An interview with Jenny Holzer

Installation for Neue Nationalgalerie. 2001. 13 LED signs with amber diodes. Text: Mother and Child, 1990. © 2001 Jenny Holzer/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Werner Zellien.

“The beginning of the war will be secret,” reads one of the early texts of Jenny Holzer, but eventually it all gets disclosed. For two decades, the American artist had circulated her spiny aphorisms worldwide—most famously on scrolling LED displays, but Also projected on buildings or carved into stone—and made language into something like a sculptural medium. In the early 2000s, however, her art took a sharp turn. Frustrated by presidential aggression and media prattle, Holzer began looking at declassified documents from America’s forever war, from military and intelligence sources, which testified to unspeakable violence— if you could make out the details amid the redactions. She channeled hundreds of these burning testimonies into an unlikely medium: painting.

Holzer was born in Ohio in 1950 and came to New York in 1976. The next year, her pithy, ever-so-sinister epigrams began appearing on posters downtown, and soon they were on movie marquees, condom wrappers, the big board in Times Square. When I pull up to the farmhouse where she has made her home since the 1980s, the artist is tending to one of her horses and exchanging pleasantries with a groom; inside, she shows me her impressive collection of art by the visionary watercolorist Charles Burchfield. It’s idyllic. But down the country road, in her capacious studio, are materials of a darker tenor.   × Jason Farago

In the years after 9/11—specifically, as the United States went to war in Iraq—you turned back to painting after many years working with other media, most memorably LED displays. I wonder if painting was always, residually, in the back of your head when you were making the works that won you the most acclaim. Why did you return to painting at mid-career?

I wanted to be a painter; I failed at being a painter because, among other things, I was impatient. I should have known better, when I was younger, that to be even an acceptable painter took years. But I was anxious, anxious, anxious about not being a horrible artist. So I gave up painting, for a long time. When we went into Iraq, and I didn’t understand why—I thought it might be catastrophic, as it seems to have proven—I figured out how to put content in painting without being a social realist painter. Which I don’t have the skill to be, nor the desire.

In the initial ones, from the early 2000s, the documents you were working from were legible. Later ones were mostly or entirely redacted.

The first ones were mostly black-and-white and were relatively infor-mative. For example, there was a wish list with torture techniques. Actually, there were several of them. I was desperate for information way back then, because I didn’t understand why we were going into Iraq (other than oil, but surely there was something else). I wasn’t seeing adequate information in the papers, so I went looking in various archives for primary source info: the National Security Archive, the ACLU. The first paintings were heavy on info, although they had some redactions. I wanted to know, so maybe someone else wants to know.

Once I’d made nearly 500 paintings in my sad frenzy about the invasion, paintings with a lot of summary content, I switched to the redactions. The second generation ones were largely abstracted. Even color crept in. I went for the shapes of what you couldn’t see or know. That’s a whole other point, and I must confess to getting ooey-gooey about the looks of them.

So you were looking at these documents in aesthetic terms, and not just as information?

For the very first ones, the focus was on the content, but inevitably I also looked at them. I became a great appreciator of many styles of redaction. I started being very grateful when the person redacting should have been a Russian Suprematist—when the blocks were just so.

I indulged in hand-painting the fuzz at the edges. Various of these pages had been copied so many times that there were digital excrescences at the limits. Color came by way of relief, and also so people would bother to walk up to the words—as with the early street posters. I wanted some of the paintings to be large, to be like billboards, in a way. I wanted them to loom and to be imposing, so that one would feel small beneath them.

And sometimes I projected the documents. We projected them at very large scale on the Bobst Library at NYU, and at George Washington University, on the building that houses the NSA. The friendly NSA: the National Security Archive.

You projected the original documents, or your paintings of them?

The documents. And it was interesting. A lot of the students and passersby assumed that the documents were fake. That they were my editorializing. That they weren’t the real deal. It was interesting to say: no, look, you’ll see that this one is from a politician, and this one is from a detainee. I don’t think they could believe what the pages were saying. Or that they would be disclosed. These documents often were written in the heat of the moment, and not with release in mind.

Did you make a distinction between those that were obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, or other official channels, and those that were leaked?

Almost all of the documents I used came from FOIA requests. I was lucky to meet Tom Blanton, the director of the National Security Archive, and his team. They were enormously helpful. The ACLU was too. But I don’t know the origins of every single page because I talked to a bunch of people who fed me things. I can’t say categorically.

But Doodle (2014), which riffs on a schematic drawing of the architecture of the Internet, has a clear source: it was disclosed by Edward Snowden.

“Doodle” is the only way to describe some of this stuff. Compared to the legal character of the documents, the aesthetics of them can be goofy, or completely insufficient to express the terrifying nature of the information. I’m interested in how to negotiate that divide—between information that’s really horrifying, and the expression of that information as flat or bland or silly.

