Feminist Artist

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 pjenny-holzer-t-shirteople 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.

tumblr_mb9qcimsJj1qz8y11o1_1280Jenny 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 sholzer-003tage 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. 1_ Xenon for Berlin-1

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_6 Jenny Holzer_Arno_1950

Holzer’s later installations became strictly focused on virtualcd0d08fa 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.

Discussion Questions

  1. Look up “Jenny Holzer’s Truisms” and choose one you like to and its impact.
  2.  Do you think “Truisms” send their intended message effectively with how short the message is?
  3. Do you think Holzer is an important component to feminist art history? Why or why not?
  4. What kind of emotions does Jenny Holzer’s are invoke in yourself?
  5. 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&gt;
  • “Jenny Holzer.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2013. <http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/jenny-holzer&gt;.
  • 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.

8 thoughts on “Feminist Artist

  1. What kind of emotions does Jenny Holzer’s are invoke in yourself?

    Holzer’s art makes me feel fired up and passionate about feminist ideas. I find her art appealing to young audiences like myself. “Truisms” (Men Don’t Protect You Anymore) is my favorite because it really makes me wonder what type of role I play in my relationships with men. I think that sometimes I like to assume that I am being stronger and independent than I actually am. I also love, “I smell you on my skin, I say the word, I say your name.” So often in college you see girls that will dwell over boys and let them completely effect their emotions, but this piece gives girls like me that chance to step up and have the last say. I think it is so powerful and it makes me want to really focus on becoming the best woman I can be.

  2. 5. In what ways in Holzer’s public art similar to that of performance art?
    I appreciate that Holzer’s public art is not afraid of itself. She is not afraid to be bold and place her art in public for everybody to see. This is what performance art does. It is very “in-your-face.” It needs to be like this so the public will understand its meaning. The artist has an intended audience, but the audience is unaware that they are an audience until they see the piece and are forced to analyze the meaning.

  3. 2. Yes, I believe Holzer’s “truisms” definitely convey her message even though they are short. Sometimes short and simple is the easies to understand and most impacting. I find her “Men don’t protect you anymore” condom campaign to be extremely effective. Especially if discussed in the context of this era. During this time, women were gaining reproductive rights and the control of their own bodies. The condom campaign, physically represents what she is saying through the idea that women must take care of themselves now through birth control (IF they desire). There is no telling which man is truly looking out for you which is why, as women, we must look our for ourselves. This is why I believe her short “truisms” are highly effective. They detail so much in one little piece.

  4. What kind of emotions does Jenny Holzer’s are invoke in yourself?
    When I look at Holzer’s work, I feel empowered. Her work is very bold and modern. I love how honest and straightforward her pieces are. She doesn’t ‘dilly-dally’ and dance around what she’s trying to say. And I think this is very important, especially when the desired audiences is the public, because they won’t take the time to understand art. It sort of needs to be spoon-fed to them.

  5. 2. Do you think “Truisms” send their intended message effectively with how short the message is?

    I think part of “Truisms” success is how short their messages are; they are short and to the point. I especially like her condom piece that says “men don’t protect you anymore”. It is only 5 words but its impact is great. Nothing is being explicitly said, but the viewer can understand the message Holzer is trying to convey. I can see her influence from Barbara Kruger (my feminist artist!) as her “Truism”s are making the viewer question the origin of issues rather than what side you’re supposed to pick on a matter. So yes, I think Holzer’s pieces send their intended message very effectively.

  6. Look up “Jenny Holzer’s Truisms” and choose one you like to and its impact.


    I completely agree with this truism and find it to be timelessly important. As cliche as it is and what I’m about to say is, it can’t be discredited due to how “cliche” it is. Life is so short that if you’re not happy it really is meaningless. Without happiness it doesn’t matter how much money you make, what degrees you have, what your house looks like, etc. All that matters is that you’re free and happy. Holzer’s presentation of these truisms is blunt, overwhelming, and to the point- a wake up call to society in exactly the manner that’s necessary

  7. As independent as I am as a woman in a 3rd world country can be, the “men don’t protect women” campaign I believe could’ve been worded better. May be I failed to receive her message which I see now in this article but when I came across it first It sounded like the artist is generalising men because some are killing in the name of honour. Well there are still some who aren’t. But like I said I see what she s trying to say now that i read this article but this could’ve been reworded. My dad still protects me. So does my husband and my brother and my male colleagues you know? feminism shouldn’t be about demeaning men.

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