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The outspoken artist is really quite shy

Text by Jina Khayyer
Portraits by Wolfgang Tillmans
Issue n° 1, Spring & Summer 2010

The amazing Jenny Holzer occupies a territory in art that is entirely her own. Although Jenny herself manages to remain almost invisible from the public, her scrolling text works are instantly recognisable and omnipresent worldwide. Delivered via LED screens and projectors, her capitalised statements are as confrontational as they are true. They aren’t called “truisms” for nothing.

Since 1977, Jenny has been exhibiting phrases such as MONEY CREATES TASTE or LACK OF CHARISMA CAN BE FATAL in very public spaces. Initially fly-posting them on the streets of New York, she has since turned Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous spiral rotunda at the Guggenheim into a moving ticker tape and lit up a giant billboard in Times Square with the immortal words PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT. Whilst Jenny may travel, she prefers to remain at a distance from the world she addresses through her work. But her mysterious persona and notorious shyness do not stand in the way of her commanding presence.

Jenny and Jina are in the lobby of the Hotel Adlon, Unter den Linden, Berlin.

Jina Khayyer: Since language is your tool, how many languages do you speak?

Jenny Holzer: I speak bad English and bad Spanish.

JK: If it’s your first language, why do you say you speak English badly?

JH: Because I do, you’ll see. Wait until you transcribe this, then you’ll have proof.

JK: How’s your German?

JH: I can read a menu and, in some cases, talk myself out of stupid situations. I’ve spent a lot of time in Germany; my art career started here when the artist Dan Graham showed my stuff to Kasper König, who put me in Westkunst. That was in the early ’80s, and it was the first time my work had been officially exhibited in an international show.

JK: What do you mean by “officially”?

JH: Because before Westkunst my work was mostly street-based and not featured in exhibitions. I came to New York City in the late ’70s, and that’s when I started composing the Truisms and posting them all over the town.

JK: What made you turn to words? Because you studied abstract painting, right?

JH: I wanted very specific subject matter in the work. Respect for art crippled me for a long time because I didn’t want to create abominations. I didn’t even try to make much that resembled art and I didn’t have the skill or the desire to be a Social Realist painter, so I turned to language to carry the content.

JK: What’s the beauty of words?

JH: When you get them right, people understand.

JK: More than pictures?

JH: No, either works well. But text, more often than not, has carried my meaning. Both can be abused or can be truthful. It depends on who’s doing what and why. But when you factor in the unconscious, the subconscious and the individual, interpretation is somewhat uncontrollable. I don’t believe there’s an absolute, a formula for representation.

JK: Between 1977 and 2001 you wrote 13 series of text works – including the Truisms, the Inflammatory Essays, Laments, Survival, Mother and Child. But nothing since. How come?

JH: I quit writing because I wanted to cover more themes, more emotions; to create more depth than I could muster alone. I am not really a writer. So I began to choose texts by others. It was a decision about pleasure and joy and efficiency. I am better at the visuals: now I get to frolic in blue and purple and black.

JK: I wonder if anyone believes the Truisms lack depth.

JH: Thank you, but I bet I am accurate. When I began to do more projections outdoors, for example, I felt that what I had written was not always appropriate or adequate. I always need the content, the form, the totality to be everything that it can. And I thought the artwork could be better if I went to poets like Wislawa Szymborska, who is strong and clear and treats hard and essential subjects wisely and well.

JK: Which of her subjects intrigue you?

JH: She writes about everything from terror, refugees and revenge to love, loss and surviving the death of someone adored.

JK: And what are your favourite subjects?

JH: For reasons unclear to me, I always return to war. It’s not a favourite topic but a familiar one. I just had an exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, and I was surprised about how many of the pieces in it had to do with conflict, either armed or personal. When I was a child I was frightened by the war movies on television – images of refugees and people being marched off to camps. These pictures affected me and started something in me.

JK: Since we are now all the way back into your childhood, let’s start from the beginning. Where were you born?

JH: I was born in southern Ohio, and I stayed there until I was 16.

JK: Tell me about your mother.

JH: She was an athlete, a rider. She taught riding in a small women’s college in the south. She was intelligent, loud, tireless, a conservative with an interest in social justice. When driving, she would point and exclaim when she’d see something extraordinary. She encouraged me.

JK: Sisters? Brothers?

