Jenny Holzer on Her Start as a Woman Artist in a Man’s World

In the art world, few names shine as brightly as that of Jenny Holzer. Her boundary-pushing works harness language, often in public spaces and unconventional media. Across the last five decades, the New York–based artist has become a beacon of intellectual inquiry and searing social critique, and her works have ignited conversations that reverberate well beyond the museums and galleries in which you may find them.

Throughout her illustrious career, Holzer has used art as a means of amplifying the voices of the unheard, exposing the complexities of human nature, and questioning the essence of truth and power. Last year, the artist curated an acclaimed exhibition of the work of Louise Bourgeois at the Kunstmuseum Basel; she was celebrated as WSJ Magazine’s 2022 Art Innovator and also received Whitechapel Gallery’s prestigious 2023 Art Icon Award. More recently, she had solo shows at Hauser & Wirth New York and West Hollywood as well as a major exhibition at the K21 museum in Düsseldorf.

On the occasion of these accolades and exhibitions, senior editor Kate Brown caught up with Holzer.

The following interview is an edited excerpt of The Art Angle Podcast: Jenny Holzer on the Raw Power of the Well-Wrought Phrase.

Portrait of Jenny Holzer. © Jenny Holzer. ARS, NY and DACS, London 2020. Photo: Nanda Lanfranco.

Portrait of Jenny Holzer. © Jenny Holzer. ARS, NY and DACS, London 2020. Photo: Nanda Lanfranco.

You originally wanted to be an abstract painter, and I think on the surface this might surprise some listeners, given that many of them may know you best for your text-based works that occur in public space. When did you actually start painting and start your art practice? What were your earliest interactions with art in general?

I painted maniacally and in earnest when I was quite young – before school, before my limits hit me. My mother was kind enough to give me giant rolls of paper on which I attempted to render the history of the world, to include Noah’s ark and the invention of the automobile.

You ended up studying at the Whitney Independent Study Program.

Yes, I was lucky to go there.

It’s churned out some incredible artists, you among them. That’s where you started your Truisms series in 1977, and this is a work that became immediately iconic around New York. It was anonymous postering in public spaces. I’m curious, when you were making those in the late 1970s, were you thinking about them as activism or as contemporary art at the time, or were you always blurring the boundary?

I was hoping to be an artist. I wasn’t sure that was going to work. About the Truisms, I wanted to write and present what was worrying me, or engaging me, to others. The Whitney Independent Study Program’s reading list daunted me, so I attempted for my own benefit to make a miniature Reader’s Digest version of it. That was the beginning.

Jenny Holzer, MOVE (2015). Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.

One thing I love about this work is that it eschews simplicity. I was thinking about how timeless this piece is, and a lot of the self-understood truths of it still ring true today. Do you think that we’ve lost a certain sense of nuance in our language, or has this polemical way of communication always been a part of human society?

I’ve noticed, among other things, that many don’t even use words anymore; they go straight to initials. I like terse, but that bothers me a little. There are so many initials out there instead of words. As addicted as I am to quicker, subtle is better. Bring back nuance.

I couldn’t agree more. When it comes to the scene and cultural production in the 1970s and 1980s in New York, which is a scene that has been covered so widely by the media and in catalog essays and in criticism, I wonder, is there an aspect of it that, in your opinion, deserves more consideration?

I believe that the optimism and the idealism then has not been reported adequately and celebrated, even though maybe it was short-lived.

Interesting. So you feel that at the time, there was a lot of hope and not as much anger as maybe it seems in retrospect?

At least among the artists of Collaborative Projects, there was the desire to do what could be useful to people, to proffer that and to put art in as many places as possible to make it accessible. That was lovely.

Colab, which stands for Collaborative Projects Inc., was a collective of around 60 members who worked together to support one another and making exhibitions and artworks, and Kiki Smith and Walter Robinson were a part of it as well. 

In general, collaboration is an important part of your art practice, and it has been throughout the years up until now. One of your earliest collaborations was with the artist Lady Pink, who I heard you tracked down at one point. Could you speak about your painting collaboration with her and how you guys came together?

