Jenny Holzer


“Art is meant to disturb” Georges Braque
“Death is the modern issue” Jenny Holzer

Oh, the rich: they’re so smart.
Targeted by artist and populist propagandist Jenny Holzer in slogans like PRIVATE PROPERTY CREATED CRIME, INHERITANCE MUST BE ABOLISHED and IT’S NOT GOOD TO LIVE OFF CREDIT, the capitalist corporations and collectors, the art elite and art-buying banks respond simply and swiftly: they simply buy the stuff.
KNOW YOUR ENEMY is one thing, INVEST IN HER is altogether more effective: it not only challenges art’s ability to disturb or subvert, it derides the substance of her work and questions whether Holzer – one of art’s most feted subversives – has made any genuine impact at all.
“Have I reformed any bankers you mean?” she considers. “It’s a good question. I doubt it. The first hazard of notoriety is that they just think, ‘Oh, maybe I can make some money off this’. You question if you’re just helping someone make money who probably has a lot of it already.”
For once as earnest and politically oversensitive as Holzer, this is not something to be taken lightly. What’s more, her dilemmas are mounting. Much like Warhol, Hockney, Gilbert & George, Holzer is best known for what is probably her weakest work, the provocative, high-impact ‘Truisms’ which made her name – PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT, MONEY CREATES TASTE, MURDER HAS IT’S SEXUAL SIDE.
Having forged a reputation for displaying her work on T-shirts and baseball caps, on electronic signboards in Piccadilly Circus and Times square, on New York payphones, parking meters and the Virgin Megastores till slips, Holzer’s work has progresses in such a way that public display has become increasingly difficult. Not only has she learnt to excel at huge museums installations, but the cost of them has soared into hundreds of thousands of dollars.
You might wonder if she doesn’t hanker for the days of 1979’s ‘Inflammatory Essays’, displayed anonymously but effectively on plain posters scattered around New York (apparently inspired by a Manhattan crazy who filled the Times Square area with warnings against leprosy): DON’T RELAX. I’LL CUT THE SMILE OFF YOUR FACE… raged one essay. THE GAME IS ALMOST OVER SO IT’S TIME YOU ACKNOWLEDGE ME. DO YOU WANT TO FALL NOT EVER KNOWING WHO TOOK YOU ?
“The work has the most impact anonymously on the street, when they’re not thinking about whether it’s ‘art’ or not. They confront the content. I try to hit the issues which people actually live or die by.”
The point of her work has not changed.
“This sounds completely pretentious and unrealistic, but, hey, why stop now…” she says with a harsh laugh.
“To keep everybody from dying horribly. That’s the stakes to make… You could always be dead in a second, simply through good old-fashioned political means.”
Her subjects, by and large, are death (fear of death, nuclear death, sexual death, deliberate death); survival; power and control – political and personal. Fear, pain, anger, uncertainty ensue. Anything except art: Holzer is, mercifully, uninterested in self-referential cleverness.
Despite the resonance of her slogans in the LED form she has made her own, she dismisses the notion of making statements on ‘the power of modern-day mass communications’ or ‘mass-media consciousness’; statements that critics read into her work nonetheless.
‘”It’s only in the art world that it’s seen as ‘ a comment on’. It’s just a good gizmo,” she shrugs. “I like the LED’s efficiency and shock value, their hypnotic quality.”

HOLZER came to New York via Ohio and Chicago Universities, the Rhode Island School of Design and, initially, Gallipolis, Ohio. Her mother taught riding and worked in community services, her father was a ford dealer. She could have gone into the horse business, like her sister.
“I did some campaigning, in between bouts of nihilism and sloth. Now I’m just a standard leftie-liberal. A Democrat… I wanted things to not be horrible but would sometimes decide it was stupid to try, embarrassing. I didn’t want to be listened to, no, but I had ideas that I thought I wanted listened to.”
She “drew wildly” as a child, before becoming “a kind of stripe painter”, but now she hasn’t painted for fourteen years. ‘No painting seemed perfect. I wanted to be explicit, explicit about big issues, the burning issues, about right and wrong. Painting striking miners didn’t seem right.”
