Jenny Holzer is a person of carefully chosen words. In the late 1970s, she arrived in New York City at a time of cultural and political revolution. Feminism, racial inequality, poverty, the Vietnam War, and the AIDS epidemic were among key issues of the period. Holzer’s initial contribution to the unfolding conversations around her were her Truisms (1977–79)—hundreds of brief, often contradictory statements on social, economic, personal and political matters. Presented on anonymous street posters, they were designed to invite passersby to stop and consider the complexity of socially accepted truths.

“Text … can be abused or can be truthful. It depends on who’s doing what and why”

In 1979 and 1980, as a member of the artists’ collective Collaborative Projects, Holzer participated in the radical Manifesto Show—an exhibition she co-organized with experimental film artist Colen Fitzgibbon—and Times Square Show. These democratic, do-it-yourself exhibitions defied existing expectations about what art is, for whom it is made, where it is installed, and what it can do for society. Like other conceptual artists, Holzer has challenged the limits of art. Writing is her medium, and the public her audience. By inscribing her texts on everyday objects such as T-shirts, pantyhose, cups, plates, condoms, and postcards Holzer has brought surprise, provocation, and critique to the public realm.

“I like placing content wherever people look, and that can be at the bottom of a cup or on a shirt or hat or on the surface of a river or all over a building”

Since the 1980s, Holzer has used contemporary technologies to transform language through light, color, and movement. LED installations—including her 1997 Installation for Bilbao, on view in Gallery 101—brought her words from the street to the inside of the museum. Light projections on buildings and other landmarks, including the Arno River in Florence (1996), the Louvre Pyramid in Paris (2001), and City Hall in London (2006) took text back outside and into the city. This exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao features new light projections created for the museum’s exterior façade, on view after dark throughout the end of March. For Holzer, electronic signs and light projections are ways to bring spaces to life through the power of language.

“When art or writing functions, it raises ideas and has them felt, and this knowledge and feeling may be the basis for decent action”

At every stage of her career, Holzer’s art has sparked dialogue around the concerns of the day, whether political conflict, war, social justice, or gender equality. Her feminist perspective continues to inspire the ongoing fight for human rights, and her original Truisms resonate with a new generation of activists and advocates. Now as always, Holzer’s art invites public engagement and opens a space for debate.

“Read the paper. Be alive to what is around you. Make sure it resonates within”

Text: Interviews with U.S. military veterans conducted by Protect Our Defenders and
Interchange Productions, © 2019 by Protect Our Defenders Foundation. Used with
permission of Protect Our Defenders. Names have been changed or omitted to protect
© 2019 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY
Video: Killstress Designs

LED sign with blue, green & red diodes
358.1 x 14 x 14 cm
Text: Interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch (HRW), © 1992–2017 by HRW. Used with permission of HRW. All names have been changed to protect identities.
© 2019 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY
Video: Killstress Designs

Holzer Duet...Truisms, 1985
Dance performance, (Larry Goldhuber, Bill T. Jones)
Text: Truisms, 1977–79
Joyce Theatre, New York, 1985
© 1985 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS)

The following is a brief quote given by the prominent choreographer Bill T. Jones, who created the piece in collaboration with Holzer’s Truisms text:

"I do remember when Jenny came to see a rehearsal (the only time she saw the work, I believe...) her only comment was the she’d have liked to see more conflict. The work was designed to suggest the difference between Larry’s physicality and my own. He is in a dress shirt and trousers, I look like an athlete/dancer, he is large, I am slender, he is white, I am black... These contrasts were supposed to suggest a schism that is challenged by our cooperation, grappling and handling of one another. Jenny’s truisms are an ironic and ’knowing’ counterpoint to this ritual centered in our bodies." Bill T. Jones