‘I wanted a lot simultaneously: to leave art outside for the public, to be a painter of mysterious yet ordered works, to be explicit but not didactic, to find the right subjects, to transform spaces, to disorientate and transfix people, offer up beauty, to be funny and never lie.’
Jenny Holzer had a simple idea around 1978. She came up with a list of aphorisms which she printed out and pasted up around Manhattan. These were not ideologically consistent but usually meshed together conflicting attitudes. People could respond how they wanted and a photo of the time shows a mostly crossed out sheet, with the comment ‘too much shit’ alongside. In fact they are a vivid mixture of the political, the philosophical and the mundane. Some kind of response is demanded though.
Her idea took off and within a short space of time they were being translated into other media, including billboards, t-shirts, fast moving LED displays, engraved benches etc. I remember how satisfactory it seemed in 1990 when she was chosen as the first woman artist to represent America in the Venice Biennale. Her pavilion was notable not just for its dazzling technology but also for the fact that it was so authoritative. I said to myself ‘the most expensive pavilion ever and it’s for a woman’. Such a response may seem weird today but at the time it was justified, take my word for it.
The same is true of the new display at the Tate. Occupying several rooms, it comprises examples drawn from different periods of her career and in all her media. There are also a number of paintings in which she collaborated with the New York graffiti artist Lady Pink. To my mind these are less successful, her texts are all but swallowed by the rather confusing imagery. But overall the show is remarkable for its freshness. Times have changed but her words still resonate and will, I think, continue to do so for quite some time.
Jenny Holzer, Artists Rooms is at the Blavatnik Building, Tate Modern until summer 2019