her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.

She married fellow RISD student Mike Glier in 1983 and had her daughter Lili in 1988.

Early Artwork

Holzer did not arrive at using text as the base of her artistic career without a few detours along the way. She began her life as an artist as an abstract painter, inspired by many of the great painters of Abstract Expressionism. By her own admission, she was only a decent third generation American abstract painter, as she felt that there was a more relevant way to communicate the fast-paced media culture that was on the rise in the late 70s and early 80s.

Motivated by the conviction that her work ought to include discernible content (rather than the formal content of abstraction), but feeling the genre of social realism to be increasingly of the past, Holzer began placing words in her work, often in the form of found objects such as scraps of newspaper and other clippings.

It was at this point that she began placing her work in public spaces to test their effect on passers-by. The realization that art could engage people who did not intend to see it, moving them to think or even provoking them to argue, motivated her to pursue text-based work.

Truisms and Inflammatory Essays

In her last year as an MFA student at RISD, Holzer rethought the inclusion of words in her work by using her own. She wrote a selection of one liners which were meant to distill truths encountered almost daily in Western civilization, which she then assembled into a series of posters. Though the phrasing of these posters was original, she sought to tap into universal sentiments that would seem familiar as ideas. “I want them to be accessible,” she said, “but not so easy that you throw them away after a second or two."

Among these statements are phrases like “ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE,” “PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT,” and “MONEY MAKES TASTE.” The Truisms, as they are known, have been posted in various locations throughout the world and have been translated into several languages.

From Holzer's "Survivor Series".  Getty Images

Thinking the Truisms too bland, Holzer began a series of political works also printed on posters in capital letters, which she called the Inflammatory Essays. With the allotment of a paragraph per poster, Holzer was able to dive into more complex ideas and explore more controversial topics.

Art, Technology, and Public Space

Holzer’s work has always been intertwined with technology, and in 1992 she began using LED signs for a project commissioned by the Public Art Fund for Times Square. Enthralled by their ability to display text in motion, she continued using the signs as they lent her words a neutral authority that the posters could not, as posters carried with them the connotation of anarchist protests. Since 1996, Holzer has worked with light based projections as installations, using the facades of monumental buildings as the canvas onto which she projects scrolling text. Holzer’s use of the institution as the base upon which her work rests has been the inspiration for numerous political protests since Holzer developed the method.

Though Holzer’s work is largely concerned with text, its visual expression is a key element of her work. From the deliberate eye catching colors of the Inflammatory Essays laid out in grids to the speed and font of her scrolling texts, Holzer is a visual artist who has found her voice in words, an artistic medium she found best expressed her views on the culture of media in which she came of age. The material of these signs—whether they be LED lights of the carved stone of her Sarcophagi series—is equally as important as their verbal content.

Jenny Holzer's light projections on the façade of 30 Rockefeller Plaza.  Getty Images

Holzer’s work centers around text and its placement in public spaces. Using billboards, jumbotrons, lighted signs, and walls, Holzer uses city streets and areas of public interaction as her canvas. She is interested in the ability of public art to provoke a reaction and perhaps start a conversation.

Not all Holzer’s work is staged outdoors, and when she does exhibit in gallery spaces, she is equally deliberate with their curation as she is when planning work publicly. As she is conscious of the museum goers slowed pace, she takes the opportunity to construct more complex interactions among her works, often juxtaposing different mediums.

Reception and Legacy

Holzer’s work has been presented in countless exhibitions and retrospectives across the world. She has won numerous prizes, including the Golden Lion for Best Pavilion at the 1990 Venice Biennale (where she represented the United States), and has been honored by the French Government with a diploma of Chevalier from the Order of Arts and Letters. In 2018, she was selected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, one of 250 living members.

Sources

  • Art 21 (2009). Jenny Holzer: Writing & Difficulty. [video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CxrxnPLmqEs
  • Kort, C. and Sonneborn, L. (2002). A to Z of American Women in the Visual Arts. New York: Facts on File, Inc. 98-100.
  • Waldman, D. Jenny Holzer. (1989). New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in association with Henry N. Abrams.
  • Tate (2018). Jenny Holzer's Inflammatory Essays: Why I Love. [video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONIUXi84YCc