tThe Big Moose Deli & Country Store, in the small town of Hoosick in Upstate New York, is almost awash in large red-letter signs announcing cider donuts, maple syrup, souvenirs and a military discount. Two miles north is the farmhouse where artist Jenny Holzer has lived since the 1980s. She and her team of six work inside a gray corrugated metal barn they refer to as “The Warehouse”. Tucked neatly into a sloping hayfield, it’s indistinguishable from other barns along the same road: there’s no indication it houses the work of one of the world’s most famous living concept artists.
This is convenient. Although Holzer is one of the most recognizable figures in contemporary art, her work also carries an anonymity. Her primary medium is text—large, flashing, meandering, italic, bold, emphasizing type—which she uses to address the falsehoods espoused by governments, corporations, and others in power who exploit the truth for more power. Her most famous series is Truisms, which originated in the posters of Holzer hanging on the streets of Manhattan in the late 1970s, often bearing provocative and charged statements. Holzer has it too drawn on it canvasHe engraved it on bronze and aluminum panels and carved it into marble benches. Perhaps most famous is the deadpan remark “Abuse of power comes as no surprise,” which glowed over Times Square in 1982.
“Did you see that seemingly disappearing Y chromosome?” Holzer asks me with good cheer. I didn’t know they were in danger. The question makes me laugh, as Holzer certainly intended. At seventy-two, she wears her typical dark jeans and dark long-sleeved shirt, her long hair is uncombed, and she is forthright and attentive. A self-proclaimed “old hippie, wannabe-revolutionary”, she has a disarming sense of humor.
We are sitting in an elevated area of the warehouse. It is delicately crowded with her work; The majority are wrapped and stored on shelves. But on a small table is a work from her Demented Words program on display Last fall in New York. Bookmark-sized pieces of lead stamped with tweets by former US President Donald Trump and others like him. Their appearance initially calls to mind old tablets — except the words printed on them are horrible, annoying, and downright cute.
“Trump was an abomination,” says Holzer. “He gave permission and encouragement to some of the worst things—from racism to sexism, to prevarication, to theft, etc. Necessary work was not going on in environment, poverty, education, when time could so be so short.” . She then suggests that we stop talking about Trump, noting that the normalization of his behavior has only encouraged a dangerous political rise of the “alt-right” in the United States. “That’s very much what the last show was about: the damage one man can do, and what happened around him.”
Holzer’s work frequently asks the viewer to look at unspeakable things, an approach that may be instinctive. It originated in southeastern Ohio and describes Midwesterners as “clear-speaking, eloquent, and terse. And likely, when in doubt, to produce an aphorism.” Parts of her childhood were “completely wrong and difficult” and perhaps that is why she is drawn to “terrible themes, plainly articulated”.
From a young age, she was constantly drawing. “I was an almost unstoppable, uncontrollable painter. Drafts.”child. Her grandmother’s sister, an artist, instilled in Holzer the idea that artists are mystics. Among other things, she says, she was a water witch. She could hold a willow twig and it would move when there was water. Somehow I connected that with the secrets of making art.”
She attended the University of Chicago with loose plans of becoming a lawyer or an academic. Instead, she says with a laugh, “I’ve noticed to my constant dismay that I’m not that smart.” Surrounded by “quite intelligent people”, Holzer reassesses herself and begins to think about her mystical side. Water witches, willow branches and mysticism.
Holzer’s work has always been blatantly feminist. Many of her most famous works denounce misogyny and expose society’s often inhumane treatment of women. When we discuss the abolition of the US Supreme Court Roe v. Wade Last June, Holzer became gloomy. “Fear is not enough,” she says. “It’s criminal, in my estimation. I was afraid of it, but I didn’t expect it.”
It has been suggested that her career began in the mid-1970s, when Roe v. Wade was in the process of being legislated. What does she wish she could tell her younger self about the future of feminism? “Oh.” I stopped. “Always make it a focus. Don’t feel guilty for making it a constant focus and being loud. Women aren’t terrible. We’re not very much the problem.” I ask her if she considers herself an optimist. “I should be, to a degree,” she says, laughing. “But – big Qualified here – a lot is consistently shocking. Everything we’re made of, Y-chromosome or not, has some serious flaws.”
Later this month, Whitechapel Gallery in London will present Holzer with its prestigious Art Icon Award, which honors artists who have made significant contributions to their medium. In recent years, she has confronted the increasingly desperate crises of our time with increasingly direct methods, drawing criticism that some of her works have become overly earnest and didactic. Ahead of the 2020 US election, Holzer’s team dispatched a fleet of trucks to cities in swing states that carried LED billboards lit up with instructive phrases like “VOTE JOYOUSLY” and “VOTE FOR YOUR HEALTH.” Holzer-Lee concedes that they “may or may not be art” and that art need not be political: “Just plain art is a wonderful thing, in the right hands.”
Then she dislikes good political art, defends it when necessary, and even builds. “you know, [Picasso’s] Guernica wasn’t too bad. It was an art and a revelation. Nor was Goya too bad, either in terms of production quality or clarity and truth-telling. It can be done. It is rarely done well, but when it is, Curse.“
At the beginning of the epidemic, Holzer spent most of her time in Hosek. “It was good to get out of the way,” she says. “To sit still instead of running almost frantically doing this or that artistic activity.” Although she’s back to traveling again, she hasn’t yet returned to the constant rushing of pre-pandemic demands.
Holzer is often inspired by literature. For decades, it has been derived from poets such as Henri Cole, Wisława Szymborska, and Anne Carson “to make the work stronger”. She’s currently reading works by A.A. Milne (“I didn’t know he was a pacifist. And I really like some Winnie-the-Pooh’s melodic messes!”) and speeches by Martin Luther King Jr.
Holzer’s daughter, photographer Lilly Kobelsky, her son-in-law, and two grandchildren moved in with her during the pandemic. Holzer asked what kind of world she hoped her descendants would inherit. Mention solutions to climate-related disasters, resource shortages, and the global refugee crisis, and plead for the return of empathy. “Wouldn’t it be nice if kindness as pragmatism reappeared – as in itself?” Holzer smiles, but is serious. “As the same old one, without any application? It must be honored.”
I asked Holzer about her hopes for the near future. “Even though I said I wouldn’t talk about it, I will: Trump, imprisoned,” she said. Then, her voice softening, she adds, “I want my art to improve. This is my sincere wish. I want people to think about the common good, the common good.”