More Than Text Art: Who Is Jenny Holzer?

Jenny Holzer is a world-renowned American conceptual and installation artist who has been creating art since the late 1970s. During her long and prolific career, she has created a huge variety of text installations for public spaces around the world. They range from city streets to mountain slopes and even ocean surfaces. Her short, poignant and politically engaged statements – like “Protect me from what I want” or “Private property created crime” – appear on billboards, LED signs, carved stone, paintings, T-shirts, light projections and more. They demonstrate how versatile and diverse text art can be. Many of her strongest artworks address instances of social injustice or inequality, questioning patriarchal and capitalist systems of power. Here’s a breakdown of her legacy.

Jenny Holzer is trained in drawing and graphics

portrait of Jenny Holzer
Portrait of Jenny Holzer, 2019, via Artnet.

While Jenny Holzer is best known today as a songwriter, she was originally trained as a painter and printmaker. Born in 1950 in Gallipolis, Ohio, Holzer received a BA in Graphics and Painting from Ohio University in 1972. From there, she studied for an MA in Painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, in 1977. Later Holzer moved to New York to study in the independent study program at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Holzer made his first socially engaged text art in 1977

Jenny Holzer Truisms Text Art
Jenny Holzer, Truisms, 1977-79.

Jenny Holzer created her first text art in 1977. This groundbreaking work began an ongoing fascination with the personal and political ramifications of language and its power to undermine the perceived truths of the systems of power that keep society in check. Holzer’s first text art series was titled truth and was produced from 1977-79. In the series, Holzer produces a series of hand-typed, self-contained short statements. She then distributed them to the public through a series of printed materials, including stickers, T-shirts, leaflets and posters. Statements such as “artificial desires are ravaging the earth,” “abstraction is a kind of decadence,” and “boredom makes you do crazy things” were intended, as Holzer put it, to be an antidote to “the usual crap (we) are fed.”

Inflammatory essays

persuasive essays new york public art
One of Jenny Holzer’s inflammatory essays, 1979-1982, via public domain.

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Holzer followed this series with a new work titled Inflammatory essays. Created between 1979 and 1982, the series consists of short essays written in a direct and interrogative manner. She printed the essays on posters and pasted them anonymously around New York so viewers could engage with them on an intimate level. At the time, Jenny Holzer emphasized the importance of texts remaining uncommitted and anonymous. She wrote: “Anonymity was critical. I wanted people to think about the ideas, but not think beyond who created them.”

Jenny Holzer creates art for places around the world

Washington projection light art
Jenny Holzer, Washington DC, 2004, from the series Projections.

After the success of her early work, Jenny Holzer became increasingly ambitious in the scope of her art. She has created public art for many major cities around the world, ranging from New York’s Times Square to London’s Piccadilly Circus, focusing on high-traffic areas where her art can speak to a wide audience.

Holzer has created art in a vast array of media

Jenny Holzer untitled truce with terror light art
Jenny Holzer, Untitled (from the Washington series), 2007, via the Royal Academy, London.

Holzer has created text art in a vast array of media throughout his career. While her early art was typically low-budget and lo-fi, she has since continued to work with more ambitious material. In the early 1980s, Holzer produced a series of engraved marble and granite benches and stone sarcophagi featuring her trademark direct, provocative statements. Later in the same decade, Holzer began working with LED signs. For her retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York from 1989-90, Holzer designed a site-specific LED sign that circles the railing of the building’s rotunda, projecting statements from throughout her career. More recently, Holzer has projected illuminated words onto the surface of water, building facades and even mountain slopes.

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