I tried to be decent—that tricky word—by being inclusive, by having more, more, more content, from multiple points of view. If not decent, at least accurate. It is a tightrope to paint things that look funny at first glance, but then, when you approach, are gruesome, tragic, heinous, reprehensible. The people who redacted these documents might have been bored, so they were goofing around. There are cartoony redactions, and then there are ones that are angry. The mark-making can be rough and ticked. As to whether the editors are outraged that this information is coming out or whether they’re outraged at the content, who knows? And some redactions are just plain pretty. Here’s to aesthetes!

In your earliest works, such as the Truisms (1977–79), the words you used on posters, stickers, or electronic displays were your own words. Later you started employing found texts, or poetry. These more recent paintings, if you think about it, are also a means by which you are giving aesthetic expression to other people’s writing, or documents. Perhaps they aren’t such a break with your earlier work after all.

It started when I began to make memorials, and I froze. I didn’t find my feeble writing ability adequate to the task of memorializing someone else. It belatedly dawned on me that I should use the individual’s writing, or his quotations. So, that I did for an exiled German writer in flight from the Nazis, in the Oskar Maria Graf memorial [in Munich]. I used others’ speech for the LED project at the Bundestag. I did the politicians’ entrance. What could I write to make sense of German history? Instead I went to the archives of the various parliaments and collected what any number of politicians from assorted parties said, on certain themes through the decades. The boundaries of Germany. The role of women in society. And I lit that. Employing text by others freed me from my writing, so it wasn’t that strange to go to the NSA and other archives for material. And I’ve worked with a lot of people all along, with graffiti writers and on other collaborative projects. I need people.

You said that being a social realist painter was not an option, and this was the only other one on the table. And yet these paintings are some of the only works in your career in which you responded directly to current events.

There was one other time I went to current events, or really ongoing events: the war in the former Yugoslavia. I wrote the Lustmord texts (1993–95) about targeting and raping women and girls. During the Iraq war there wasn’t enough in the news, at least that I could find. I understand why there wasn’t; people were afraid, and they wanted to be loyal and positive. It seemed as if critical questioning was gone, not to mention accountability. So I wanted to see what I could find, wanted to see what I could offer others; I wanted to know what I thought, what others thought.

It has been gratifying. At assorted shows, especially shows that featured the silkscreen paintings with a lot of information, people were held by them and talked at length in front of the paintings. I know it’s mean to ask anyone to stand and read in a gallery, but it seems that what I was proffering could be of interest, and maybe of some utility.

Did you see a difference in the reception in Europe and the US?

Europe was faster, as typical with my work. I don’t know exactly why that is, but it has been consistent.

Another reason for the urgency to paint was that I thought, hey, I’m old. I always wanted to be a painter, and now might be the time. It was mostly the content, the situation, and the world, but also: tick, tick, tick.

So painting has always been rumbling beneath the surface. Tell me about the painting in the early 1970s. The painting that you say was not very good.

It wasn’t atrocious; it wasn’t good. [Laughs] Abstract painting. One decent installation. I painted my entire studio at RISD white, and then covered the floor and the ceiling and windows and the walls and the doors with a washy phthalo blue. You could indeed get dizzy and lost there, in a relatively pleasant and mysterious way. That was okay, but on individual paintings, I never managed anything close to that.

I’d had a few undergraduate art classes at the University of Chicago, where I enjoyed my first decent art history education, but I was only there a year. Then I had more art classes the year after at Ohio University, but altogether I enjoyed a better liberal arts than fine arts background, from Duke University on. I loved the usual painting suspects. The aching edges of Rothko. I liked mean Ad Reinhardt: a deep love, actually. I wanted to paint black!

Later you moved to New York for the Whitney Independent Study Program, which was a painting-phobic place. When you went, did the Whitney program already have a reputation for being heavy on theory and skeptical about painting? And if so, why did you apply?

I didn’t know that much about the ISP; I did it on a wing and a prayer. I was about to be evicted from RISD, so I thought, perfect, if I can go someplace else, then I’ll be safe. Ron Clark [the Whitney program’s director] did give us a giant reading list. Mostly I was glad to have it because I learned something. It also made me stop reading and write the Truisms, so thank you, Ron.

Yvonne Rainer was there, and she was wonderful to be around. She knows her theory but didn’t impose it. The guest artists were fantastic. Alice Neel came, all dressed in aqua blue, including a matching hat, and told us about her bad boyfriend and more. Dan Graham came and melted his Super 8 film, and Vito [Acconci] came. There was a lot of good, good stuff, as well as the theory. It was enormously useful.

