Jenny Holzer

Righteous Rage

Text by Carlo McCormick //  Portrait by Maciek Kobielski


Here’s the shaggy dog, like a resort comedian of yore who must begin with a “funny thing happened on the way…” story: before I interview Jenny Holzer we are writing to one another. It’s a typical combination of the practical and mundane, arranging the how and when we get together, somewhat complicated by the fact that Holzer has been spending less time than usual in New York City during Covid, and more at her home upstate. She suggests that it would be best if I can find time to come visit her Brooklyn studio in Dumbo before we talk, adding, “I’m sorry not to be there but you will be spared the anxious gestures and wild word bursts.” Wild word bursts are something one might expect from one of the most important living text-based artists, her language, in both form and content, ripping through the rhetoric and reserve of contemporary cultural discourse with an acuity so jaggedly sharp that it might seem as untamed, impolite and unreserved as possible. We know better. Jenny Holzer understands the power of language as a matter of control and wields that potential through her own masterful command. She’s a great writer (although she vehemently disagrees) because she’s an impeccable editor. When we do get around to talking, she’s deliberate and mindful of her words, neither stream of consciousness nor scattershot, more like a sniper with deadly precision.


Jenny Holzer: Righteous Rage
From Truisms (1977–79), 1982, Electronic sign, 20 x 40 ft. Installation: Messages to the Public, Times Square, New York, 1982. © 1982 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY Photo © 1982 Lisa Kahane NYC


Jenny’s primary concern (“What are we going to talk about?”) is understandable. Most of what we call journalism is specific, profiles in promotion timed to an event, show, movie, record, book or other form of cultural production. Sadly, I have no such agenda, and increasingly feel the burden of hyping the latest to be an onerous task when the best of what I find is something far more continuous than singular. I suggest something more relaxed and directionless, like a conversation between two people who have known one another for many years but haven’t spoken in a while, something like catching up, which most of us seem to be doing as we stumble out of our respective pandemic isolations. I can tell already that she’s not too happy about this, but trust that a visit to her studio to see what she’s been doing will give some purposeful shape to such a vague mission. To state the obvious, it was absolutely crucial, in this anxious age of partial disclosure and delirious disinformation, to picture language as Holzer now does. A master of aphorisms that cut to the heart, and an inquisitor of the questions too problematic for easy answers, what writing does Jenny Holzer’s art land upon when words fail us?
When it comes to measuring a career over many decades, in considering an entirety while tracking specificity as it evolves through time, there are those rarest of artists who maintain a continuity, orbiting a creative center of gravity in ways both contiguous and contingent, while embracing change in ways that seem entirely unpredictable. For Jenny Holzer this kind of sustained development has typically revolved around fundamental shifts in topicality and media. If earlier bodies of work centered on the structural dynamics of power, subsequent endeavors could take on a variety of social issues, most recently addressing existential crises such as gun control, climate change and voting rights. Similarly, her migratory approach to presentation has spun out radical changes in the nature of what an art object might be, following the ephemeral and conceptual tenets of the text-based works on paper that she began posting on the streets some forty years ago, dramatic investigations of materiality that closely approximated sculpture or streamed into digital technologies. For such mutability, this steadfast resistance to reproducing the redundancy by which the market rewards “signature” work, it was all recognizably a Jenny Holzer. To arrive then, quite unprepared, to Holzer’s latest work and find oneself looking at abstract paintings is a shock to the system. By the measure of all she has done over her storied career, it was tantamount to finding out that she had moved on to ceramics or interpretive dance. Sometimes these things take a bit of time to follow.


Jenny Holzer: Righteous Rage
from Inflammatory Essays (1979–82), 1983 Offset poster, 17 x 17 in. / 43.2 x 43.2 cm
Installation: New York, 1983, © 1983 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY


