An American Neo-Conceptualist artist, Jenny Holzer (born 1950) utilized the homogeneous rhetoric of modern information systems in order to address the politics of discourse. In 1989 she became the first female artist chosen to represent the United States at Italy’s Venice Biennale.
Jenny Holzer was born July 29, 1950, in Gallipolis, Ohio, into a family of two generations of Ford auto dealers. She completed her undergraduate degree at Ohio University in Athens after attending Duke University and the University of Chicago. While enrolled in the Rhode Island School of Design, Holzer experimented with an abstract painting style influenced by the color field painters Mark Rothko and Morris Louis. In 1976 she moved to Manhattan, participating in the Whitney Museum’s independent study program.
Holzer’s conception of language as art, in which semantics developed into her aesthetic, began to emerge in New York. The Whitney program included an extensive reading list incorporating Western and Eastern literature and philosophy. Holzer felt the writings could be simplified to phrases everyone could understand. She called these summaries her “Truisms” (1978), which she printed anonymously in black italic script on white paper and wheat-pasted to building facades, signs, and telephone booths in lower Manhattan. Arranged in alphabetical order and comprised of short sentences, her “Truisms” inspired pedestrians to scribble messages on the posters and make verbal comments. Holzer would stand and listen to the dialogues invoked by her words.
The participatory effect and the underground format were vital components of Holzer’s “Truisms” and of her second series, the “Inflammatory Essays,” which laconically articulated Holzer’s concerns and anxieties about contemporary society. Holzer printed the “Essays” in alphabetical order, first on small posters and then as a manuscript entitled The Black Book (1979). Until the late 1980s, Holzer refused to produce them in any non-underground formats because of their militant nature. Her declarative language assumed particular force and violence in the multiple viewpoints of the “Essays,” ranging from extreme leftist to rightist.
Holzer initiated the “Living Series” in 1981, which she printed on aluminum and bronze plaques, the presentation format used by medical and government buildings. “Living” addressed the necessities of daily life: eating, breathing, sleeping, and human relationships. Her bland, short instructions were accompanied with paintings by the American artist Peter Nadin, whose portraits of men and women attached to metal posts further articulated the emptiness of both life and message in the information age.
The medium of modern computer systems became an important component in Holzer’s work in 1982, when nine of her “Truisms” flashed at forty-second intervals on the giant Spectacolor electronic signboard in Times Square. Sponsored by the Public Arts Fund program, the use of the L.E.D. (light emitting diode) machine allowed Holzer to reach a larger audience. By combining a knowledge of semantics with modern advertising technologies, Holzer established herself as a descendant of the conceptualist and Pop Art movements. She again utilized the electronic signboard with her “Survival Series” (1983-1985), in which she adopted a more personal and urgent stance. The realities of everyday living, the dangers, and the underlying horrors were major themes. Correlating with the immediacy of the messages, Holzer adopted a slightly less authoritarian voice. Her populist appropriation of contemporary “newsspeak” crossed the realm between visual art and poetry and carried a potent expressive force.
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