The Truisms begin at this time. What was the relationship, if any, between the kludgy, difficult, but very valuable French theory on offer at the Whitney, and the direct, epigrammatic, sometimes news-style language of the Truisms? Was it a translation? A reaction?

At the Whitney I thought, this material is fascinating, extremely important stuff, and 99% of the population never will read it. Therefore, maybe I can Reader’s Digest it.

I put up the Truisms posters at night, because posting was illegal. And I wanted, needed the work to be anonymous. Therefore the posting had to take place at night. The individual Truisms had to be short and accessible because they were for the street. Complexity was there courtesy of hundreds of Truisms representing conflicting beliefs.

There’s been such a mythology constructed around the New York art world in the late 1970s. How do you remember it: the bankrupt, crime-ridden New York we all now think of as paradise?

When I lived there, it was a very, very different SoHo. It was rough. Creeping into the 80s, when Reagan came in, and the numbers of homeless people escalated—I was living on the Lower East Side by then—there were families, mothers and little kids, sleeping on benches in the subways. Not nice. Hideous. Winter. Bundled-up kids on the subway platform.

The art world was relatively clean then, though, because there was little to no money to be made. Minimalism hadn’t been all that expensive, or successful in the market. Many younger artists didn’t think about selling their stuff, or developing a brand. It was a paradise in that it was about the work; it was about the content; it was about striving to give. There’s a reason to be nostalgic for that. The artists in Colab were trying to find content that could be meaningful to most anybody walking down the street, and that might actually address a few things.

Tell me about Colab—this collective that organized the “Times Square Show” in 1980. It was a politically engaged, communication-oriented collective, right?

I wasn’t there for the very beginning of Colab. Tom Otterness was earlier than I; Robin Winters, Coleen Fitzgibbon were among the very first generation. I wasn’t too far behind, but they already had it rolling by the time I got there. Kiki [Smith] was in Colab; Christof Kohlhofer, Diego Cortez.

There were interminable meetings, where everyone argued. Which is kind of funny, since it was “Collaborative Projects.” Everyone was fighting with one another, but that said, many shows were organized in abandoned or otherwise neglected spaces. Shows with content. Shows that featured work that was delightfully and hopelessly not commercial. And that included work by people who were not artists. It functioned for a good long while, against the odds—not bad.

The tone of the language you employed seems to shift in the 1980s from something more declarative to something more poetic. Compared to the Truisms or Survival (1983–85), there is a more writerly occupation in the longer texts that came after. I wondered if you felt that: if you were moving from that news language to another kind of language.

The Truisms were as close as I could come to real clichés. I tried to be disciplined and make them short and unadorned. The next series, Inflammatory Essays (1979–82), had a strict 100-word limit, but in there, they could be mad; they could be really, really angry. By the time I got to Arno (1996), which began in the middle of the AIDS crisis, I was emotional. I wasn’t writing a manifesto, or a cliché. Then I retreated from feeling in my writing. I wrote once, but I am better with things visual. So, if I am going to hurt and reveal myself, I would rather practice it abstractly and relatively competently.

And I was able to practice sometimes with colored light. Like at the Neue Nationalgalerie [in Berlin]. Making that beautiful, stern, logical building melt: that was worthwhile.

I’ve only seen it in images. All the LEDs are on the ceiling in that one.

The programmers and I bent the building, which was serious fun. There are 13 beams for LEDs in that ceiling. By varying the text size, we could make the flat ceiling a dome, or we could have it sag. We also made the building a lantern. Since I couldn’t translate much of value in painting, at least on the first try, I went to what I could do with light. I managed with LEDs what I couldn’t muster in painting. Some of the LED installations did work on the body, did convey some sort of emotion, did slap you around and give you a host of sensations and/or thoughts.

It’s very funny how they work in space versus in reproduction. I was just a child when you occupied the Guggenheim [in 1989], for example. So what you say about “melting the Mies” is something I have to invent in my head.

I’ve realized that I should have had better documentation, since the best of my things can be ephemeral, but much work is just plain gone. I imagine it’s similar for performance artists. The successor to that blue, washy room at RISD probably was the Neue Nationalgalerie. Or Dia, the Guggenheim, and then the Neue, where I had an entire space to mess with. Or Bilbao. A work can produce bodily sensations, even vertigo. As well as some reading, but it’s mostly looking and experiencing.

All the spaces you’ve just described are not just architecturally very specific; they’re made by the most famous architects of the century! Wright, Mies, Foster, Gehry… These spaces make much stronger demands on an artist than your average white cube.

I just love a good space, the stronger the better. Because then, once I eventually figure out what to do with it, I gain its strength by joining with it. A lot of those buildings kill art, and seem to enjoy doing so. Rather than be killed, I would like to complement, to fuse, to mind-meld. What a privilege. And what a puzzle to solve.

Quite a different challenge, then, from working in public.

