American conceptual artist Jenny Holzer finds her outlet in words. She started out making large-scale public installations, pasting signs in public spaces, guerrilla style. She has used billboards, t-shirts, books, video, and—notably—LED signs to get her messages across. Her focus is exploring the power of language and how it helps us communicate, but also to conceal and control. “I used language because I wanted to offer content that people—not necessarily art people—could understand,” she said.
Holzer’s early and well-known work was the series, “Truisms’” which she undertook while a student at the Whitney Museum. It involved pasting large signs across New York with quotes like, “ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE,” and “PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT.” These mottoes, phrases, and quotations have since been splashed across posters, t-shirts, even condom wrappers. They are often known to challenge the status quo and the practices of government and corporate America.
She views language as a tool that is fundamental and can be used to manipulate or inspire, depending on who is putting the language to use. In one of her recent small-scale paintings, she abstractly displays military and government papers, making sure to choose documents with redacted text. She is anti-authoritarian by nature and could be considered a 21st century Modernist.
Marshall McLuhan famously wrote that, “The medium is the message,” and Holzer has taken this to heart in her work, harnessing technology to her benefit. Since the 1990s, she has focused on using LED signs and light projections she shines on important architectural structures. She puts her controversial statements on trucks and drives them around the country. Holzer collaborated with the musician Drake at the Toronto premier of the film, Monsters and Men, a film about police brutality. According to The Cut, “In the atrium of the theater, Holzer projected the names of people killed by police between 2015 and 2018. Names appear and disappear in violent, rapid succession, like lives snuffed out by a gun.”
But Holzer leaves the final decision of right and wrong to the viewer. Her “Truisms” were written from different perspectives—not just blatant progressive proclamations. The voices can be contradictory. “It’s not so much left, right, center as it is about what happens to people in the world,” Holzer says. “People do the same ghastly and good things time and time again.”
Jenny Holzer lives and works in both Brooklyn and Hoosick Falls, New York. Her work can be found in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, among many others.
Holzer’s book Living was published in 1998 and uses words and language as an art medium, printed on chalk paper. Pictured here is Natalie’s copy from her personal library.