Her main influence was Dada, “the poignantly absurd, which is the best kind of absurdity.”
She talks of Duchamp and Joseph Kossuth’s billboards giving her ‘permission’ to start the ‘Truisms’ that she’d pare down after reading the likes of Lenin, Hitler, Mao, Emma Goldman, and ‘the Utopian social theorists’ (“anyone with an axe to grind”).
A series of “new clichés”, extreme beliefs and biases, personal fears and public prejudices, often openly contradictory, the ‘Truisms’ (1977-1979) were designed above all to provoke. Truth was arbitrary. “Each statement had equal weight, she said, “in the hope that the series would instil some sense of tolerance in the viewer.”
Initially effective and direct, the ‘Truisms’ that are true seem obvious (A MAN CAN’T KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE A MOTHER, A LOT OF PROFESSIONALS ARE CRACKPOTS, LACK OF CHARISMA CAN BE FATAL; those that aren’t seem irrelevant, even corny.
Without gender or personality, they had a neat Big Brother air to them, particularly showing in Times Square or on American sports scoreboards, but the tone of total neutrality and ambiguity meant that ultimately they lacked emotional weight. Too many had the shallow shock value or wacky wisdom of a Laure Anderson or a Douglas Adams. Holzer is modest about their public impact, accepting that it ranges from mild curiosity to utter indifference, but rarely to outrage, and she deflects any suggestion of innovation, praising the likes of Sherrie. Levine, Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger (“comrades”), Bruce Nauman’s neon’s, Keith Haring and graffiti artists like Lee Quinones.
Holzer’s career, her work and probably her life changed when she was offered the use of the Spectacular Board at Times Square in 1982.
Although the slogans at Times Square were still unidentified and unsigned, Holzer’s own sense of responsibility had altered; she found she only wanted to use truisms with which she agreed. Perhaps she had foreseen the limits of art’s subversiveness, that art offers only safe subversion. Putting MONEY CREATES TASTE outside Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas is a cute irony but not emotionally affecting (to be fair Holzer doesn’t claim otherwise). Holzer is notably pragmatic in such negotiations and has rarely ruffled any official feathers.

ALTHOUGH she states unequivocally “I’m glad the truisms are over”, she still mines them for new exhibitions and a series of ‘blips’, for MTV.
“That’s the good thing about clichés,” she laughs. “They good for eternity.”
Television remains the only subversive medium open for her although as she points out: “Nowadays, people expect wired weird stuff or MTV.”
For less then $100, she can get FORGET THE DEAD seen during a local Laverne & Shirley or during the CBS Morning News across Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts.
As the Eighties unfurled, Holzer was embraced by the art world. Just as the shadow of nuclear war and AIDS gave her work a focus and emotional substance it had lacked. Unlike Koons or Kruger, Holzer finally justified her notoriety. The ‘survival’ ‘Under a Rock’ and Laments’ series had a harder, more personal edge, with less of the shallow shock value and smug ambiguity of the ‘Truisms.
Expanding her texts, Holzer incorporated the dazzling LEDs into granite benches and wide circles of solemn sarcophagi made to exact dimensions and engraved with a memorial script for the government the Thirteen sarcophagi represented “thirteen dead people – children and adult speaking their final thoughts, the most important things they have to say. It was imaging yourself to death in thirteen different ways.
“Those coffins are the real me,” she says with a terse laugh. “That’s about as bleak as I can get and still stay alive… The last time I had fun writing was at school. If you’re gonna do it right and you’re writing about grotesque things, you have to think about them.”
Ecstatic critics described Holzer’s installations at the Venice Biennale and New York’s Guggenheim as like “a mausoleum of the future”, “a drive-in movie in a cemetery” and “post-modern religious art”, although Holzer said the analogy between the scared hush of museum and church was unintentional.
