Why Jenny Holzer’s Inflammatory Essays matter

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Jenny Holzer, from Inflammatory Essays, 1979–1982, New York

Jenny Holzer – Inflammatory Essays, 1979–1982, New York

Published: October 30, 2019

Last updated:

Background

The American artist and political activist, Jenny Holzer has racked up a reputation for herself for her Inflammatory Essays over the years. From 1977 to 1982, her text-based Inflammatory Essays were typically displayed for the public in the formula of simply worded statements printed in bold. As a result of her contribution to the artwork, her work has been presented countless times in different exhibitions and retrospectives all over the globe.

Inspiration

Holzer was not always known for her Inflammatory Essays. She did not start specializing in text as the foundation of her work until much later. Originally, she started off her career as an abstract artist that was inspired greatly by the principles of abstract expressionism. Although she was fairly successful in this area, Holzer was always on the lookout for a more modern way to communicate the fast-paced contemporary culture that was on the rise at the time during the late 1970s and 1980s.

Inflammatory Essays

Like numerous artists of her time, Holzer relied on mass media and advertising strategies to fuel her work. During the late 1970s, she came up with almost 300 honest principles, observations, and slogans based on commonly accepted truths and clichés. Initially, at the start of her work, Holzer would distribute these slogans to the public through various media such as posters, stickers, and t-shirts before she later progressed to electronic displays.

Jenny Holzer - Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Jenny Holzer – Inflammatory Essays, 1979–1981, installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, photo: Brian Forrest/ucla.edu

Jenny Holzer - Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, Oracle, Berlin, 2017

Jenny Holzer – Inflammatory Essays, 1979–1981, Oracle, Berlin, 2017

The reaction of the public

Motivated by the need to include discernible content in her work rather than abstract content, Holzer started placing words in her pieces typically in the form of scraps of newspapers, as well as book and magazine clippings. Before she started displaying her work on a massive scale, she would first test the effects of her essays on regular passers-by. She quickly realized that her work had the power to engage the public, even when the public did not have any intentions of seeing it, moving them to think seriously and provoking them to start debates about certain issues. It was this profound realization that encouraged her to keep pursuing her work.

Jenny Holzer’s work on New York’s Times Square

In 1982, Holzer took her messages a step further by infiltrating them to the public via a massive advertising stunt in New York’s Times Square. The messages displayed by Holzer were varied to include an array of themes and topics, but generally, all the messages presented contradictory perspectives. Holzer did this with the hope of awakening the public to the truth so that their awareness could be sharpened.

Jenny Holzer - Survival, 1983-1985, Times Square, 1986

Jenny Holzer – Survival, 1983-1985, Times Square, 1986, photo: John Marchael

Artwork description and composition

As she was finalizing her year as an MFA student at the Rhode Island School of Design, Holzer restructured her formula. Instead of simply relying on newspaper and book clippings, she sought to include her own words and opinions in her work. She started by creating a series of one-liners that were intended to cleanse common truths experienced on a regular basis in contemporary western society.

She then assembled the series of one-liners into several posters. Among some of the statements she came up with include ‘abuse of power comes as no surprise’, “money makes taste, “protect me from what I want, ‘People look like they are dancing before they love’ and more, all of which she referred to as truisms.

Jenny Holzer - Inflammatory Essays, 1979–1982

Jenny Holzer – Inflammatory Essays, 1979–1982, photo: tate.org.uk

Jenny Holzer - Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, Tate Modern

Jenny Holzer – Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, Tate Modern, photo: Emma Jane Palin/emmajanepalin.com

Jenny Holzer - Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona

Jenny Holzer – Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, photo: Damian Entwhistle/flickr.com

Truisms

From 1977 to 1987, Holzer pasted other photocopies around New York. Her Truisms series look quite similar to the Inflammatory Essays. When both series started to become commonplace and too expected, she then started working on a number of political installations that she also printed on posters using capital letters. She allotted each Inflammatory Essay a paragraph for each poster with the hope of delving into more complex and controversial issues in society. Rather than refer to these political statements as truisms, Holzer opted to refer to them as Inflammatory Essays.

Jenny Holzer from Truisms, 1977–1979

Jenny Holzer – Truisms, 1977–1979

Analysis

Holzer’s works have been displayed in various locations all over the world, and they have been translated into different languages. Later on, she began incorporating technology into her installations, using LED signs that allowed her to display her texts in motion. The LED signs lent a sense of authority that was usually missing in her posters. Since then she has continued to work on light-based installations utilizing surfaces of popular buildings as the canvas onto which her Inflammatory Essays and truisms are displayed.

Although some of Holzer’s work is displayed outdoors, some of her work is also viewed in art spaces. Even in these spaces, she takes the time to construct complex interactions allowing the museum to enjoy the works that are often comparing different mediums.

Conclusion

Whether she opts to display her truisms and essays via text or through technology-driven visual expression, her work has allowed her to express her opinions on modern culture. Relying on lighted signs, billboards, walls and so on, Holzer uses areas of public interest as the canvas of her work. Her works and essays are created with the intention of provoking a reaction from the public so that relevant debates and conversations can be discussed.

Posters

Jenny Holzer - Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer – Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer - Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer – Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer - Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer – Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer - Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer – Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer - Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer – Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer - Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer – Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer - Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer – Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer - Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer – Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer - Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer – Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer - Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer – Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer - Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer – Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer - Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer – Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer - Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer – Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer - Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer – Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer - Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

Jenny Holzer – Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, poster, dimensions variable

All images: Jenny Holzer/jennyholzer.com /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2019

 

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