From her Truisms (1977–79) to It is Guns (2018–19) and Expose (2020), Jenny Holzer has spent the last forty years presenting her work on the street. In light of recent events in the US and the upcoming presidential election, Trucks and Truisms looks at how Holzer’s ongoing activism continues to spark our political imagination.
While a student in the Whitney Independent Study Program, Holzer conceived her Truisms: hundreds of short sentences that read as unassailable statements of truth. The artist initially posted them anonymously on the streets of New York City, where they confronted passersby with an overabundance of ideas. The Truisms seem to communicate with forceful clarity, and yet upon reflection the juxtaposition of the phrases gives rise to paradoxes and ambiguities that resist easy interpretation. Eliciting questions about authorship, origin, and ultimate meaning, the Truisms invite viewers to question their beliefs and values.
The Truisms laid the foundation for Holzer’s process: she begins by writing words and devising a physical form for them—usually in that order, although sometimes the form is chosen first—and then that form, which can be anything from a poster to a light projection, is presented in a public space. As the Truisms took on new and different material forms over the years, from T-shirts to large-scale projections on the facades of buildings, Holzer also created other text works, from Inflammatory Essays (1979–82) to Expose (2020). She employs a range of physical forms for her work, from LEDs and marble benches to metal plaques and paintings, and she has realized many permanent installations around the world.
“I think that the Truisms act as a warning of how things are dangerously reduced to a one-liner or a tiny bit of information. They were sincere but they were also a warning.” –Jenny Holzer, 1990
Holzer’s objects and installations collapse the visual and the textual into a single experience, often engaging the mind and body at the same time. The work invites the viewer to pause and examine the set of ideas that constitute his or her identity. An external environment, which could be both imposing and impersonal, has the paradoxical power of granting value and form to the viewer’s inner life. An observation made by Catherine Liu in 1990 resonates with even greater relevance today: “[Holzer] conveys the difficulty of trying to live inside of one’s skin in a culture that has tried to annihilate interiority.”
There are obvious parallels between the 1984 US presidential election, when a Hollywood president played on voters’ fears and resentments while spreading empty optimism, and the current situation. In late May 2020, Holzer sent trucks to Washington and New York with a new message. Glowing red with a stream of isolated words such as RANT, RAGE, and BLOVIATE, alongside phrases such as UNNECESSARY DEATH CAN’T BE POLICY, the trucks spotlighted the president’s blowhard tactics and the American government’s mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis. Moving through the boulevards of Washington, DC, the trucks injected flashes of urgent red into the capital’s famous vistas. As the world watches a crucial period in American history unfold, with consequences that will echo across the globe, Holzer is still on the streets, inviting us all to examine our beliefs and speaking vivid truth to unscrupulous power.