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Jenny Holzer
Jenny Holzer’s Truisms

The public art works that we didn’t know we needed until we got them

Featuring Jenny Holzer, the Guerrilla Girls, and Keith Haring – here are the works that affected communities around the world

Art is often seen as an exclusive world – locked away in private collections or kept within the walls of museums, galleries and institutions. But art has always been all around us – whether on the streets, on a bus, or on public billboards. While it’s difficult to trace the earliest works of public art, it is easy to remember the standout ones; the ones that shook us, made us smile, or challenged the way we thought. That’s not to say there haven’t been examples that have also pissed people off. Last month, Jeff Koons found himself at odds with some of Paris’s artists, art galleries and art dealers over a sculpture he was offering the city in remembrance of the victims of the 2015 terror attacks. The American artist wasn’t exactly gifting it, he was giving away a design – the Parisians would have to cough up the cash to pay for its actual creation. And while it’s uncertain whether Koons’s sculpture will better the community in any way (seems unlikely right now), it got us thinking about the public works of art that we didn’t know we needed until we got them.


Public Art Fund has been commissioning established and emerging artists since the 70s and showcasing their work in New York City’s public spaces. Notably, from 1982 to 1990, was Messages to the Publicwhich involved installing a 75-square meter light board in Times Square that featured a 30-second animation from a different artist every month. The aim was to elicit the public’s attention via a medium whose “propaganda potential was terrific”, according to the project’s brainchild, painter Jane Dickson. For eight years, American and foreign artists were seasonally shortlisted to programme their own message into the Spectacolor board. Some of the artworks were explicitly political. Such as Chilean-born artist, architect, and filmmaker, Alfredo Jaar’s, who criticised American domination of South America with statements such as “THIS IS NOT AMERICA” over a map of the US. Other messages included Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer's provocative word plays and the celebrations of graffiti of Keith Haring and Crash. Last year, in celebration of its 40th anniversary, Public Art Fund lit up new boards across the city for an installation called Commercial Break.


Jenny Holzer’s work has always revolved around the delivery of words and ideas in public spaces. Her messages have been displayed on advertising billboards, projected on walls, and most recently, sewn into Lorde’s Grammy awards dress. While her work may go big now, the artist actually had guerilla-style beginnings. Truisms, her first public work which appeared in 1977, was anonymous one-liners, printed in black italic script on white paper and wheat-pasted to buildings, walls and fences in Manhattan. However, to reach a broader audience and ensure the posters had longevity, Holzer created Benches, a series of public stone benches located in New York’s Doris C. Freedman Plaza which featured engravings of Holzer’s words. Showing that both message and medium are equally important, the granite and marble gave weight to statements like “Lack Of Charisma Can Be Fatal”, “Timidity is Laughable”, or her recently resurfaced “Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise”.


Barbara Kruger combines her background as a graphic designer with tongue-in-cheek humour to synthesise essential critiques about society, the economy, gender or culture in a way that is directly accessible to anyone. “There is an accessibility to pictures and words that we have learned to read very fluently through advertising,” she said in an interview with Critical Inquiry from 1991. The key, she claims, is “to reach out and touch a very relaxed, numbed-out, vegged-out viewer”. Although the artist joined New York’s most prominent galleries – Larry Gagosian and Jean Michel Basquiat’s dealer, Mary Boone – her works have popped up in museums and public spaces alike. In November 1997, Kruger first wrapped a bus (she would do so again in 2012) in her giant signature slogans. Anyone riding from Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan to eastern Queens could catch a glimpse of phrases such as, “Don’t threaten me with love,” “Don’t put words in my mouth,” “Don’t get too close,” and, “Don’t be a jerk”. Again, the Public Art Fund aided in covering the costs. A decade and a half later, 12 buses were wrapped in her words in order to promote arts education in New York’s public schools.


Before raising to superstardom, a young Jean-Michel Basquiat emerged from the Downtown New York art scene with his friend, graffiti artist Al Diaz. The pair’s witty one-liners flourished around SoHo, catching the attention of bystanders and art lovers alike, with lines such as, “SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO PLASTIC FOOD STAND”. “SAMO©… 4 THE SO CALLED AVANT-GARDE”. An acronym for “same old shit”, SAMO© was imagined as a religion that would solve all your problems. Diaz and Basquiat used the fictional character to mock politics, consumerism, the art world, or anything that went through their teenage minds. The pair remained anonymous until they sold their story to the Village Voice for $100, revealing their identities in an article titled “SAMO© Graffiti: BOOSH-WAH or CIA?”. After a fall out with Diaz, Basquiat declared himself as SAMO on Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party and the tag “SAMO© IS DEAD” began appearing on walls. Even though the pair parted ways, their controversial art project is still cited as one of the great moments of the city’s graffiti history.