JH: I had a brother and I have a sister. My brother died in his early 20s on a motorcycle. He was a wild boy. He died when he was behaving, for once, on his motorcycle; somebody ran into him. And I have a sister who has survived.

JK: Survived what?

JH: Survived life.

JK: Help me picture the adolescent Jenny Holzer.

JH: I was skinny and read all the time. I hoped I could go to Fort Lauderdale and transform myself from a nerd into a beach person.

JK: What did you read?

JH: Mostly novels, and some anarchists. I read a lot of the Russians in my teens. I started with the old guys: Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Turgenev, Goncharov and Bakunin. My mother helped me find them. She often directed me. And since I was a relatively solitary soul, reading and I got along.

JK: So, you were 16, you arrived at the beach, you put your bikini on and you went surfing?

JH: Yeah, except that there are almost no waves at Fort Lauderdale and I was a terrible surfer. I bought a used surfboard. I tended to stand up and then the board would go down with me. But though it was defective, it looked good on top of my Mustang.

JK: You drove a Mustang?

JH: My mother’s father was the biggest Ford dealer in the country. I always had good, fast cars. I had a green fastback Mustang and a green board. Very stylish. I had the accessories and the look but not the ability.

JK: Where did you stay?

JH: I lived with my mother’s sister. I finished high school in Fort Lauderdale and then attended a succession of colleges. I changed colleges almost every year. I was restless and unsure of what I should study. And then I fell in love with a man and went away with him.

JK: To where, with whom?

JH: I moved from Duke University to the University of Chicago with my physicist-turned-sociologist boyfriend. Moving became a way to see and learn more than I could from reading alone. And moving is a way of dealing with anxiety. If you are in motion, you feel like you are doing something, and it makes you tired. You are tranquilised.

JK: You started your artistic career as a street artist, by taking your art immediately into public spaces. How did you have the courage?

JH: The street was right for what I was offering, and I felt free there. Since I wasn’t certain I was an artist, posting messages in the street was an all-purpose activity. I was aware of what the conceptual artists had talked about and, in some cases, had done. Daniel Buren had realised works in public. And early on I was with a group called Collaborative Projects. Many of the “Colab” artists worked outside and organised shows in abandoned buildings. So I had the impulse, and eventually I had the first content – the Truisms.

JK: How long did it take you to compose them?

JH: It took me forever. It’s surprisingly difficult to write a sentence that sounds as if it’s been said for centuries. I worked on them over a couple of years. And writing them led the way to my manifestos, the Inflammatory Essays.

JK: Which were inspired by manifestos written by Mao and Lenin...

JH: I read all kinds of manifestos: art manifestos as well as political ones. I am inclined towards extreme forms; I appreciate and despise extreme methods of address. The Essays, I think, were cautionary.

JK: Who did you exchange your thoughts with?

JH: I pretty much stayed by myself during the writing, but then I’d test the texts on people and ask for advice. Writing is necessarily solitary, and when I was young, it was appropriately miserable to write alone.

JK: You had no fear of loneliness?

JH: Not while doing the work. I had to be sequestered. I can’t concentrate when I am around somebody else.

JK: Don’t you work with other people in a studio?

JH: Occasionally I’ll rent something short-term in New York City that could pass for a studio. But I’m based upstate, and what I have there are more like offices, because I tend to work with art historians and writers. They’re used to reading and writing and talking, so they are very capable of helping me. But the aloneness is cured in large part because the work is public. I have to sweat solo while I am making the art, but then it goes out, and I can stand nearby and watch people watch it.

JK: And how does that feel?

JH: Good. That creates some kind of sense and peace and community.

JK: Did you ever dream that your words – in big letters – would one day illuminate Times Square?

JH: No, it was quite the opposite. I wasn’t sure that I was, could be, should be an artist. So all the way through the Truisms and into the Inflammatory Essays, I was wondering whether I was just another crackpot. It was only sometime in the ’80s that I began to hope that I really was an artist.

JK: And then in 1990 you were invited, as the first female artist, to represent the United States at the Biennale in Venice with a solo show. And you went and won the jury prize too.

JH: Yes. Good, no? I had and have a street life for the work, and gradually I have developed an official art life, for which I am grateful. But it still feels strange to me sometimes.

JK: To see yourself as an artist?

