Astringent ideas, arguments, and sorrows: this is how Jenny Holzer describes her work. Beginning in 1979, the artist has let her ideas take shape in the form of words, and foisted them into public spaces, everywhere from the Venice Biennale and the Reichstag to Times Square and the common T-shirt. Her practice of confronting ignorance with ideology, of challenging violence with kindness, has made Holzer one of the most compelling artists to use the word as her medium.
In an age where memes have become an ever-present part of our visual vocabulary, our psychic space tends to feel the onslaught of the relentless parade of other people’s ideas. Yet Holzer, with her smooth, swift, and straightforward epigrams and maxims, has mastered the art of doing more with less. She does not seek to persuade so much as to confront, to draw attention to, rather than to seek attention for herself.
The great portrait of graffiti legend and Wild Style star Lady Pink wearing a Holzer t-shirt stating, “Abuse Of Power Comes As No Surprise” is as timely and topical as it was in 1983, when it was first produced. Though New York has changed in countless ways over the past three decades, some things shall always remain the same. And so it is with great pleasure to discover a selection of plaques from the Living Series (1980-1982) on display at Sprüth Magers Berlin London at Frieze New York, booth C9.
The plaques are organized in two grids, each grid very simple in its command of the wall from which it hangs. It is a pleasing break, these plaques, in the middle of the fair. The formal elements of the work recede into the background, and the simple change of red and black color on the type creates a subtle effect. It is compelling, a consideration that keeps one reading, plaque to plaque. It’s almost too much, all these words all at once, this onslaught of words in caps.
That last bit above about waiting, that’s the part that’s gone too far. The idea that we should be able to anticipate what another person craves, this is something that requires us to step out of our self-referential space. And it appears, from Holzer’s inference, to do so would be in our best interest.
She likes to advise, like a woman who has seen the world, like the planet talking to her chirren. There’s a lot of “Lissen here” reminiscent of the authority a plaque assumes by its form, its color, and capitalization. It reads as direction. As an exalted fortune cookie. It is a wise and knowing voice telling us things we aren’t exactly sure we want to hear. But Holzer cannot resist for it is her calling. She is called to plant thoughts into our mind. The rest is up to you.