Utilising a variety of surfaces—from posters and canvas to stone benches, LED signs, buildings, and landscapes—American artist Jenny Holzer's text-based works draw upon some of the most pressing social issues of our time: power, gender, inequality, sex, and war.Read More
Holzer's use of text in her iconic 'Truisms' series (1977–1979) was partly motivated by the reading list at the Whitney Museum of American Art's Independent Study Program, in which she participated in 1976. Consisting of maxims, 'Truisms' offers different voices on life, from light-hearted and whimsical to provocative and contradictory, such as 'CHILDREN ARE THE HOPE OF THE FUTURE' and 'CHILDREN ARE THE CRUELEST OF ALL'. Along with 'Inflammatory Essays' (1979–1982), Holzer's second text-based series about concerns such as power relations, social control, and sexuality, Truisms initially appeared as anonymous posters put up throughout the streets of New York.
Holzer first began to gain critical attention in Europe in the early 1980s, when American artist Dan Graham—who had seen her 'Truisms' posters in New York—introduced her to German curator Kasper König. Following her participation in documenta 7 in 1982, Holzer held solo exhibitions at institutions and galleries such as Kunsthalle Basel (1984) and Monika Sprüth Galerie in Cologne (1986). Some of the artist's most well-known projects debuted in Europe, notably the projection of the words 'I SMELL YOU ON MY SKIN' on the bank of the Arno—a historically and culturally significant site in Florence—in 1996.
In the 1980s, Holzer also expanded her writings and choice of media. The 'Living' series (1980–1982), which appears on aluminium or bronze plaques, addresses everyday life, from the banal activities of eating and sleeping to relationships. In 1982 'Truisms' featured on the Spectacolor sign in New York's Times Square, prompting the artist to further experiment with LED signs and light projections. Other new materials in Holzer's practice included stone, inspired by the change of scenery when she left New York for the countryside in 1985.
Between 1989 and 1990, Holzer held a series of significant solo exhibitions in the United States and abroad. In 1989, she presented Laments (1989) at Dia Chelsea. It consisted of 13 sarcophagi inscribed with words by different individuals who were approaching death, and electronic signs. In the following year, she became the first female artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale and won the Golden Lion for best pavilion. Among the works she showed was Mother and Child (1990): a series of 12 LED signs reflecting on her personal experiences as a mother.
Since 2001, Holzer has drawn text from poetry, literature, and government papers to examine social and political tensions in the contemporary world. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are her primary concern in her painting series that reproduces declassified military documents by screen-printing or hand. In these paintings, the redactions are mostly in black, although Holzer sometimes adds colour to create semi-abstractions that recall works by artists such as Mark Rothko and Kazimir Malevich. At her solo exhibition Softer (2017) at Blenheim Palace, the artist juxtaposed her 'Redaction Paintings' and LED signs presenting testimonies by war veterans of the United Kingdom with the palace's historical portraits and paintings to confront the underside of wars glorified in the past and present.
Recent selected solo exhibitions include A LITTLE KNOWLEDGE, Tarmak 22, Gstaad-Saanen Airport, organised by Hauser & Wirth (2019); Thing Indescribable, a major retrospective exhibition at Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (2019); ARTIST ROOMS: Jenny Holzer, Tate Modern, London (2018); and War Paintings, Museo Correr, Venice (2015).
Biography by Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2020
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