JH: Yes. For my recent show at the Beyeler, I was allowed to pick artworks from their permanent collection to accompany my work. It was frightening to have my stuff next to masterpieces. I picked great pieces by Malevich, Picasso and Giacometti, so it was rather terrifying to have those in such close proximity.

JK: Do they stand in any reference to your work?

JH: I picked works by artists that were influential to me, pieces that are radical, strong, scary and minimal. I love Minimalism, so Malevich is my man. And because there never are enough women in exhibitions, I chose two giant Giacometti females. These sculptures stand guard by the entrance to the exhibition. And I picked a crying Picasso woman and a raped Picasso woman, because rape always is around.

JK: Rape, and violence to women in general, is also one of your major subjects. Where does that come from?

JH: From some personal history and from horrible general knowledge. People talk about rape, but little is done. Rape as a weapon of war is routine, as is domestic criminal assault.

JK: Describe yourself for me in five words.

JH: I never would describe myself. I spent a lot of time hoping that I didn’t really exist. If I could, I would hide under the bed. My public art functions best when people just come across it, don’t know it is art, don’t know it is mine. I love to work, and I love to get the art out, and I find it reassuring and gratifying when people stop and look and are engaged.

JK: Some of your Truisms were sadly prophetic. Like PEOPLE ARE NUTS IF THEY THINK THEY'RE IMPORTANT.

JH: Yes, funny, I wish more bloggers would remember it.

JK: Do you follow blogs?

JH: I read a number of them, and I am grateful for the people who write well and know something. But there is a lot of “I walked in the park” and “I had lunch” in too many blogs and I wish these people would stay quiet. The Huffington Post is great; they have smart people, so that one I follow. But all those folks who just write “me-me-me” and “I-I-I” make me shiver.

JK: Your career started in the media age, and you used all its tools: posters and stickers, then LED screens and projections. So why don’t you use the tools of the new media age, like Facebook and Twitter?

JH: I was always quiet, so it makes sense that I’m not much on social networking sites. I did a piece for the Web, early on, where people could read my sentences and rewrite them. The title was Please Change Beliefs. I thought that was fun, but that’s ancient. Now I am working on something for smartphones.

Wolfgang photographed Jenny on 26 January, 2010, at her studio in Brooklyn, New York, which is a good four-hour drive from her home, upstate New York. Here, Jenny points out a recent work from The Redaction Paintings. The series focuses on the heavily censored American military intelligence documents made available through the 2003 Freedom of Information Act.

JK: Like what?

JH: There are little projectors that you can attach to phones. I am making personal projections so you can throw sentences on the wall, or on the floor or on a body. I saw a self-focusing laser projector at the last Consumer Electronics Show. You stand at some distance and project, and the image always stays crisp.

JK: You sound excited when you talk about technical devices.

JH: Yeah, I am a tech-groupie.

JK: And will you sell this as art?

JH: I haven’t decided. Maybe they should be unlimited, like the Truisms T-shirts I made in the ’80s.

JK: One of your most famous works, from the Survival series, is PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT. What do you need to be protected from?

JH: From myself and from the rest of the human race. From stupidity, cruelty, avarice, and the occasional bear, rabid dog, tsunami, bad tuna and lightning strike. I am horrified by murder.


JH: That’s a good one.

JK: ...or THE FAMILY IS LIVING ON BORROWED TIME have to do with you?

JH: They’re fundamental statements, but these lines are from series that contain many points of view. Some I believe and might be vaguely autobiographical, but others I wrote to make a portrait of the world. In the Truisms I want people to see that the sentences contradict one another. YOU ARE CAUGHT THINKING ABOUT KILLING ANYONE YOU WANT is a harder version of PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT. It’s a dark laugh. THE FAMILY IS LIVING ON BORROWED TIME is hard to reconstruct exactly, but I probably was thinking about dysfunctional families and acknowledging modern times, aware that mom and dad and their seven children won’t be sitting around the dinner table.

JK: Did you sit around the dinner table with your family?

JH: Not always happily. My father had a difficult life; he suffered a head injury when he was young. He wasn’t intellectually impaired, but something was a little off and he would become angry very quickly. And he was enormous. An angry, giant, athletic man is something to behold, especially when you are little. So my family experience was not great at times. And there was other stuff that was worse than my father’s rages.

JK: Probably shown in a few of the Inflammatory Essays and Laments.