To be clear, lest you think that one of the most purposeful artists out there has somehow lost the map, Holzer’s text paintings are still textual; it’s just that the language she contends with now is that which has been expurgated. In the most shameful kind of disclosure, heavily redacted (to the point of utter illegibility) government documents where deceit and implicit guilt hide behind the veil of national security, as if concealing the details of purportedly necessary crimes of state serving the greater good of repeating them time and again. It’s an odd sort of mapping of what cannot be explicated, a visual construct of all that remains unacknowledged. Painterly in ways that are absolutely seductive, built up from precious layers of gold leaf applied directly to the linen, shimmering and enveloping like religious iconography denuded of meaning, here is the erasure and abstraction of very real and visceral sociopolitical trauma with the tyrannical grace of Orwell’s Newspeak. “As a creature of the 1950s, when I’m quite sure so many things were just not spoken of, I find this manner of omission troubling and comforting,” Holzer tells me. Global tensions may escalate into heated wars, the myriad problems of systemic injustice may erupt in public strife, but we have learned well the strategies of cold war diplomatic double-talk and the polite ways in which we change the subject or look the other way. For all that is outspoken, we all do it to some degree in patterns of denial almost necessary for preserving our sanity.
When we can no longer talk about content, we end up talking about effect. Collapsing what the powers that be withhold with what we choose not to think about, and situating these systems of omission in the realm of aesthetics, we might also regard this as affect. Holzer admits that as a new student at Rhode Island School of Design, “I began as a pretty crummy abstract painter,” and she jokes that these new paintings are in some way her homage to suprematism. Perhaps they are indeed so, especially if we consider that Malevich’s (a Polish/Ukrainian Russian, if you want to chart this on a historically fraught geopolitical map) Black Square might have been based on a late nineteenth century racist print inscribed “Negroes Fighting in a Cellar at Night.” What we see in Plato’s Cave remains but a dim projection of our own darkness. Suprematist painting aside, though, this is the geometry of concealment. The more pertinent antecedent might be American abstraction in the postwar years. Here recent historical revisionism offers an intriguing reading of the investigations of the sublime wrought by abstract expressionist and color field painters as a way of contending with the fearsome advent of the atomic bomb while studiously avoiding the subject. What we see, yet fail to see, is what we get.


Jenny Holzer: Righteous Rage
Exhibition view: Jenny Holzer, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1989
© 1989 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY Photo: David Heald


Jenny Holzer, it turns out, does love color field painting, and rewards me by pointing to those discrete passages in her new work where color from underpainting briefly peeks out. Maybe at this terrible time, color field offers her a way to wrestle with what goes beyond words. Gold is the perfect medium for her to deal with this matter of transubstantiation. It’s an ideal alchemy, why in times of unfathomable trauma, we turn to artists for their uncanny ability to turn shit into gold. I offer the tired trope of how we’re no longer gilding the lily but gilding the turd, to which she rejoins with a reference to Maurizio Cattelan’s gold toilet seat (an ironic response to Trump’s déclassé glamour) but then points to Agnes Martin’s stunning 1963 gold painting, Friendship at the Museum of Modern Art. Either way there is agreement that the use of gilt is an apt homonym for guilt, as we stand unable to read Robert Mueller’s redacted texts. But what we see is just as important as what we do not see. “Hominids like to hunt,” she explains. “I like to spark hunting as it is good for street art and studio work.” Though her career has established her as a major artist in terms of the market, museums and large-scale public art projects, Holzer has kept her affinity for the street, appreciating it for the hunt, where often we “find nothing, or an intriguing fragment” and emphasizing how it too presents a kind of gilding – “I like dire content, but I stay away from the didactic sledgehammer.” She doesn’t quite apply a coat of sugar, but as much as we might call her a political artist, she’s always more like a social artist, engaging people and problems with an accessibility and empathy that eschews the shaming condescension of much political messaging in art.
The balance between the broad communicative mission of public art and the subtler inflections that resonate in the art world represents for Holzer a concomitant affection for the energy of the streets and the rigors of studio practice. She’s not just gilding paintings. To go beyond the vital but limited scope of anonymously addressing her local community that she enjoyed in the late seventies and early eighties, wheat-pasting her Inflammatory Essays on the streets of New York City, Jenny Holzer has embraced the power and potential of technology to expand the terms of this exchange. “I started my tech worship not long after I did a piece for the Times Square Spectacolor board in the early eighties,” Holzer recalls, referencing her breakthrough public art piece on the old Midtown Manhattan digital light sign (far from the spectacle fantasy of Blade Runner) that the artist Jane Dickson organized for the Public Art Fund, which opened up new vistas for street-based artists like Holzer and Keith Haring. “I decided I wanted my own digital signboard.” Working with an MIT-trained engineer, Holzer mastered this new medium as a revelatory genre unto itself, creating a free-flowing word animation along the rings of the Guggenheim Museum and producing an ongoing series of digital sculptures so mesmerizing that people actually stopped to read them as they began to populate the most popular contemporary art museums around the world. In this society of the spectacle, Jenny actually found a way to make people cease their constant distraction to talk pleasure (and pain) in the text.


