Roni Horn is a New York-based artist and writer who is preoccupied with time and its effects on how we see a work of art and on how we see one another. Her varied work encompasses photography, drawing, watercolor, sculpture, cast-glass, installations, performance art, and writing.
Horn received her B.F.A. at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1975 and her M.F.A. at Yale University in 1978. Drawing is the primary activity that underlies Horn’s practice, and she describes drawing as “a kind of breathing activity on a daily level.” Her intricate art on paper shows her use of mirroring and text as language often permeates her work.
One of Horn’s earliest works is her 1982 sculpture, “Gold Field,” a 49 by 60 inch sheet of thin gold leaf, lying flat on the floor. It is made of a single material and examines how sculptural presence is achieved. Her use of gold as a material goes back to her childhood and growing up among the possessions her father had as a pawnbroker.
This work is part of a series of “Pair Objects” from the late 1980s where mirroring or doubling can be found in much of her work. In this series she positioned pairs of identical sculptures or drawings at different places in the same room. This doubling of art objects in different locations made it impossible for a viewer to compare the two works side by side and showed the impossibility of experiencing the same thing twice. Looking at the second object could change a viewer’s memory of the first object seen. Doubling also works in her 1998-2000 series “This is me. This is you.” Here photographs of her niece taken seconds apart show the mutations of the girl’s face as she looks into the camera.
Preoccupation with language can be seen in Horn’s use of scattered words in stream of consciousness. In 1989, she began making a series of word-based sculptures quoting from people such as Franz Kafka and Simone Weil. Later she incorporated the poetry of Emily Dickinson into installation works and a series of sculptures. They were sculptures that had to be read in a fusion of sculpture and text. The last of her sculptures, that used the poetry of Dickinson, was her 1994 series “Keys and Cues.” Here Horn used only the first line of one of the poems in each sculpture.
Her “Remembered Words” is a buffet of dot-filled drawings. Each work features a grid or jumbled swarm of hand-painted circles with little words or phrases beneath them. Her “Hack Wit” series combines text with drawing. Horn paints cliches and words twice, cuts them up, and finally pieces them back together.
Since the mid-1990s, Horn has been making large, simple colored glass sculptures, which rely on the natural elements causing subtle shifts in appearance. She often makes them in matching pairs, and they take months to cool. It takes some three to four months for the sculptures to cool after the molten glass has assumed the shape of its mold. The sides and bottom of the sculpture have the rough impression of the mold while the top surface is fire-polished and bows in like liquid. Its glossy surface allows the viewer to look into the pristine interiors as if looking down on a body of water through an eyepiece. Her “Pink Tons” molten glass is hazy on the outside but silky smooth on the sunken top.
One underlying theme in her work is our relationship and associations with water and its “paradoxical nature.” Her 1999 “Still Water (The River Thames, for Example)” is a single work of fifteen photographic offset lithographs, each one featuring a photo of the surface of the River Thames with small texts on the lower border of each image. Her 2000 “Some Thames” is a permanent installation at a university in Iceland, which consists of 80 photographs of water dispersed throughout the university’s public spaces. Her 2007 “Library of Water” captures time on a grand scale. An installation in a small harbor town on the western coast of Iceland consists of 24 hollow glass columns – each one 10-feet-high – which preserves water samples from glaciers that may outlive their source; interestingly one of Iceland’s glaciers was declared dead in 2014.
Horn’s photography explores notions of identity and change. An example is her series “The Selected Gifts,” from 1974-2015, where her collected treasures are pictured against pristine white backdrops in a series. She makes “a vicarious self-portrait” with photographic objects and strategies of repetition and doubling.
Her “To Place” is a series of books examining Iceland that came from her many trips to this country. Her work features both text and photographic components as she examines Iceland’s rugged terrain, atmosphere, and isolation.
In 2019, Horn kept track of time in daily journal entries or logs. During the last year, Horn made one work per day on a standard sheet of paper. All 404 pages of her “LOG (March 22, 2019 – May 17, 2020)” were shown on the walls of Hauser & Wirth’s New York gallery. They can be viewed one by one or in the full range of images, displayed in five stacked rows. Entries deal with travel, photos of celebrities, natural disasters, etc. with her texts getting denser.
Horn has received several National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and a Guggenheim fellowship. She has participated in the 1991 and 2004 Whitney Biennial, 1992 Documents IX, and the 1997 Venice Biennale. In 2009, she had a retrospective that travelled from New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, to London’s Tate Modern in 2010, and to Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art in 2010. In 2016, she had a solo exhibition in the Netherlands at De Pont Museum of Contemporary Art and at Foundation Beveler in Basel. In 2019, she had a two-part drawing survey “Roni Horn: When I Breathe, I Draw” at the Menil Collection in Houston.
Her work is in the permanent collections of the Guggenheim Museum, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, among others.