Keith Haring’s seemingly simple, cartoon-like imagery made his artwork accessible to the masses who existed outside of the museums. Like his contemporary, Basquiat, anything from the side of a train carriage to the step of a sidewalk could become a canvas. In 1986, Haring chose a derelict handball court next to a busy driveway to make the mural that read “Crack is Wack”. Inspired by his friends’ struggles with drug addiction and his own frustrations with the government’s inefficient response, he painted the wall without permission and subsequently was arrested, fined and faced jail time. The mural received such positive reception from the public that the charges against the artist were dropped and the artwork became a symbol of President Reagan’s “war on drugs”. The mural was so newsworthy that TV programs would flash images of it during stories on crack. By the time the artist was clear of the law, however, his artwork had been painted over by the Parks Department. However, the artist agreed to paint a new version in the playground that was renamed the “Crack is Wack Playground” following Keith Haring’s premature death due to Aids-related illnesses. The mural is still there today.


The “Smokehouse Associates” or “Smokehouse Collective” was a group of artists that aimed to mend “fractured” communities with vibrant, geometric and abstract public murals and sculptures. As one of the New York’s poorest boroughs, Smokehouse believed that art could change lives and empower the Harlem community, and each project was approached by consulting neighbourhood organisations and leaders. Archival photographs show local children and teenagers taking part in the production of murals. The project was short-lived, and only lasted from 1968 to 1970 due to the members’ obligations towards their professional careers and difficulties in fundraising. During its short but rich life, Smokehouse created a distinctive body of murals that captured the participation of local residents and remained significant features of Harlem in years to come.


Certain public displays of art don’t aim at connecting with the masses so much as critiquing the art world from the inside out. In 1985, a group of vigilantes armed with wheat paste and posters and wearing gorilla masks took to the streets of New York City. The Guerrilla Girls, as they called themselves, was a collective set out to shame the art world for its underrepresentation of women artists. Its posters and stickers specifically named galleries and exhibitions, providing numerical evidence of gender discrimination. However controversial its tactics were and despite the mixed responses it received, institutions began to take notice. Since the 80s, the Guerrilla Girls has taken its message to major art institutions around the world with exhibitions at the Venice Biennale, MoMA, the Whitechapel Gallery, and Tate Modern.


Pussy Riot crashed the altar at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior church in 2012 to perform “Punk Prayer” and simultaneously took the global stage. Since its inception in 2011 when they first performed nearby a Russian subway, the activist group has seized public spaces to protest authoritarianism, “sexist bullshit” and particularly, Vladimir Putin’s oppressive policies. While more recently they have taken to staged performances – just last week they announced a US tour – it was its early appearances that land them on this list. “We charge no fees for viewing our artwork” they told The Guardian in 2015, “all our videos are distributed freely on the web, the spectators to our performances are always spontaneous passers-by, and we never sell tickets to our ‘shows.’”


JR started off as he planned to go on, by pasting paper on Parisian walls as a young graffiti artist. It’s the same method that the now award-winning French photographer uses to create giant portraits of anonymous faces that he sticks on buildings all around the world. His determination to self-finance his work means the artist doesn’t need to collaborate with corporations. “I just don’t like it when (brands) take over public spaces…” he told The Guardian. “Giving people a voice” is his goal, to make people see and be seen, without any company co-opting his art along the way. Ever since pasting unauthorised photographs onto two Parisian housing projects during the 2005 Paris riots, JR has travelled the world collecting and exhibiting portraits to question representations of people. In particular, communities that are assimilated to violence and poverty. For Face 2 Face (2007), the artist took photographs of Palestinians and Israelis who had the same job and displayed the portraits on either side of the Separation wall that annexes Palestinian lands. Another similarly ambitious project includes Women Are Heroes, which aimed at taking women’s stories – again through colossal portraits – around the globe. In 2013, JR took it a step further: he offered anyone to send him an image that he would make into a poster and return back to the creator to exhibit in their own community.