Jenny Holzer

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Jenny Holzer
Jenny Holzer For the City.jpg
The third phase of Holzer's For the City, projected on the Fifth Avenue side of the New York Public Library, October 6–9, 2005
Born Jenny Holzer
(1950-07-29) July 29, 1950 (age 65)
Gallipolis, Ohio
Nationality American
Education Rhode Island School of Design
Known for Conceptual art

Jenny Holzer (born July 29, 1950)[1] is an American Neo-conceptual art artist who utilizes the rhetoric of modern information systems so as to address the politics of discourse. In 1989 she became the first female artist to represent the United States at Italy's Venice Biennale. Holzer lives and works in Hoosick Falls, New York.

Early life and education[edit]

Holzer was born in Gallipolis, Ohio. Originally aspiring to become an abstract painter,[2] her studies included general art courses at Duke University, Durham, NC (1968–1970), and then painting, printmaking and drawing at the University of Chicago, before completing her BFA at Ohio University, Athens (1972). In 1974, Holzer took summer courses at the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, entering its MFA programme in 1975.[3] In 1976 she moved to Manhattan, participating in the Whitney Museum's independent study program and beginning her first work with language, installation and public art.[2] She was also an active member of the artists group Colab.[4]


Installation in lobby at 7 WTC
Detail of 7 WTC installation

Holzer belongs to the feminist branch of a generation of artists that emerged around 1980, looking for new ways to make narrative or commentary an implicit part of visual objects. She is a member of Colab. Her contemporaries include Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Sarah Charlesworth, and Louise Lawler.[5]

Holzer is mostly known for her large-scale public displays that include billboard advertisements, projections on buildings and other architectural structures, as well as illuminated electronic displays. The main focus of her work is the use of words and ideas in public space. Originally utilizing street posters, LED signs became her most visible medium, though her diverse practice incorporates a wide array of media including bronze plaques, painted signs, stone benches and footstools, stickers, T-shirts, paintings, photographs, sound, video, light projection, the Internet, and a Le Mans race car.

Holzer's first public works, Truisms (1977–9), appeared in the form of anonymous broadsheets that she printed anonymously in black italic script on white paper and wheat-pasted to buildings, walls and fences in and around Manhattan.[3] These one-liners are a distillation of an erudite reading list from the Whitney Independent Study Program, where Holzer was a student.[6] She printed other Truisms on posters, T-shirts and stickers, then carved them in the stone of public benches. In late 1980 Holzer's mail art and street leaflets were part of the exhibit Social Strategies by Women Artists at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts curated and written about by Lucy Lippard.[7] In 1981, Holzer initiated the Living series, which she printed on aluminum and bronze plaques, the presentation format used by medical and government buildings. The Living series 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 the artist installed for the first time a large electronic sign on the Spectacolor board at Times Square, New York.[8] Sponsored by the Public Art Fund program, the use of light-emitting diode (L.E.D.) allowed Holzer to reach a larger audience. The texts in her subsequent Survival series, compiled in 1983-85, speak to the great pain, delight, and ridiculousness of living in contemporary society.[9] Holzer began working with stone in 1986. In her 1986 exhibition at Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York, she introduced a total environment, where viewers were confronted with the relentless visual buzz of a horizontal LED sign and stone benches leading up to an electronic altar. This practice culminated in the installation at the Guggenheim Museum in 1989 of a 163 meter-long sign, forming a continuous circle spiraling up the parapet wall.[8]

For the Venice Biennale in 1990, Holzer designed posters, hats, and T-shirts to be sold in the streets of Venice, while her LED signboards and marble benches occupied the solemn and austere exhibition space (the original installation is retained in its entirety in the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, the organizing institution for the American Pavilion at the 1990 Venice Biennale). Text-based light projections have been central to Holzer’s practice since 1996.[10]

Holzer wrote texts herself for a long time between 1977 and 2001. However since 1993, she has been mainly working with texts written by others. Some of these are literary texts by great authors such as the Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska, Henri Cole (USA), Elfriede Jelinek (Austria), Fadhil Al-Azawi (Iraq), Yehuda Amichai (Israel) and Mahmoud Darwish (Palestine). She also uses texts from different contexts, such as passages from de-classified US Army documents from the war in Iraq. For example, a large LED work presents excerpts from the minutes of interrogations of American soldiers who had committed human rights violations and war crimes in Abu Ghraib, making what was once secret public. Holzer's works often speak of violence, oppression, sexuality, feminism, power, war and death. Her main concern is to enlighten, bringing to light something thought in silence and meant to remain hidden.

