In the late 70s, an anonymous series of one-liners began appearing on broadsheets around Manhattan, wheat-pasted onto walls. Now collectively known as “Truisms”, the artist behind them was Jenny Holzer, a then-student of the Whitney Museum’s independent study program and a member of the artist group, Colab. It was the beginning of Holzer’s practice of pairing words with public spaces, and one which has spanned four decades.
This week, London’s Tate Modern launched a free exhibition featuring a series of Holzer’s artworks, including rarely seen ones from her archive as well as installations that have never been exhibited in the UK.
“I went to language because I tried to be a painter and was awful” – Jenny Holzer
Split across five rooms, notable inclusions are Truisms 1977–79, as well as the engraved stone benches she began creating in the mid-1980s. The benches on display are marked with the poems of Polish author Anna Świrszczyńska. Other works are from her Living series, in which Holzer “presents a set of quiet observations, directions, and warnings”, which are cast in bronze plaques and installed on historical buildings. Perhaps the most known works are Holzer’s Inflammatory Essays (1979-82). Inspired by “the texts of political theorists, religious fanatics and impassioned ‘folk’ literature”, these artworks are exactly 100 words and consist of sentences printed in black ink on coloured paper which shout, “ALL YOU RICH FUCKERS SEE THE BEGINNING OF THE END AND TAKE WHAT YOU CAN WHILE YOU CAN” as well as “SNAKES ARE EVIL INCARNATE”. Holzer’s response to gun violence in the US is also included: text which was presented on LED billboards and on the sides of trucks and driven around Washington DC, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and Florida.
Last year, Holzer spoke to Dazed why she initially turned to the written word as her art medium: “I went to language because I tried to be a painter and was awful, so I thought ok I will write.” She added, “I already spend way too much time talking to myself so it’s a luxury, a privilege, a necessity to talk to others. I want to imagine – although I'm not always convinced – that the subjects I tend to focus on could be of use to people. So at least while I am entertaining that desire, it makes sense to put these ideas in front of as many people as possible – and it’s nice to put them outside of the art world.”