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Jenny Holzer (1950 - )

Related: text as art - contemporary art - conceptual art - American art

Key works: Protect me from what I want, from the Survival series


Jenny Holzer (born July 29, 1950 in Gallipolis, Ohio) is an American conceptual artist. She attended Ohio University (in Athens, OH), Rhode Island School of Design, and the Independent Study Program at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Holzer was originally an abstract artist, focusing on painting and printmaking, but after moving to New York City in 1977, she began working with text as art.

The main focus of Jenny Holzer's work is on the use of ideas in public space. Street posters are her favorite medium, but she also makes use of a variety of other media, including LED signs, plaques, benches, stickers, T-shirts and the World Wide Web.

In a 1980 essay called The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe accused modern artists of departing from the "western" tradition of representational art, with its supposed humanism of celebrating or criticizing the outside world in plastic form, and turning into self-reflexive and ironic commentators whose works were less art than a "statement".

Wolfe, a conservative, was sounding a common theme: that some time before, the West had celebrated the world but was through a variety of movements, from deconstruction to conceptual art, degenerating into scholasticism, or the Mandarin tradition of the "eight legged essay" of ancient China.

But precisely at the same time, Holzer was more or less beginning to act precisely as charged and indeed take the venture seriously, for the content of her works is pure text.

In China, words as art, both instantiated in a particular style of calligraphy and independent of that style, are a highly conservative and traditional visual art, but Holzer took Western art back to the illuminated manuscript, presented in a public space.

The "arresting" quality of her billboards, is an exploitation of the urban space which took its modern form, as a space explicitly for commerce in which "public" space are granted by grace and favor of corporations, occurs because the viewer is ordinarily prepared to see yet another commercial message and is instead confronted with something like "it is in your self-interest to be very tender", a dialectical reversal of the way in which the advertisement has to take "self-interest" as something timeless and a given, as seen in microeconomics.

Since the 1990 Gulf War, which inspired Holzer to make art that was more distinctly political, she has de-emphasized her participation in the American artistic scene, a wise move given the way in which American artists since the second attack on Iraq have been themselves subject to attack when their work is political.

In an urban space where words have been so operationalized as to create silence most of the time, Holzer's gnomic statements remain shocking and arresting, but today, and in her native USA, it is unlikely that the reaction to them would be friendly or neutral. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jenny_Holzer [Apr 2006]

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