Jenny Holzer

Jenny Holzer

The third phase of Jenny 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
Gallipolis, Ohio
Nationality American
Education Rhode Island School of Design Ohio University University of Chicago
Known for Conceptual art

Jenny Holzer (born July 29, 1950, Gallipolis, Ohio)[1] is an American neo-conceptual artist, based in Hoosick Falls, New York. The main focus of her work is the delivery of words and ideas in public spaces.

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. Her contemporaries include Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Sarah Charlesworth, and Louise Lawler.[2]

The public dimension is integral to Holzer's work. Her large-scale installations have included advertising billboards, projections on buildings and other architectural structures, and illuminated electronic displays. LED signs have become her most visible medium, although her diverse practice incorporates a wide array of media including street posters, painted signs, stone benches, paintings, photographs, sound, video, projections, the Internet, and a race car for BMW. Text-based light projections have been central to Holzer’s practice since 1996.[3] As of 2010, her LED signs have become more sculptural. Holzer is no longer the author of her texts, and in the ensuing years, she returned to her roots by painting.[4]


Originally aspiring to become an abstract painter,[5] Holzer's studies included general art courses at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina (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, and entered its MFA program in 1975.[6] She moved to Manhattan in 1976, joined the Whitney Museum's independent study program and began her first work with language, installation and public art.[5] She also was an active member of the artists group Colab.[7]


Installation in lobby at 7 WTC
Detail of 7 WTC installation

Holzer's initial public works, Truisms (1977–79), are among her best-known. They first appeared as anonymous broadsheets that she printed in black italic script on white paper and wheat-pasted to buildings, walls and fences in and around Manhattan.[6] These one-liners are a distillation of an erudite reading list from the Whitney Independent Study Program, where she was a student.[8] She printed other Truisms on posters, T-shirts and stickers, and carved them into stone benches. In late 1980, Holzer's mail art and street leaflets were included in the exhibition Social Strategies by Women Artists at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, curated by Lucy Lippard.[9]

In 1981, Holzer initiated the Living series, 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 by paintings by 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 the artist installed her first large electronic sign on the Spectacolor board in New York's Times Square.[10] Sponsored by the Public Art Fund program, the use of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) 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.[11] She began working with stone in 1986; for her exhibition that year at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York, Holzer 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. Continuing this practice, her installation at the Guggenheim Museum in 1989 featured a 163-meter-long sign forming a continuous circle spiraling up a parapet wall.[10]

In 1989, Holzer became the first female artist chosen to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale in Italy. At the 44th Biennale in 1990, her LED signboards and marble benches occupied a solemn and austere exhibition space in the American Pavilion; she also designed posters, hats, and T-shirts to be sold in the streets of Venice. The installation, Mother and Child, won Holzer the Leone D'Oro for best pavilion. 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 Biennale.

While Holzer wrote the texts for the bulk of her work between 1977 and 2001, since 1993, she has mainly been using texts written by others, including literary texts from such authors as Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska, Henri Cole (USA), Elfriede Jelinek (Austria), Fadhil Al Azzawi (Iraq), Yehuda Amichai (Israel) and Mahmoud Darwish (Palestine). As of 2010, Holzer's work has been focused on government documents, concerning Iraq and the Middle East.[4] Using texts from a much different context, more recent projects have involved the use of redacted government documents,[12] and passages from declassified U.S. Army documents from the war in Iraq. For example, a large LED work presents excerpts from the minutes of interrogations of American soldiers accused of committing human rights violations and war crimes in Abu Ghraib prison — making what was once secret, public.

Holzer's work often speaks of violence, oppression, sexuality, feminism, power, war and death; and the artist often utilizes the rhetoric of modern information systems to address the politics of discourse. Her main concern is to enlighten, bringing to light something thought in silence and meant to remain hidden.

The artist's public use of language and ideas often creates shocking juxtapositions — commenting on sexual identity and gender relations (“Sex Differences Are Here To Stay”) on an unassuming New York movie theater marquee, for example — and sometimes extends to flights of formal outrage (such as “Abuse Of Power Comes As No Surprise” in lights over Times Square). Critic Samito Jalbuena asserts that such deadpan social critique, and the 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.[13]

Selected works

Permanent displays

Mixed Media Screen Prints

At the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 2007, Holzer presented a series of mixed media silk-screen prints; 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.[34] 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.[2] 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.[35] 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.[36]


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.[37]


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).[38]


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.[39] Holzer will participate in the 9th Gwangju Biennale (2012).[40] According to the website for the 2015 'Dismaland' art installation led by Banksy, Holzer contributed works to the project.[41]

Jenny Holzer is represented in New York by Cheim & Read, in Berlin and London by Sprüth Magers, and in Paris by Yvon Lambert Gallery.[42]


In addition to the Leone D’Oro for her work at the 1990 Venice Biennale, Holzer has received several other prestigious awards, including the Art Institute of Chicago's Blair Award (1982); the Skowhegan Medal for Installation (1994); the Crystal Award from the World Economic Forum (1996); the Berlin Prize fellowship (2000); the Order of Arts and Letters diploma of Chevalier from the French government (2002)[38] and the Barnard Medal of Distinction (2011).[35] In 2010, Holzer received the Distinguished Women in the Arts Award from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA). The annual award – recognizing women for their leadership and innovation in the visual arts, dance, music, and literature – is a bronze plaque originally designed by the artist in 1994, featuring one of her Truisms: “It is in your self-interest to find a way to be very tender.”[43] Holzer also holds honorary degrees from Williams College, the Rhode Island School of Design, The New School, and Smith College.[35]

Personal life

Holzer maintains a loft on Eldridge Street in Manhattan[5] 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.[5]

See also


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

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