Jenny Holzer’s Repurposing of Commercialism for Activist Art

A new exhibition at the Guggenheim Bilbao shows how Jenny Holzer used the language of advertising to create campaigning feminist art

The night before the launch of Thing, Indescribable, the new retrospective of the American artist Jenny Holzer’s art – and the largest collection of her work to date – the writings of poets from the Basque region of Spain are projected onto the Bilbao Guggenheim’s façade.

It’s a stunning sight, but it echoes what Holzer, who is now 68, has been doing since she was a student at The Whitney in New York in her mid-twenties, when she anonymously pasted posters all over Manhattan in an era when ‘street art’ was a barely recognised term in the art-world, and certainly wasn’t an aspiration for advertisers.

Truisms (1977–79), 1977 All images © Jenny Holzer

Holzer was born in Gallipolis, Ohio, in America’s mid-West, and arrived in New York City in 1976 at the age of 26. She is sometimes referred to as a ‘neo-conceptual’ artist for the way she took her art practice away from the art world and into the street, showing a prodigious knack for harnessing the delivery of words in highly aesthetic fashion, and – what’s more – in public spaces.

The transformation of language into a visual spectacle is very much a part of our modern culture – and, of course our immersion in the digital world. To walk down a city street or to spend time online, as many of us do on a day to day basis, is to be surrounded by the impactful communication of provocative phrases. But when Holzer started out more than 40 years ago, the artistic linkage of words and visuals was somewhat new. In that sense, this exhibition shows an artist who was able to predict where the creative industries were going long before they transformed our broader culture.

From Inflammatory Essays (1979-82), 1982

Holzer was part of a new-wave of explicitly feminist artists to emerge out of New York in the early 80s. On arriving in the city, she quickly became involved in Colab, a progressive downtown artist collective, and started to exhibit alongside emerging artists with names like Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman and Sarah Charlesworth. 

Holzer wanted to find unique ways of making specific comments an integral aspect of the objects she created. It was a campaigning, activistic and overtly political style of art, one closely linked to the emerging punk movement.

The Guggenheim exhibition, which runs until September 9, exhibits her earliest series Truisms (1977–79), a series of phrases she penned, printed and anonymously wheat-pasted, often at night, all over Manhattan. A main motivation behind their anonymous posting, Holzer says to a group of journalists at the launch of the exhibition, is she didn’t want people to know they were posted by an unconfident woman in her twenties. 

Survival, 1983-85, Times Square, 1986; Photo: John Marchael

Truisms acted like tiny haikus that spoke of our shared existence, but also communicated some of the socio-political issues that have animated Holzer’s career – systematic abuses, violence against women, the hoarding of power by a corrupt elite, the rights of minorities. It’s not unusual for artists to speak of supporting these issues. But Holzer was able to find potent ways of reaching people in the street, and by employing the language and methods of commercial advertising to almost ‘sell’ radical ideas. 

“I actively wanted to catch people who were in a hurry,” she says. She limited herself to 20 lines of exactly 100 words, communicated through uniform capitalised fonts on brightly coloured paper.

Living: More people will be building hiding places…, 1989; Photo: David Heald

By taking certain phrases out of their context, and reconfiguring them as statements on coloured paper that might, from a momentary glance, be mistaken for an advert, Holzer found a way to make direct statements that were distinctly populist, effortlessly consumable and highly eye-catching.

But they weren’t there to promote a product. Rather, they tried to exert a minority voice or opinion that, at that time, existed out of the mainstream. They were like sound-bites for fringe ideas. One of the first Truims to go ‘viral’ in the pre-internet age was, for example: “Abuse of power should come as no surprise.” It resurfaced across America in the wake of the #metoo movement.

“With a poster in the street you have the space of time it takes a person to walk a few feet,” Holzer says of the works today. “With Truisms, I offered what will work in seconds.”

Purple Cross, 2004; Photo: Attilio Maranzano

The Guggenheim Bilbao shows many of the nearly 300 aphorisms and slogans that, collectively, came to be Truisms, as well as the related early series Inflammatory Essays (1979–82), which was influenced by Holzer’s devouring of political, artistic and religious manifestos.

Holzer found ways to repurpose the anodyne language that is so present in low-end commercialism, whilst also finding ways to take Truisms to the consumerist mass market, printing her phrases on T-shirts, stickers and the kind of objects you might find in a gift shop. 

A projection titled ‘For Bilbao’ was projected on the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum’s façade as part of the Jenny Holzer: Thing Indescribable exhibition on March 21

As her practice and profile has developed, her large-scale installations began to repurpose unused advertising billboards across the country.

By 1982, she famously exhibited her Truisms across an electronic billboard in Times Square, with phrases like Protect Me From What I Want, Money Creates Taste and Raise Boys and Girls the Same Way appearing alongside the monumental light-show of advertising in Manhattan’s world-famous commercial district.

Holzer is now based in Hoosick Falls, a tiny village near the Green Mountain forests of upstate New York. As of 2010, her works have become more sculptural, using LED signs to create gleaming, gliding and intensely-coloured phrases in installations that use robotics and found ephemera. Holzer is no longer the author of her texts. She instead takes phrases from refugees, victims of war and the dispossessed (often collated by charities and aid groups) before placing them, in the most visual of ways, in the Guggenheim. The unconfident, anonymous girl in her twenties is rather better known now. But whatever it was that drove her is still very much alive.

Jenny Holzer’s Thing, Indescribable is on show at The Guggenheim Bilbao until September 9; www.guggenheim-bilbao. eus