No, not so much. Working on the big board at Times Square, really the “room” is that whole space of the intersection. The light becomes all the ambient light, the pulsing and throbbing and flashing, and there’s noise.

But it’s less under your control, all the other light.

No. If I choose to be there, then I’m choosing the whole megillah. Lucky me, to have all of that. It’s similar with the projections. You get the weather, the sounds, the crowds, the murmur of the sea. All of these conditions conspire with or fight against the text, and that’s a gift, too. It forces me to wake up and do right. If we’re projecting on Hadrian’s Tomb, for example, that fantastic and imposing form, I should do it right.

It’s very rare, in public spaces, to see art whose tone is as forceful, or sometimes acerbic, as yours. The bureaucratic requirements usually negate that. And yet long after the guerrilla interventions of the Truisms, you’ve found a way to remain antagonistic, but to do it within the world we live in.

The Truisms and the Inflammatory Essay posters both were sneaked in the street. Some Living plaques went out illegally. There were street stickers. But you’re right, the projections mostly are done with permission. It was good, encouraging practice to start out illegally, because then I could realize anything I wanted to get done, to the limits of my endurance and stealth.

Later I found it necessary and proper at times to be careful. For example, with the Bundestag installation, which is a four-sided LED column, we presented material from most every decade, including the 30s and 40s. After a lot of thinking, we put the National Socialist content on the inner sides of the sign, and not on the face visible to the street and the general public, so knuckleheads couldn’t find it inspiring. I’ll put tough stuff out, but not what might incite gratuitous, hideous violence. I’m pro-expression but not pro-murder.

And at the same time you turned to poetry, much gentler stuff. You worked with Wisława Szymborska after she won the Nobel Prize.

I was very, very lucky to have her recommended to me by my friend Henri Cole. He is responsible for my adult education, relative to poetry. I met him at the American Academy in Berlin. We’re not policy wonks, so we became arty friends. He decided I was ignorant—and he was right. He introduced me to Szymborska’s writing, and eventually I got to see her in Krakow and project her poetry on the castle there. We ate pineapple together. She was endlessly gracious.

And then, soon after, come the paintings. You passed from abstracted or metaphorical invocations of violence to harrowing, and very courageous, testimony of real violence. Did you hit a limit?

I built to it. It was helpful having had, at moments, a hard childhood. I know about violence, firsthand. It was a useful exercise to try to determine what was right at the Bundestag, using primary source material from the German archives. It was harder, of course, doing it with my country’s material. Whatever I felt in the course of the painting research was nothing compared to what detainees or scared 19-year-old soldiers in the field felt.

Yet we have a presidential campaign—

I don’t think I want to talk about Trump, because I would be prone to say something about tyrannicide, and I’m really not pro-murder.

Well, OK, I don’t think artists are supposed to be alternative politicians, or alternative vicars. But the tone of today’s political discussion resonates with the kind of language you were using earlier in your career. You had to dig deep into the archive in the early 2000s, the era of “compassionate conservatism.” Now we have a real hardening of language and of tone.

And a hardening of practice. I’m not an expert. But it seems we’ve gone from selectively applying “enhanced interrogation techniques” and the occasional murder of a world leader or someone inconve-nient—while making it clear this wasn’t to be done routinely—to now, where in some circles, the violence has become accepted, normal, the go-to practice. I think it is utterly irresponsible and reprehensible for Trump and Cruz and others to incite violence in a political campaign, or anywhere else. One should not do it. We are a murderous species. We don’t need encouragement. Once we get rolling, it’s hard to stop.

A murderous species. Is the story your art tells a funda-mentally pessimistic story? If “abuse of power comes as no surprise,” as one of the Truisms has it, then we’re all fucked, right?

We probably are all fucked to a greater or lesser degree. But if one is to live in good faith, you have to at least try to push back. Baby kittens and puppies, even baby humans, deserve better.

Surely that’s one of the functions of art: to hold onto the ideals of a better world.

That, and to be transcendent, or at least to let people be glad. “I’m glad I saw that.” Or, “I’m glad somebody made that.”

I felt that way when I saw your benches yesterday at the Clark [Art Institute, in Williamstown, Mass.]. The skepticism of those texts, when channeled through the endurance of the granite, has a force beyond mere linguistic expression.

Ideals are frail, but worth having. I always flash back to the war movies I saw in the 50s. They were the start of all this—that and a weird family. It was clear war was not good. My little scared kid self thought, this killing shouldn’t have happened; let’s see what we can do not to have it happen again. That’s how I began being the morbid person that I am today.

Are you a morbid person? I don’t think so. You may have a taste for morbidity in aesthetic terms…

I’ll look in the dark. It’s dangerous not to. That’s the gist.

Jason Farago is editor of Even.