I was delighted to find her—then in the ’80s and again and again over the years. I work with a number of men, and I’m happy to do that, and I benefit greatly from it. I wanted to work with a woman, so I knew a friend of hers who worked at the pet shop across the street from me. The wonderful graffiti writer Lee introduced us. What a good day that was.

You went on to work on these paintings together. Could you speak a bit about what’s behind them and how that process worked for the two of you?

Sometimes I would have an idea for a painting and sometimes Pink would. I would provide the text once one or the other of us had the image in mind. And then a third woman, my friend Ilona Granet, would letter the paintings. She was an artist who worked in the street often and sometimes made part of her living by lettering names of yachts.

Lisa Kahane, Lady Pink photographed in Times Square (1983), wearing a t-shirt from Jenny Holzer’s

Lisa Kahane, Lady Pink photographed in Times Square (1983), wearing a t-shirt from Jenny Holzer’s “Truisms” (1978–87). ©2019 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo ©1983, Lisa Kahane, NYC.

As you said, there weren’t a lot of women artists rising to fame or getting publicity at that time. Did you ever feel inhibited in your own art career by unfair power structures?

It is not a head start to be female in the art world or any other world.

One could say it has become a little bit easier, though we’re still far away from any kind of true sense of equity. Was there a particular tipping point for you where the course of your career really changed, where you felt that you could exist in the way you wanted to as a female artist?

It is much better now for women and there are many fantastic female artists. I need to belabor the obvious here, but think back a little bit about how long it took for the astonishing genius Louise Bourgeois to be recognized. It wasn’t good. For me, Dan Graham, another fantastic artist, noticed my work, the street posters, and helped me get to Germany to show at Westkunst. That perhaps was the beginning of my official career.

That was a couple years before you ended up back in Europe on the world stage for the Venice Biennale. This was really another major turning point for you. Looking back at that exhibition, could you explain some highlights from that experience?

Surviving it was a plus. You know, staggering on from there. I was beat by the time I arrived. I’d had a baby, had done [shows at] Dia, the Guggenheim and Venice, and there was that matter of my presence there being something of a freak show, the first woman to have a solo show for America. That wasn’t relaxing.

I can imagine when you get caught up in these headlines, and so many artists have to go through this: being the first this and then the first that. At the same time, though, I thought your point about Louise Bourgeois is such an important one because there is this prevailing trend to recognize female artists sometimes when they’re almost in their 1980s or ’90s or, even worse, after they’re already dead. And I wonder, do you find this unsettling? Because I do feel that we’ve been seeing it more and more now in the art market.

Yeah, better late than never, that old saw. But I would prefer that great artists are recognized while thriving and alive.

Jenny Holzer's contribution to the New York City AIDS Memorial features the text of a Walt Whitman poem. Courtesy of Lars Niki/Getty Images for Housing Works.

Jenny Holzer’s contribution to the New York City AIDS Memorial features the text of a Walt Whitman poem. Courtesy of Lars Niki/Getty Images for Housing Works.

To turn to your process of writing, what can you share about how you produce your texts? And I know that you actually quit writing for a time in 2001.

I was happy to quit writing because I’m not really [a writer], and it belatedly occurred to me I would be better off using the text of others for higher quality and for greater range. Also, the visual is easier for me. I think I’m better at it than writing.

When I was asked to make memorials, it dawned on me that using the quotes or the text of those being memorialized made sense. When I was asked to do something for the politicians’ entrance of the Bundestag, I couldn’t write to that. So I went to archives to find the content there. It’s a habit now of going to archives. About my brief and not lamented writing career: I would pick a subject, write something on it, and then shrink the text to what I hoped were the essentials.

You’ve distilled ideas, but some of them were also attached or spurred on by real world events. Do you remember, for example, what initiated in your mind the statement “Abuse of power comes as no surprise”?

Not to be overly dramatic, but life as a female provided some fodder.

To enjoy the rest of this interview, tune into our interview with Jenny Holzer on the Art Angle.

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