Door 22: Jenny Holzer

"A picture is worth more than 1000 words" is a well known saying and it is quite relatable. But it is subverted by the American artist Jenny Holzer, who puts words and their power at the center of her practice.

from Inflammatory Essays, 1979–82, installed in New York, 1983 © Jenny Holzer, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Born in 1950, she said that she initially wanted to become a painter, but gave up that thought and wanted to become an attorney. Through various stints studying artprintmaking and finally graduating at Ohio University. In 1976 she moved to Manhattan and joined the Whitney Museum's independent study program, where she started to work with words and installations.

In 1977 she started to create her Inflammatory Essays, which were a result of the reading list at the program. These were multi-colored posters that hold the essence of speeches or essays of dictators or political persons like Mao Zedong, Vladimir Lenin, Emma Goldman, Adolf Hitler or Leon Trotsky. Each poster featured 100 words arranged into 20 lines, which were hung up illegally during the night.

 Lady Pink photographed in Times Square (1983), wearing a t-shirt from Jenny Holzer’s "Truisms" (1978–87). Photography by © Lisa Kahane

A reduced idea of that led to her contemporaneous Truisms, which condensed ideas to one lined maxims like for example “Protect me from what I want” or “Abuse of power comes as no surprise”. Her anonymous street works were discovered by the artist Dan Graham, who was an early advocate for her work, which she said led to her breakthrough as an artist.

Truism, Times Square, 1986

But not only on paper, she also present her work on walls, mugs or T-Shirts, but was also always at the forefront of technology using LEDsprojections, virtual reality or drones. Important for her was and is always the context, as she put it herself: “I like placing content wherever people look, and that can be at the bottom of a cup or on a shirt or hat or on the surface of a river or all over a building”.

In 1990 she became the 2nd woman, after Diane Arbus, to represent the USA at the Venice Biennale for which she received the Golden Lion for best national representation. For all her projects, she mainly used her own texts, but since 1993 she started to use more texts by others like Wislawa Szymborska, Elfriede Jelinek or Mohja Kahf.

United States Pavilion, Giardini della Biennale, Venice Photography by © Salvatore Licitra

In fashion circles, she is well known for collaborating with the Austrian designer Helmut Lang. This collaboration started in the middle of the 1990s and led to artworks for the brand's New York flagship store, but is most known for their anti-advertising campaign for the launch of Lang's perfume line.