Once described as “the art world’s soothsayer,” Jenny Holzer, she of poetic text-and-light installations, is known the world over for her powerful text-based critiques and predictions of subjects ranging from advertising and consumer behavior to issues of torture and mortality. “Technology will make or break us,” one of Holzer’s text works announces with startling clarity. Trained as a painter, Holzer began in the 1970s to play around with text and public space as elements in her work. “I made pigeons eat geometry by putting bread out in rhomboids and triangles. I don’t know if this activity made sense, but the work was available. And I ripped my paintings and left long colored ropes at the beach for people to puzzle over,” she said of this exploratory phase, in an interview with Kiki Smith for Interview Magazine. “Words arrived when I started to write on my paintings inside my studio.” As she is honored alongside Ai Weiwei and Kehinde Wiley at the upcoming Brooklyn Artists’ Ball, we take a look at her practice through five works.
THE LIVING SERIES: YOU CAN MAKE YOURSELF ENTER SOMEWHERE... Text: Living, 1980-82, 1981
In the ’70s, Holzer began wheat-pasting posters around Lower Manhattan, later creating hand-painted signs like this one. “I used language because I wanted to offer content that people—not necessarily art people—could understand,” she once said. Her “Truisms” series (begun in 1977) featured searingly frank statements, such as “Money Creates Taste” and “Deviants Are Sacrificed To Increase Group Solidarity.”
True Ribs, 2008
Co-opting the language of commercial signage to subvert it, Holzer began her LED signs in 1982, entrancing viewers with vibrant hues, pulsating lights, and aphorisms. Manipulating the speed and patterns of these light-emitting signs, she designs the rhythms and directions the text moves in. Her text-based works have also appeared on billboards, condoms, and t-shirts, among other surfaces.
YOU ARE MY OWN, 2006
Holzer’s public text projections have been seen from Florence, Vienna, and Oslo to New York, Singapore, and Rio de Janeiro. These range from the tender and confessional (“Protect Me From What I Want;” “I Smell You On My Skin”) to the haunting and disturbing (“The Terrorist, He’s Watching”)
SELECTION FROM SURVIVAL: MEN DON'T PROTECT..., 2006
Also working in sculpture, Holzer here engraves the text “MEN DON’T PROTECT YOU ANYMORE” into a marble footstool that recalls war memorials and religious monuments, invoking the military-industrial complex and subverting its rhetoric, as well as a history of a Western world driven by male pursuits.
At Times It May be Necessary, 2012-2013
Her recent work includes silk-screened paintings of declassified government memos, some of which relate to military interrogation methods, that she has transformed into semi-abstract color-block paintings. These mirror and accentuate the government’s techniques of secrecy and concealment.