Ohio-born, feminist, postmodern, neo-conceptual artist Jenny Holzer is an abstract painter, printmaker, mixed-media, installation and public artist. She has been working with the intersection of language, installation, and painting since the late 1970s. She displays her own personal words and the texts of others in a variety of media, including electronic LED signs and light projections in public spaces. Her signature artworks feature “truisms” such as “Protect me from what I want.” Words are her medium. Her room-size installations, photos, and outdoor projections show the power of words in order to make viewers think.
Holzer received her B.F.A. from Ohio University in 1972. In that summer she studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and entered into its M.F.A. Program in 1975. In 1976, she moved to New York City and joined the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program and began working in public spaces as a street artist.
Holzer had read a number of Post-Structuralist writers from the Whitney Museum’s reading list. She rephrased their ideas into one-liners, suited to advertising messages, and called these statements “Truisms.” She compiled them into alphabetical lists, printed them on white paper, and wheat-pasted them on buildings and walls not only in her neighborhood but all over Manhattan. This was her initial public work. Texts have now replaced images in her work.
During the 1980s, Holzer addressed wider audiences through mass communication and advertising to explore gender and identity. In 1981, her “Loving Series” had paintings by Peter Nadin. In 1982, Holzer installed her first large electronic sign, using LEDs, on the Spectacular board in New York City’s Time Square. Her aphoristic texts were projected onto other public places, public buildings, or LED signboards. She carved her texts into marble for the 1990 Venice Biennale, where she was the first female artist to be awarded the Leone d’Oro for best pavilion as well as being the first female artist chosen to represent the United States.
Holzer in 1989-1990 had a solo show, a spectacular installation on three floors of the Guggenheim Museum where a long LED sign formed a circle up a parapet wall. Words moved and flashed in red, green, and yellow lights, conveying more than 300 of her messages and declarations. In 2009, New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art had a 15 year survey of her work “For Chicago.” This was her first exhibition to lie flat on the floor where her LED pieces reduced language to pure light in a runway-like setting. Starting in 2010, Holzer’s work focused on government documents concerning the Mid-East; these were declassified U.S. Army documents from the war in Iraq.
In addition to being the first woman to represent America as a solo artist at the Venice Biennale in 1990, Holzer has been awarded many honorary doctorate degrees from colleges and universities. She received an award from Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art for Distinguished Women in the Arts in 2010. The award itself was a bronze plaque which she had designed in 1994 with one of her “Truisms.” It read, “It is in your self-interest of find a way to be tender.”