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?’”