New York-based artist Jenny Holzer came to prominence in the late 1970s and 1980s, developing a form of text-based art that emphasised the socio-political status of public communication, in contrast to some of the more impenetrable language-based work of her conceptualist peers. Until the end of July, Sprüth Magers in the West End of London presents a solo exhibition that provides an interesting small-scale survey of her practice.
Jenny Holzer, 'Damage is done by the tacit understanding...' Text: Living Series (1980-1982), 1981. Text on cast bronze plaque 15,2 x 24,1 cm / 6 x 9 1/2 in © 1981 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Courtesy of Sprüth Magers Berlin London.
Holzer has tended to operate outside art galleries, presenting cryptic and often provocative slogans via media such as pasted-up posters, outdoor electric signage and newsprint. Her role in the New York street art scene can be seen here in works from the series ‘Survival’ (1983–85) that are collaborations with groundbreaking graffiti artists Lady Pink and A-One.
Jenny Holzer, 'More people will be building hiding places …' Text: Living Series (1980-1982), 1981. Enamel on metal, hand-painted sign: black on white 53,3 x 58,4 cm / 21 x 23 in. © 1981 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Courtesy of Sprüth Magers Berlin London
Her texts such as ‘I am not free because I can be exploded anytime’ are superimposed on scenes that feature spray-painted monochrome figures in seeming despair. Elsewhere statements such as ‘When bleeding inside the head there is a metallic taste at the back of the throat’ and ‘Damage is done by the tacit understanding that certain aspirations are unsuitable for particular groups of people’ are declared on hand-painted signs, LED displays, embossed plaques and – in 'Little Queenie…’ (1989) – a memorial bench.
Jenny Holzer, 'Survival Series: More Survival: Red Diodes', Text: Survival (1983-85), 1985. Electronic LED sign: red diodes, black powder-coated aluminum housing 13,3 x 97,5 x 7,6 cm / 5 1/4 x 38 3/8 x 3 in © 1985 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NYCourtesy of Sprüth Magers Berlin London.
These hard-hitting phrases always hint at psychological or political truth but are never entirely clear, always complicated by unusual grammar, a strange juxtaposition or an unlikely metaphor. Holzer’s works thus always suggest the essential slipperiness of language and ideas, and how words relate to knowledge, both in the realm of public advertising and the art world.
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine