Truisms And Inflammatory Essays Holzer

Catalogue entry

P77402 [from] (i-xxix) Inflammatory Essays 1979–82 [P77382-P77412; complete]

29 offset lithographs 17 × 17 (432 × 432) on paper of various colours, printed at Millner Bros., New York and published by the artist in an unlimited edition
One inscribed ‘Jenny Holzer’ on the back
Purchased from Lisson Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1983
Lit: Carter Ratcliffe, ‘Jenny Holzer’, Print Collector's Newsletter, XIII, November–December, 1982, pp.149–52; Allan Schwartzman, ‘Bugs in the System’, Print Collector's Newsletter, XV, March–April, 1984, pp.10–11; Jeanne Siegel, ‘Jenny Holzer's Language Games’, Arts Magazine, LX, December, pp.64–8

The following entry, which has been approved by the artist, is based on answers provided by the artist in a letter of 30 May 1986 to questions posed by the compiler.

A number of the ‘Inflammatory Essays’ were first published in book form by the artist as Black Book Posters in 1979. These took the form of paragraphs printed on green paper. In the ‘Inflammatory Essays’ street posters, Holzer offset the texts on as many different colours as the printer could supply.

In the 1970s Holzer abandoned her practice as an abstract painter in order to make more explicit statements and to establish more direct contact with a larger audience than would visit galleries. Her art began to appear in the form of texts on posters which were exposed on the streets like fly-posters. In Jeanne Siegel's article and interview with the artist Holzer stated: ‘From the beginning, my work has been designed to be stumbled across in the course of a person's daily life. I think it has the most impact when someone is just walking along, not thinking about anything in particular, and then finds these unusual statements either on a poster or in a sign.’

The texts are provocative and their subjects range from the scientific to the political and interpersonal. According to Siegel almost any subject seemed suitable for exposition, with the exception of art which was deliberately avoided. Holzer explained to Siegel as follows:

What I tried to do, starting with the Truisms and then with the other series, was to hit on as many topics as possible. The truism format was good for this since you can concisely make observations on almost any topic. Increasingly I tried to pick hot topics. With the next series ‘Inflammatory Essays’, I wrote about things that were unmentionable or that were the burning question of the day.


In contrast to the ‘Inflammatory Essays’ which consist of paragraphs of text, ‘Truisms’ were statements confined to a length of one line which were either displayed together on a poster or broadcast as a continuous light display.

The tone of the ‘Inflammatory Essays’ is aggressive and challenging. The texts are the invention of the artist, although they do not necessarily reflect the artist's own views. From one Essay to another they ‘display a spectrum of views, from far-left to far-right. I wanted to talk about things that are very important to people but in a non-didactic way (the series as a whole with its conflicting views is not didactic). I tried to show how dangerous and absurd it is to be a fanatic, but how important it is to get things done’ (letter to the compiler). They often have the air of slogans found in graffiti form on walls in the city.

In preparation she read ‘Mao, Lenin, Emma Goldman, various religious and right wing fanatics, miscellaneous American anarchists and some “folk” crackpot literature’. Her intention was to ‘write things that were very hot - in tone and subject matter - to (hopefully) instill a sense of urgency in the reader. I wanted the reader to jump, at least, and maybe consider doing something useful.’ To this end the posters were first ‘wheat-pasted in the streets of Manhattan. They were placed wherever posters normally appear’ but the choice of text was not always arbitrary. ‘Sometimes I'd choose certain texts for certain neighbourhoods. It was fun to put particularly frightening ones uptown.’ Each week Holzer pasted up a different poster. In order to make clear that a new poster was on display she had them printed on paper of different colours and ‘to let the viewers know that the posters were part of a series, I made each poster exactly 100 words long and 20 lines’ (letter to the compiler).

When the posters are displayed in a gallery the artist likes ‘them to be pasted directly on the wall, from floor to ceiling with their edges overlapping slightly so that no wall shows through. It's good to completely cover a wall 10' × 25' in vertical or diagonal stripes of posters’ (letter to the compiler).

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986

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Jenny Holzer first published her Inflammatory Essays in 1977 — square sheets of colored paper printed in all-cap italics — by pasting them on walls, lamp posts, construction sites, and other open-air arenas of public debate.

That year marked the beginning of the ill-starred presidency of Jimmy Carter, when New York City, overrun by drugs and crime, notably careened from the depths of a fiscal crisis to the chaos of a 25-hour blackout and the Son of Sam shooting spree.

Still, even for a year as dire and turbulent as ’77, the sentiments anonymously expressed by Holzer, who was then a student in the Whitney Independent Study Program, seemed over the top:

IT’S ALL GOING TO BURN, IT’S GOING TO BLAZE. IT IS FILTHY AND CANNOT BE SAVED. A COUPLE OF GOOD THINGS WILL BURN WITH THE REST BUT IT’S O.K., EVERY PIECE IS PART OF THE UGLY WHOLE.

THE OLD IS SOILED AND DISGUSTING BY NATURE. STALE FOOD IS REPELLENT, MONOGAMOUS LOVE BREEDS CONTEMPT, SENILITY CRIPPLES GOVERNMENT THAT IS TOO POWERFUL TOO LONG.

YOU ARE TOO DEPRAVED TO REFORM, TOO TREACHEROUS TO SPARE, TOO HIDEOUS FOR MERCY. RUN! JUMP! HIDE! PROVIDE SPORT FOR THE HUNTERS.

Over the top, until now. Alden Projects on the Lower East Side has responded to the election of Donald J. Trump by presenting Holzer’s Inflammatory Essays, along with Truisms, her series of posters from the same period, more than 100 items in all, in a show called REJOICE! OUR TIMES ARE INTOLERABLE: Jenny Holzer’s Street Posters, 1977-82. 

The title is taken from the first line of one of the Essays, which continues:

TAKE COURAGE, FOR THE WORST IS A HARBINGER OF THE BEST. ONLY DIRE CIRCUMSTANCE CAN LEAD TO THE OVERTHROW OF THE OPPRESSORS. THE OLD AND CORRUPT MUST BE LAID TO WASTE BEFORE THE JUST CAN TRIUMPH.

The clarion call sounded by this passage seems more of an echo from the Vietnam War than an indictment of the abject Carter years, but with each succeeding Republican administration — Reagan, Bush I, Bush II — Holzer’s declarations of outrage have taken on a new dimension. And finally with Trump, we find ourselves living in a state of siege entirely framed by her incendiary rhetoric:

MANIPULATION IS NOT LIMITED TO PEOPLE. ECONOMIC, SOCIAL AND DEMOCRATIC INSTITUTIONS CAN BE SHAKEN. IT WILL BE DEMONSTRATED THAT NOTHING IS SAFE, SACRED OR SANE. THERE IS NO RESPITE FROM HORROR. ABSOLUTES ARE QUICKSILVER. RESULTS ARE SPECTACULAR.

What is remarkable about these texts — and what foretells the complex and enigmatic artist Holzer would become — is that their extremities of idealism and abhorrence, compassion and vengeance, analysis and absurdity consolidate into a moral directive within their own amoral universe, aka the realm of art.

As stated on the gallery website, the artworks’ texts are “drawn from far-flung sources, including Emma Goldman, Lenin, Hitler and Valerie Solanis [the would-be assassin of Andy Warhol], but which are strategically distilled into an anonymous, non-unitary voice.” Holzer’s undifferentiated fusion of communism, fascism, and anarchism unsettles the reader even without knowing the derivation of the material; the awareness of it is all the more disturbing.

What should give us pause is not what Holzer says in these texts but what these texts say about us — the harrowing wages of repression and ignorance, the hollow gains of superiority and arrogance, the ubiquity of willful blindness and the thunder-flash of blind rage.

Holzer invokes in these works the lurid madness of biblical prophets from Isaiah to John the Evangelist, pouring out her own incantations, not via divine inspiration, but through a ruthless criticism of everything existing (to invoke Karl Marx).

Such a critique presumes a ruthless process of self-examination on the part of the artist who, through the rigors of imagination and insight, bores through the floor of her own loathing into the subbasement of our own, where we are left to contemplate the face of Trump lurking behind one of our many masks.

REJOICE! OUR TIMES ARE INTOLERABLE: Jenny Holzer’s Street Posters, 1977-82continues at Alden Projects (34 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through February 12.

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