Jenny Holzer: Righteous Rage
KUSHNER vaguely remembers, 2021 (detail) Platinum and red gold leaf and oil on linen
80 x 62 x 1.5 in. / 203.2 x 157.5 x 3.8 cm Text: U.S. government document
© 2021 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY Photo: Matthew Watson

Long before these kinds of relatively small-scale light boards became a ubiquitous urban architecture of intrusive advertising, let alone a welcomed presence in the contemplative hush of our cultural institutions, Holzer’s text sculptures (similar to the inscribed marble sarcophagi she produced as a kind of memorial statuary during the AIDS crisis) commanded our deficient attention because her art is predicated on understanding the power of words. Maybe, as they say, no one reads books anymore, but the sound-bite illiteracy of our culture is now written in the stupid tweets of angry and uninformed fools. Holzer may address art history in all of its complicated and contradictory legacy, but she’s really talking to anyone who still can stop to read a sign. When Holzer first began putting her words in the streets it was on a blank canvas of abandonment; today she fights against an endless stream of cajoling and co-opting commercialism. She’s upped her technological game to be heard in the din, working words as a kind of deafening silence to make us actually think about things, if only for a moment. She’s not done with technology, producing augmented reality projects, unexplainable to a Luddite like myself, and even confesses to having done an NFT – “Do I want applause or forgiveness for this?” she asks – but while the conveyance is a matter of art, the content is about something more. Call it memory, poetics or urgency; it is what needs to be said in the silence of selective amnesia.

Jenny Holzer: Righteous Rage
Kind of Blue, 2012, 9 LED signs with blue diodes, 0.9 x 120 x 576 in.Text: Laments, 1989. Permanent installation: Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, Texas. © 2012 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY Photo: Collin LaFleche


Providing eye candy for the bitterest of pills to swallow, Holzer has, in the past few years, mobilized fleets of LED sign trucks to fight for gun control using the words of Parkland shooting activists, and to advocate for voting initiatives and social justice with the words of Stacey Abrams and John Lewis. During last year’s climate summit in Glasgow, she projected scathing texts about our environmental precarity onto the building housing the conference, as well as other facades, translating the invective of Greta Thunberg’s “Blah blah blah” into a searing condemnation of our collective inaction and cynicism. At this point she seems happiest working with the words of others, be they activists, thinkers, public figures, as well as the wordlessness of documents redacted into oblivion. One of the most amazing series I saw in her studio, not yet publicly exhibited, recreates ancient Greek and Roman defixiones, or curse tablets, now featuring texts from Trump presidential tweets. She says she’s not a very good writer–and that kind of stings me as a one of lesser talents, but it is in keeping with an artist whose career has often been predicated on modes of partnership. “I rely heavily on collaboration in both my social and professional life,” she tells me. “I ran into Colab” – short for Collaborative Projects, a loose-knit collective of socially engaged artists that emerged in Downtown New York during the late seventies and included a stunning array of important artists like Holzer—“not long after I arrived in New York, and I co-organized the Manifesto Show with Coleen Fitzgibbon for them in 1979.” By now it seems that this manner of collaboration extends beyond the valuable kinds of conversations among artist communities, or even finding new ways to make her art, to what she refers to as “reaching bigger audiences.”


Jenny Holzer: Righteous Rage
Torso, 2007 (detail), 10 LED signs with blue, red & white diodes, 86.25 x 57.7 x 28.9 in.Text: U.S. government documents. Installation: DETAINED, Monika Sprüth Philomene Magers, London, 2008 © 2007 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY Photo: Stephen Brayne 


For no good reason other than it might discomfit an inherently private and often guarded artist like Jenny Holzer, I choose to end this brief survey of where she currently is with something quite personal. It is not to say how beholden I am to her art, which has been something of a North Star to me over the decades, but to mention a couple very odd commonalities we share as truly different people. They’re really none of your business, but since Jenny has done a lot to teach the world a bit of empathy, maybe some of you can relate. We both suffer terribly from insomnia, the most wretched kind of restlessness imaginable, and undoubtedly related to this, both watch way too much TV news. Though Holzer punctuates her news binging with (yikes) lots of true crime murder shows, unlike me, she actually tries to sleep with the news on. “In a bleak way I kind of benefit from the watching,” she explains. Is that TMI? No doubt, but Jenny Holzer has made a fine art out of our incapacity to deal with too much information, and in doing so, has helped us all navigate the impassable conundrums of our world disorder with words that are somehow soothing in their provocation, reminders of our frailty and endurance, written with an abiding compassion and, when necessary, a righteous rage.