JH: Yes, inevitably. The texts weren’t written in the first person but some of the heat and the fear and the fury came from the past. It always does.

JK: Does that explain why you became a mother so late?

JH: I had a child relatively late because I was pessimistic about the world and felt that I couldn’t, in good conscience, have a baby. I was fearful of making a child hostage to fate in a more and more disturbing world, and I considered my rough background. I hesitated until it was almost too late. But then I took the risk, and there she was.

JK: How did that change things? Hiding under the bed is not the best idea when you are a mother.

JH: It was a great way to come out of myself; gradually, because I couldn’t do it at once. My daughter, of course, didn’t know my history and didn’t realise that I had reasons for being withdrawn. She simply wanted me. Until then I couldn’t imagine that anybody would, and I was slow to respond because I assumed I was poison. But to her, I was just her mother. What a surprise.

JK: To be loved?

JH: Yes. I had to be present for her, while most of my life I’d been dedicated to invisibility.

JK: Have you also been invisible to your husband?

JH: At moments, yes. But the child had an imperative, the requirement for presence and love. What could be more convincing?

JK: For every pain there is a pill. People have professional help of all kinds: nutrionists, shrinks, yoga teachers… What do you have?

JH: I really would benefit from having a personal trainer. I do have a herd of optimistic and dewy-eyed young ponies, plus barn cats, and they are a help. I am sure I could use a lot of other help, but I tend not to ask for it.

JK: Do you find it hard to ask for something?

JH: I am practising. As I am older, it would be smart to ask for assistance regularly, but it’s not my habit. I am hideously self-sufficient. Or I want to imagine I am.

JK: Do you keep a diary?

JH: I don’t feel a need to revisit myself. I want to know what’s in the world.

JK: Do you enjoy watching the news and reading the papers?

JH: I watch and read as much as I can – and it should be painful because terrible events are reported. I watch all sorts of stations. For example, I follow the right-wingers, because I want to know what they are saying. I view live-streaming world news on my computer, because the news is utterly different, depending on the source and on the vested interests. I watch Al Jazeera and Russian television in English. I listen to Fox; I watch CNN; I do Sky and the BBC. I want to know what’s out there.

“I spent a lot of time hoping that I didn’t really exist. If I could, I would hide under the bed.”

JK: Which source do you trust?

I trust the process of comparison and distillation.

JK: What is the biggest misconception in society today?

JH: Many people think, or want to think, that we can get by if we simply ignore global warming.

JK: Could this be a new topic for your work?

JH: Until now, I’ve concentrated on war and rape – what a grim, short list. Also on love, but that’s hidden behind the violence until it shows in an array of colours or in a tender-looking projection. But I was impressed recently to hear the artist Maya Lin talking to Christiane Amanpour about what Maya described as her last memorial. It will be about climate change; it will appear in many media and will be present around the world. That was inspirational, so maybe that could lead me to new work in new media.

JK: Do you ever suffer from self-doubt, wondering whether anyone is even interested in listening to what you have to say?

JH: My grandparents were useful people: a doctor, a nurse, a capitalist and a schoolteacher. They all did something concrete and generally accepted. Their lives had me pause for longer than I might have before becoming an artist, because what is saying and showing compared to doing? I tried to be a regular person. I thought I should be a lawyer. I was reassured by law. And still, to this day in the US, other than in pockets like New York City, it’s not always considered a contribution to society to be an artist. Artists are characterised as odd and indulgent.

JK: Were your parents present when you represented the United States in Venice?

JH: My mother came and was happy and proud. She also saw the Guggenheim show the year before. But that was the first time that one of my parents engaged. My father was worried and put off by the Truisms. When he saw the very first poster, he told me to stop immediately.

JK: So your father never saw any of your exhibitions?

JH: No. He didn’t like to travel. He liked to sit on the couch. In a way. I am a bit like him. I travel, but I mostly stay in my room. Isn’t that weird?

JK: It’s unexpected.

JH: I work hard, so I need quiet, and people spook me. I’ve been in Berlin now for days, and I’ve only been to the Reichstag to see my piece there, twice to Starbucks, and I visited my gallerist. Apart from that, I’ve stayed in the hotel. I need to be by myself to be focused. It’s best sometimes to lie flat with your eyes closed and see what thoughts come.