A run-in with the law seems apropos given that Holzer culled her textual materials from a hodgepodge of writings by incendiary figures who caused much controversy throughout their own careers. Then a student at the Whitney Museum of American Art
’s independent study program, Holzer was inspired by her assigned reading list, which included screeds by Mao Zedong, Vladimir Lenin, Emma Goldman, Adolf Hitler, and Leon Trotsky, among others. To provoke passersby, Holzer extracted these disparate voices into a uniform format of essays, each composed of 100 words arranged into 20 lines.
For Holzer, the street, unlike the museum, offered an egalitarian viewing experience. “I try to reach a broad audience, the biggest possible,” she said in a 1985 interview. Without an entrance fee, and with no assumption of previous knowledge, the project was free and exceptionally open to the public. “From the beginning,” Holzer explained, “my work has been designed to be stumbled across in the course of a person’s daily life.” (This also holds true for her contemporaneous “Truisms” series from 1978–87, consisting of photocopies similarly posted around New York that feature maxims like the oft-repeated “Abuse of power comes as no surprise.”)
At the time, Holzer estimated that bustling city dwellers would give her anonymous, unsigned works just seconds of their time. But in 1979, before late capitalism had transmogrified leisure into a luxury commodity, piqued pedestrians would stop and engage. “People would star things or underline parts,” Holzer told the Times. “Sometimes I would come back around and stand close enough to listen to people argue over them.”