At the brilliant Venice installation, a sizzling, strobing LED room nicknamed ‘the microwave’ for its sensory assault, slogans were flashed up in different colours, patterns and languages. The room’s red glow and buzzing LEDs created a fast, funeral atmosphere that made the ‘Laments’ strangely moving. The clever contrast between the flashing technology and still classicism of the stone, encompassing the trivial with the tragic, finished the effect: ‘Laments’ was, finally art that you felt rather than thought about.
But the Guggenheim installation was the LED’s true triumph. With the sombre benches circled in a Stonehenge-like campfire in the atrium, viewers looked up at a 530- foot electric boar, bearing 330 messages, spiralling up its insides, leaving the gallery walls dark and empty and the adjoining ramps as the viewing space.
Contemporanea magazine said she “led the viewer almost hypnotically into a state of existence somehow distinct from any ordinary level of consciousness”. Holzer had finally found equal power in her visual architecture and her text.
“A lot of information doesn’t come from the text. It has a lot of sensations. I like to have it all,” she smiles wryly.
With ‘Laments’, Holzer’s painstaking ambiguity/neutrality gave way to frank despair and almost bitter idealism, a development that coincided (or not) with the birth of her daughter Lilly.
“It’s like being 19 again and being desperate to have things to fixed… The bad thing is, you add another person to the world, could be one more like Attila,” she mutters dourly.
“I’ve always shielded away from anything identifiably female, because people dismiss it as a hormone-mad female. I’m glad I did it once but not again”.
The recent installations have created a fascinating art, like a theme park in which 2001’s HALL has been rewritten by Beckett. Beckett is sufficient as a model for at least another twenty years. The precision of the language. The big subjects. Plus he’s funny, black, sick… all those good words.”
She has tried short stories, but “can’t sustain anything. I get to write one day out of twenty. I write maybe one good sentence every three months… In the West, the novel seems to have had it. I don’t like to write like Burroughs… The ‘Laments’ aren’t poetry, no. They’re just stuff on a rock. I’m not interested in poetry, I don’t usually enjoy it. Just a personality defect of mine.”
Now 40, Holzer talks of returning to the more provocative, less personal statements. “It’ll come and go. I don’t want to make a career out of bleeding in public.
“Her next project could be a war memorial in Germany “which seems really to the point” She talks of the possibilities of lasers, but sceptical about the viability of product placement (or pronouncement placement), possibly as a result of Dennis Hopper’s woeful Backtrack, where Jodie Foster plays a sort of Holzer-esque artist (“she carries around an electronic equipment and sings a lot”).
“I’d want an AIDS text on a Pepsi can, or ROMANTIC LOVE WAS INVENTED TO MANIPULATE WOMEN on a box of chocolates.”
Money IS unlikely to prove an issue -especially after Venice and the divided between grants, gallery, artist and private sponsor. One critic however, still likened the ‘Laments’ benches to “pseudo-sepulchers” – “chatty garden furniture for rich collectors.”
In 1998, Art News reported Holzer LEDs (which come, unnecessarily, in limited editions of three to six) were selling for $10,000 to $25,000. Granite benches for $40,000 and sarcophagi for $50,000 and over. Sales were (wisely) frozen well before the Venice Biennale.
When asked, Holzer’s gallery, the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York, declined the opportunity to refute or clarify rumours of the exorbitant prices Holzer’s work is now fetching – despite the artist’s populist stance. One leading London gallery described such furtive secrecy as “unheard of “and” quite extraordinary”.
Holzer herself demurred to the gallery’s decision, but commented the price would be “appalling” were it not for the very inexpensive “art” – the T-shirts “($25)’ the caps ($15) and booklets ($25).
She says she tries to vet collectors, “to make sure, 1) that they like it, 2) that they understand IT, and 3) it still travels. It may be completely dweeb-like,” she apologizes, “but I care about these pieces, I made them.”
Still, money does not seem to be one of Holzer’s major motivations and neither does the political missionary element.
“I like the mystical trance number a lot more then the proselytizing, the desire to convert,” she beams with rare enthusiasm. “Art is a cleaner transcendent than religious ecstasy I find… Art does a good job with the mystical fix, you can definitely get cross-eyed with art.”