Jenny Holzer was born in 1950, a conceptual artist who has revolutionized the feminist art world with her unique use of text and language in art. Immensely influenced by artists such as Mark Rothko, Holzer grew up with the dreams of being an abstract painter. She experimented with abstract painting, however her style vastly evolved from this concept as she is most famous for her installation art. Holzer studied studio art at multiple universities including, Duke, University of Chicago, Ohio University, and RISD. Her career began to take off in 1976 when she moved to Manhattan to participate in the Whitney Museum’s independent study program. It was there that Holzer would experiment with language, installation, and public art. In 1989 she became the first female artist chosen to represent the United States at Italy’s Venice Biennale. Ever since, Holzer has been making revolutionary moves in the art world.
Jenny Holzer was active during the post feminism movement, in which she addressed issues she found important using the art of semantics. Few women artists, such as Barbara Kruger, have experimented with text in art like Jenny Holzer. Language as art was so appealing to Holzer because she found that majority of writing could be simplified into phrases majority of people could understand. She coined the term “Truisms” to describe these phrases she created. Some examples of her “Truisms” include, “Abuse of Power comes as no surprise”, “Children are the cruelest of all” and, “Romantic love as invented to manipulate women”. As she created more “Truisms” she began to make posters alphabetizing the phrases. Holzer started small posting these phrases building facades, telephone booths, and signs. By placing these phrases in a public place, people would be inspired to scribble their own commentary on the artwork expressing their emotions regarding these phrases. Holzer would stand near by and listen to people’s reactions. Eventually as her popularity increased her installations would becomes larger and more eccentric.
Jenny Holzer’s “Truism” “Men don’t protect you anymore” was a very popular piece. She displayed this “Truism” in multiple mediums, however the most influential one was her condom piece. This piece was part of the “Survival Series” done in 1983. She printed this phrase on multiple condoms. Her goal was to enlighten the public on the evolution of gender roles in society. The condoms bring an extra emphasis on how the responsibility is now placed on women to take care of their bodies. It also has an undertone of feminine power. The underlying message is women no longer need a man to take care of them, they have the ability as an powerful individual to take care of themselves. In other words, you don’t need a man by your side. Many of Holzer’s “Truisms” require the viewer to personally reflect on their lives to relate to the art piece. This one particularly appeals to the female gender in a very powerful way by addressing a very familiar topic.
The evolution of technology played a large role in the next stage of Jenny Holzer’s artwork. In 1982 Holzer’s “Truisms” went viral for the first time ever. Nine phrases flashed for forty second intervals each on a giant signboard in Times Square. Holzer skillfully combined her knowledge of semantics with modern advertising techniques to get her messages across to a large group of people in a very unique way. This piece was the start of her “Survival Series” which took place from 1983 to 1985. Her phrases during this time became more personal and expressed an urgent stance. The realities of everyday living, the dangers, and the underlying horrors were major themes. Holzer’s goal was to make sense out of contemporary life within the limits of a technological framework. With this she is suggesting the limitations of the information age, a world in which advertising consumes everything and an underlying message no longer exists. After the “Survival Series” Holzer’s art became more monumental in size. She progressed from electronic signboards to projecting text on the exterior of megalithic building structures.
One of Jenny Holzer’s popular projections was on the Arno River Bank done in Florence in 1996. A variety of text was projected including “I smell you on my skin, I say the word, I say your name”. Once again this art piece reflects of Holzer’s feminist themes in her artwork. The meaning behind the piece is Holzer’s reflection on her relationship with males, and more generally speaking the stereotypical male/female relationship. This idea that women are more emotional than men and pine over them constantly is illustrated here. However, the full text gives power to women, she liberates this scenario by implying that women have the power to always have “the last word” in a relationship. In addition, the size of this art piece plays a huge role in the meaning. The text would be massive compared to the size of an average person, thus these words hoover over and haunt the people who pass by. Hence, this ominous invisible voice is given the power, not the viewer.
Holzer’s later installations became strictly focused on virtual art. She began producing art installations in rooms in which there would be various huge electronic signboards streaming running text. Holzer’s words were sometimes translated into multiple languages in order to communicate the message to an international audience. It gave the appearance as if the text was spiraling the room. Her artwork art this time was much more interactive than before with the viewer. People were no longer looking at a sign as they passed by but rather had to make an effort to follow the text. In one installation she had the rolling signboards installed on the ceiling in which the audience was required the lay down on the floor to understand the message. Holzer claims that this was one of her favorite art pieces because she could see the dedication of her audience if they were willing to get into these uncomfortable positions to view her art.
Holzer withdrew from the art world for a bit after this for a few years and returned in 1993 with a fresh approach to her art. She now emphasizes intertextuality in her artwork by borrowing the texts of other. Some writers she has borrowed from include Henri Cole and Mahmoud Darwish. She also uses text from different contexts, which include things such as speeches and interviews. Her main goal is to enlighten the public to something that has been silenced and hidden. This is why she was such an influential character to the feminist movement. Many of her “Truisms” brought attention issues in society that degrade women. Thus, she was successful in her goal to bring attention to such matters in a big way.
- Look up “Jenny Holzer’s Truisms” and choose one you like to and its impact.
- Do you think “Truisms” send their intended message effectively with how short the message is?
- Do you think Holzer is an important component to feminist art history? Why or why not?
- What kind of emotions does Jenny Holzer’s are invoke in yourself?
- In what ways in Holzer’s public art similar to that of performance art?
- Holzer, Jenny, Eckhard Schneider, and Henri Cole. Jenny Holzer: Truth before Power. Bregenz [Austria: Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2004. Print.
- “Jenny Holzer – Biography & Art – The Art History Archive.” Jenny Holzer – Biography & Art – The Art History Archive. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2013. <http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/contemporary/Jenny-Holzer.html>
- “Jenny Holzer.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2013. <http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/jenny-holzer>.
- Joselit, David, Joan Simon, Renata Salecl, and Jenny Holzer. Jenny Holzer. London: Phaidon, 1998. Print.
- Rogers-Lafferty, Sarah. Jenny Holzer, Cindy Sherman: Personae. Cincinnati, OH: Contemporary Arts Center, 1986. Print.