The artist's focus on the use of language and ideas in public space often producing shocking juxtapositions such as comments on sexual identity and gender relations (“Sex Differences Are Here To Stay” on an unassuming New York movie theater marquee, for example) to flights of formal outrage (“Abuse Of Power Comes As No Surprise” in gigantic LED lights over Times Square). Critic Samito Jalbuena asserts that such deadpan social critique and semiotic ambiguities implicit in the interplay between the linguistic signifier and the concept signified are worthy elements of protest art, since they subvert hierarchy, and are against the perceived injustices of a largely patriarchal, fascist, and capitalist society.[11]

A more recent project Holzer has undertaken involves the use of redacted government documents.[12]

Selected works[edit]

Permanent displays[edit]

  • IT TAKES A WHILE BEFORE YOU CAN STEP OVER INERT BODIES AND GO AHEAD WITH WHAT YOU WERE TRYING TO DO. From The Living Series (1989), twenty-eight white granite benches with inscriptions, part of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden
  • Green Table (1992), a large granite picnic table with inscriptions, part of the Stuart Collection of public art on the campus of the University of California, San Diego
  • Installation for Schiphol (1995), permanent installation at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
  • Erlauf Peace Monument (1995), outdoor installation with texts memorializing lives lost and peace gained in World War II in Erlauf, Austria
  • Allentown Benches (Selections from the Truisms and Survival series) (1995), United States Courthouse, Allentown
  • Installation for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (1997) Permanent Installation, located off the main room of the Guggenheim Bilbao, with tall LED columns of text in English (red, on the front side) and Basque (blue, on the back side)
  • Oskar Maria Graf Memorial (1997), Literaturhaus, Munich
  • Ceiling Snake (1997), 138 electronic LED signs with red diodes over 47.6 meters, permanently installed at the Hamburger Kunsthalle
  • Bench (From the Survival Series of 8 benches) (1997), bench made of green marble at the Faulconer Gallery, Grinnell College; Portuguese inscription: NUM SONHO VOCE ENCONTROU UM JEITO DE SOBREVIVER E SE ENCHEU DE ALEGRIA. (IN A DREAM YOU SAW A WAY TO SURVIVE AND YOU WERE FULL OF JOY.)
  • Truisms selections on permanent LED displays and carved into stone benches outside of Gordy Hall on the campus of Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, installed 1998 [24]
  • There is a permanent LED sign along the top of the Telenor building in Oslo, Norway, installed in 2002.[25]
  • Untitled (1999), installation for Isla de Esculturas, Pontevedra, Spain
  • Blacklist (1999), permanent installation composed of 10 stone benches with engraved quotes from The Hollywood Ten located in front of the University of Southern California's Fisher Museum of Art[26]
  • Historical Speeches (1999), 4-sided electronic LED sign with amber diodes, permanently installed at the Reichstag, Berlin; the piece displays a selection of speeches given in the Reichstag and Bundestag, and plays for 12 days without repeating itself
  • The Black Garden of Nordhorn, the artist was commissioned to redesign a memorial to the fallen of Germany’s three previous wars, including World War II. Next to the existing monolithic monument, she designed a circular garden consisting of concentric rings of plantings and pathways.[27]
  • Installation for the U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building, Sacramento (1999), a collection of statements on law, justice, and truth gathered from various sources and inscribed on 99 paving stones on the ground floor of the Robert T. Matsui United States Courthouse in Sacramento, CA.[28]
  • Wanås Wall (2002), inscriptions on stones on the grounds of Wanås Castle, Knislinge, Sweden
  • Serpentine (2002), electronic LED sign with blue diodes, permanently installed at the Toray Building, Osaka
  • Untitled (2002), installation at University of Agder, Gimlemoen, Norway
  • 125 Years (2003), a site work at the University of Pennsylvania, celebrating 125 years of women at University of Pennsylvania
  • For Pittsburgh (2005), Holzer’s largest LED project in the United States boasting 688 feet of blue LED tubes attached to two edges of the roof of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Pittsburgh
  • For Elizabeth (2006), permanent outdoor work for the Vassar College campus consisting of twenty backless and armless granite benches, inscribed with the poetry of alumna and Pulitzer Prize-winner Elizabeth Bishop[29]
  • For 7 World Trade (2006), permanent LED installation in the 65-foot-wide, 14-foot-high wall in the lobby of 7 World Trade Center
  • For Novartis (2006/07), permanent LED installation at Novartis HQ, Basel, Switzerland
  • VEGAS (2009), LED installation commissioned for the parking lot of Aria Resort & Casino, Las Vegas
  • Bench (2011), marble bench at Barnard College; English inscription: "Stupid people shouldn’t breed." / "It’s crucial to have an active fantasy life."[30]
  • 715 Molecules (2011), commissioned installation at Williams College consisting of a 16 ½ -foot long and 4-foot wide stone table and four benches, the surfaces of which have been sandblasted with 715 unique molecules[31]


