The text art of Jenny Holzer: “crummy signs, my speciality?”

Published 23 September 2017

As the pioneering American artist covers Blenheim Palace with her provocative text-based work this autumn, she discusses a career of making art with words.

    • Jenny Holzer RA was born in 1950, and grew up in a small town in Ohio. “Strangely, I thought I was an artist when I was very little. I drew well and naturally – an ability which has since deserted me entirely. I drew the story of Noah’s Ark on a scroll of paper. I don’t know if it was any good, but it was certainly ambitious.” The only famous artist she knew of was Picasso (she had seen photographs): “you know, a short lusty man in a bathing suit at the beach. How could I be that?” So being an artist seemed impossible.

      Holzer didn’t return to her early ambition until her third year at college: “at which time I gave up on the idea of being intelligent, so art came back as a possibility.” Her first idea was to paint like Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko. “But I soon sobered when I realised that I wasn’t going to be Rothko in a year or two, maybe never.”

      When she finally decided to become an artist, Holzer says, “I was in such a hurry that I gave up on painting for 25 or so years. So, in desperation I went to text as a way to carry content”. She was on a study programme at New York’s Whitney Museum, where her tutor produced such a daunting reading list that she “had to shrink it – or die”. She condensed it into pithy text statements that became her first major series, Truisms (1977–79).

      The Truisms texts – Lack Of Charisma Can Be Fatal, Money Creates Taste, Men Are Not Monogamous By Nature – were first printed on sheets of paper, and stuck up around Manhattan. “Inevitably I agreed with some of them, but since they were written from so many points of view there are many that I find nonsensical or even reprehensible. But I can imagine various people thinking them, holding them, positing them. So I offered them up to myself and others, asking: ‘How do you cope – within and without – when all these views are present, sometimes clamouring, sometimes fighting, sometimes murderous?’”

      Jenny Holzer Hon RA in the Saloon at Blenheim Palace

      Jenny Holzer Hon RA in the Saloon at Blenheim Palace

      Photo: © Jooney Woodward

    • Truisms later appeared on posters, T-shirts and stone benches. Subsequent works took the form of LED lights, silk-screen paintings and billboards – “crummy signs, my speciality?” – and projections on buildings or water. “The text might be projected on a river and the water will do plenty to it – then when a duck or a rat swims through, perfect! A momentarily interrupted word, courtesy of a rat.”

      At Blenheim Palace this autumn, her work will appear projected onto the baroque masonry of the exterior (she finds its silhouette “somewhere between aggressive and funny and fascinating and illogical”), carved into stone benches and beaming from LED-sign pieces throughout the principal rooms of the palace, which include the Saloon (seen in the portrait of the artist above), a dining room with wall paintings created in 1718 by Louis Laguerre, as well as exquisite objets d’art.

      Holzer has created works for many celebrated buildings, including museums by Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe, and the Giorgio Cini Foundation in Venice. Usually, she says, fright is her first reaction. Next she walks around and around the building. “Walking and looking – I’m less frightened when I’m in motion. Somehow that helps me absorb what’s there and gives me a better chance of joining it: intelligently, respectfully and yet with adequate strength. Because even when those great architects are dead they can roll you – and I don’t like to be rolled.”

      SOFTER: Jenny Holzer at Blenheim Palace, 28 September – 31 December (light projections, 7.15–9pm, until 10 October).

      Jenny Holzer, Untitled, from The Washington Series

      Jenny Holzer, Untitled, from The Washington Series, 2007.

      © 2007 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

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