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Interview with Jenny Holzer: In her own words (or not, as the case may be)

The American artist on her “odd and lonely” childhood, other people’s texts and why she’s returned to painting

In the late 1970s, a 20-something Jenny Holzer flyposted Manhattan with anonymous lists of blunt statements which perplexed passers-by with their punchy provocation, their multiple viewpoints and their air of mysterious authority. Just over a decade later Holzer had emerged from the underground to represent America at the 1990 Venice Biennale—the first woman to do so—with her one-line Truisms engraved into the marble floor of the American pavilion while more text pieces flashed around the walls on the illuminated electronic signs that had become, and to a great extent still remain, her trademark. These days the Ohio-born artist continues to be renowned for her inventive and often sharply interrogative use of language and media techniques, with a string of awards and museum shows to her name. Most recently her LED signs have become more sculptural, she is no longer the author of her texts and for the past five years she has returned to her earliest artistic roots by making paintings. But Holzer has lost none of her critical edge or ability to disconcert. By using a carefully selected range of declassified American government documents concerning Iraq and the Middle East as the direct source material for both her sign pieces and her paintings, she is currently producing what is arguably her most hard-hitting work to date.

The Art Newspaper: Although this show at the Baltic has come from the Chicago MCA, the Whitney in New York and Basel’s Beyeler Foundation, it has looked very different in each place. It seems that the visual impact, the pacing, the form, the choice of colour and the way that each piece works within its architectural context has become almost as important as the content of the texts which are being disseminated.

Jenny Holzer: Yes, each show ends up being different because I try to make the works fit the spaces. In the early days the aesthetic content was minimal and the subject matter was on top; subsequently I have let myself go and now the variety of colours and the ability of the pieces to fill a room with tinted air matters as much as the content. But the subjects are always crucial for the final result.

TAN: You now use other people’s writings rather than your own texts. Why?

JH: In 2001, I stopped writing everything except emails and I’ve been delighted to be able to forage for text. It lets me cover more subjects and offer a greater range of everything from mood to style than I could manage on my own.

TAN: Even when you were writing your own texts the words of others always seem to have been important to you. I remember you saying that the extensive reading list that accompanied the Whitney Independent Study Program in 1977 was a key influence that prompted you to stop painting and start writing.

JH: I was a lonely, odd child who tried to get along by reading constantly. Reading solo felt somewhat miserable at times, but has held me in good stead. So it wasn’t such a strange thing for me to go to the texts of others for my art work. And it was not only my own lack of confidence and horror about the process that made me turn away from writing. When I started to make memorials I realised that it made the most sense to offer writings or statements by people who’d been silenced. It was the experience of making these memorials and searching for texts to represent who and what has been lost or—in some cases—murdered that had me turn to others’ writing. Another prompt was starting the projections: these were and are so different in look and tone from the electronics that poetry seemed especially suitable, and because I’m not even approximately a poet, I needed real ones! And yes, the Whitney’s reading list helped launch my first series, the Truisms.

TAN: Will you be writing again in the future?

JH: I suspect not, because I’m so happy choosing colours and finding scary documents composed by others!

TAN: These often very scary declassified US government documents, which relate to America’s involvement in the Middle East from the first Gulf War onwards, initially appeared in your work as electronic signs in 2004. Then, a year later, you began to make paintings using screen-printed images of these military maps, interrogation protocols, internal memos, first-hand accounts, handprints of soldiers and civilians and much more. What made you turn towards this material?

JH: I wanted to understand more and I wasn’t seeing as much as I needed in the newspapers, so I went on a search for people who were actively involved in the Middle East and relatively unselfconscious when they were writing. The documents are from all sorts of people and express myriad opinions about what was going on and why, and what should happen next and what shouldn’t transpire. I wanted to locate what was as close to fact as possible. Much of the writing that was in the press was rather vague summaries and opinion—not all of course—but much was “patriotic” or slight. I thought I should try to offer something substantial and complex—even if at times contradictory—about what literally happened.

TAN: It must have been a challenge to wade through all this documentation.

JH: It has been a long, long haul! My good studio team and I have read thousands and thousands of pages to be able to proffer a relative few. At times we selected primarily for content. A good example of a content selection would be a painting called Wish List, which is an inventory of enhanced interrogation techniques. Then there’s an email chain, Gloves Off, that accompanies Wish List, that’s potentially useful for a general public because it is a condensed version of conflicting views within the military about what could be done, and what must never be done. Other pages we chose for the historic value: the maps that were used to plan the invasion and that were presented to the White House, for example. And for their immediacy and so readers might identify, I picked first person texts from soldiers, detainees, commanders, policy makers and many others.

TAN: Rendered in the form of paintings, these documents—even when they have been almost completely obliterated by the censors—assume a more formal, historical and permanent status. The horrific instances of torture and brutality some of them describe resonate with an almost unbearable power.

JH: I chose texts that are imagistic and I chose texts that are wholly redacted—and not only because they look like suprematist paintings—but because they seem to represent the question of censorship and what we’ll never know. I went to painting because paintings are preserved, and paintings can be large, and the colours in paintings can be loud and/or emotional, and so these documents and these facts and these opinions would be seen, felt and kept.

TAN: Sometimes the colours of these paintings are strident, sometimes subtle and sometimes just plain white. What criteria did you use to make your choices?

JH: It was interesting to try to find the right backgrounds for these documents. Sometimes they are simple white grounds so that the paintings appear to be what they are: factual. That made sense at times: for example in the autopsy reports of detainees who were killed while being held. Other paintings needed to be correctly emotional and so for these I went either to awful: the colours of bruises such as the purple that was in the Venice Biennale, purple with blue and black, or I moved to lyrical colours when hope was possible. The choosing wasn’t always as literal as I’m making it sound. The green in a number of paintings was the colour of Islam and it was there for that reason and because it vibrated opposite the purple. So the aesthetic things come in as well as the associative and the naming ones.

TAN: What do you mean by “correctly emotional”?

JH: When the documents were frightening, I tried to have frightening colours, but it’s almost impossible to describe the calculus. Some of the colours are dreadful, but some are relatively lovely for relief. I used landscape colours in a number of the paintings because the fighting is on the ground. I went to Goya for a lot of help from his blacks and his ochres…

TAN: Are you doing any public projections or projects outside the gallery to accompany your show at the Baltic?

JH: Apparently not. We did realise projections in Newcastle before, but this time the public piece—the show—will be indoors, unless we can muster something last minute for people’s phones, or something like that. We did a phone project for the show at the Beyeler which was fun and I’m working now with the little projectors that can attach to iPhones. It will be nice to create private projections. That’s my current mini-techie preoccupation.

• Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper with the headline "Jenny Holzer: in her own words"