At the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 2007, Holzer presented a series of silk-screen paintings; each of the 15 same-size, medium-large canvases, stained purple or brown, bears an all-black, silk-screened reproduction of a PowerPoint diagram used in 2002 to brief President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and others on the United States Central Command’s plan for invading Iraq. Holzer found these documents at the Web site of the independent, nongovernmental National Security Archive (, which obtained them through the Freedom of Information Act, and has used them as source material for her work since 2004.[32] Other paintings depict confessions or letters from prisoners of all kinds and their families (parents pleading that the Army discharge rather than court-martial their sons); autopsy and interrogation reports; or exchanges concerning torture, as well as prisoners’ handprints and maps of Baghdad.[5] The censor’s marks are unmodified and the large sections of obscured text leave only sentence fragments or single words, echoes of the original content.[33] Holzer concentrates on documents that have been partially or almost completely redacted with censor's marks.[12]

Based on a declassified report on US special forces' activity at a base in Gardez, Afghanistan, a 2014 series of paintings explores the story of Jamal Nasser, an 18-year-old Afghan soldier who died in US military custody.[34]


Holzer’s first dance project was in 1985, “Holzer Duet … Truisms” with Bill T. Jones. In 2010, she collaborated with choreographer Miguel Gutierrez for the Co-Lab series at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. There were 10 dancers who performed in a room in which Holzer's words were projected along the walls.[35]


Holzer has also published several books, including A Little Knowledge (1979); Black Book (1980); Hotel (with Peter Nadin, 1980); Living (with Nadin, 1980); Eating Friends (with Nadin, 1981); Eating Through Living (with Nadin, 1981); and Truisms and Essays (1983).[36]


Solo exhibitions of Holzer's work have been held in institutions such as the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen/Basel and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2009), and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (2008). Other solo shows include Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (1988); Dia Art Foundation, New York (1989); Guggenheim Museum, New York (1989); Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (1991); Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg (2000); Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin (2001, 2011); Barbican Art Gallery, London (2006); BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead (2010), and DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art (2010). She has also participated in Documenta 8, Kassel (1987), as wells in group exhibitions in major institutions such as the Stedelijk Museum, Den Bosch, The Nederlands, the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.[37] Holzer will participate in the 9th Gwangju Biennale (2012).[38] According to the website for the 2015 'Dismaland' art installation led by Banksy, Holzer contributed works to the project.[39]

Jenny Holzer is represented in New York by Cheim & Read, in Berlin[citation needed] and London by Sprüth Magers,[citation needed] and in Paris by Yvon Lambert Gallery.[40]


Jenny Holzer was the first woman to represent the United States in the Venice Biennale in 1990, and for her pavilion she was awarded the Leone D'Oro that year. She has been the recipient of several important awards, including the Blair Award, presented by the Art Institute of Chicago in 1982, the Skowhegan Medal for Installation (1994), the Berlin Prize fellowship (2000), and a diploma of Chevalier from the Order of Arts and Letters from the French government (2002).[36] In 2010, Holzer was given the MOCA Award to Distinguished Women in the Arts; Holzer had designed the bronze plaque in the early 1994, which features one of the artist’s truisms: “It is in your self-interest to find a way to be very tender.”[41] She received the Crystal Award from the World Economic Forum in 1996 and the Barnard Medal of Distinction in 2011.[33] Holzer also holds honorary degrees from Williams College, the Rhode Island School of Design, The New School, and Smith College.[33]

Personal life[edit]

Holzer maintains a loft on Eldridge Street in Manhattan[2] and a studio in Brooklyn.[12] She bought a farm in the early 1980s. In her private collection, she has works by Alice Neel, Kiki Smith, Nancy Spero, and Louise Bourgeois.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Jenny Holzer". Art HIstory Archive: Biography & Art. Retrieved April 5, 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d Edward Lewine (December 16, 2009), Art House New York Times.
  3. ^ a b Jenny Holzer Tate Collection, London.
  4. ^ Tinti, Mary M. "Colab [Collaborative Projects, Inc.]." Grove Art Online. 24 Feb 2010. Retrieved 8 March 2015.
  5. ^ a b Roberta Smith (March 12, 2009), Sounding the Alarm, in Words and Light New York Times.
  6. ^ Jenny Holzer, Untitled (Selections from Truisms, Inflammatory Essays, The Living Series, The Survival Series, Under a Rock, Laments, and Child Text) (1989) Guggenheim Collection.
  7. ^ Issue: Social strategies by women artists : an exhibition Exhibition catalogue published in conjunction with show held November 14 - December 21, 1980. Text by Lucy R. Lippard and Margaret Harrison. Published by Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1980 ISBN 090526309X /9780905263090
  8. ^ a b Jenny Holzer, Untitled (1990) Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna.
  9. ^ Jenny Holzer Grinnell College, Grinnell.
  10. ^ Jenny Holzer, For the Guggenheim, September 26–December 31, 2008 Guggenheim Museum, New York.
  11. ^ Samito Jalbuena (January 28, 2014), "Hello, men of Asia, meet Jenny Holzer in Singapore", BusinessMirror.
  12. ^ a b c Kiki Smith (May 2012), Jenny Holzer Interview.
  13. ^ Roberta Smith (March 10, 1989), Flashing Aphorisms By Jenny Holzer at Dia New York Times.
  14. ^ Jenny Holzer: Da wo Frauen sterben bin ich hellwach, November 16 – December 12, 1993 Haus der Kunst, Munich.
  15. ^ Please Change Beliefs
  16. ^ Adaweb
  17. ^ "TWA Terminal Named as One of the Nation’s Most Endangered Places". Municipal Art Society New York, February 9th, 2004. 
  18. ^ a b "A Review of a Show You Cannot See"., Tom Vanderbilt, January 14, 2005. 
  19. ^ "Now Boarding: Destination, JFK". The Architects Newspaper, September 21, 2004. 
  20. ^ Jenny Holzer's For the City
  21. ^ 'For the Capitol': Illuminated Reflections on the Potomac
  22. ^ "Meanwhile, In Baghdad..." at the Renaissance Society
  23. ^ Jenny Holzer, For SAAM (2007) Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^ Jenny Holzer, Blacklist (1999) University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
  27. ^ Udo Weilacher, In Gardens: Profiles of Contemporary European Landscape Architecture. Boston: Birkhäuser, 2005.
  28. ^
  29. ^ Jenny Holzer’s Granite Ode to Elizabeth Bishop Honors Vassar President Vassar College.
  30. ^ Sharon Elizabeth Samuel (April 8, 2011), Ms. Wright Remembers: Barnard Alumna Donates Her Holzer New York Observer.
  31. ^ Williams Installs Artwork by Jenny Holzer Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown.
  32. ^ Ken Johnson (December 26, 2007), Jenny Holzer Makes Light of Poems and Beats Swords Into Paintings New York Times.
  33. ^ a b c Jenny Holzer: THE FUTURE PLEASE, September 13 - November 3, 2012 L&M Arts, Los Angeles.
  34. ^ Gareth Harris (September 12, 2014), Paintings honour dead Afghan soldier The Art Newspaper.
  35. ^ Claudia La Rocco (July 23, 2010), Her Words, His Movement, Their Collaboration New York Times.
  36. ^ a b Jenny Holzer Guggenheim Collection.
  37. ^ Jenny Holzer Skarstedt Gallery, New York.
  38. ^ "ROUNDTABLE announces participants". e-flux. Retrieved 2013-06-10. 
  39. ^
  40. ^ Jennie Holzer, Yvon Lambert. Retrieved March 30, 2014.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]