Inflammatory Essays, by Jenny Holzer, 1979–81

Jenny Holzer's artistic medium is words and ideas, and she uses a variety of vehicles—from stickers, posters, and T-shirts to benches, bronze plaques, electronic displays, and the Internet—to disseminate her piercingly incisive phrases in public spaces. Rooted in conceptual art, semiot­ics, and feminism, Holzer's artistic practice interrogates the effects of rhetoric, engaging spectators in fundamental questions such as "Who is speaking?" "Where does this text come from?" and "What does it mean?" Answers, however, remain productively elusive. Her texts—whether directives, confessions, or observations—elide authorial intentionality and unlock a sort of societal subconscious, from which hacked-up bits of ideology, desire, fear, humor, and hatred pour forth.

Beginning with Truisms (1977–79), Holzer has authored dozens of textual series that—while distinct in personality, tone, and subject—often resurface in various material forms over time.# Her Inflammatory Essays (1979–81) are a series of mass-produced short essays—one hundred words in twenty lines—printed in capital letters on colorful paper and originally displayed anonymously in the streets.# The essays cover a variety of subjects that have been ongoing concerns throughout Holzer's career, including power, social control, abuse, consump­tion, and sex. Declarative and forceful in tone, they embody Holzer's distinctively crafted voice, one that is omniscient, detached, and yet enraged. "Don't talk down to me. Don't be polite to me. Don't try to make me feel nice. Don't relax. I'll cut the smile off your face," begins the essay on light pink paper. The "author" projected by these texts, however, is never clear but rather shifts between multiple, conflicting political and gender identities. The texts, as David Joselit has suggested, are "nowhere and everywhere—both uncannily personal and rigidly ideological."#

On left: Fred Wilson, "Love and Loss in the Milky Way," 2005; on floor, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, "'Untitled' (USA Today)," 1990; right wall, from left to right: Jenny Holzer, "Inflammatory Essays," 1979–81, and "Laments: I am a man . . . ," 1987. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
On left: Fred Wilson, Love and Loss in the Milky Way, 2005; on floor: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, "Untitled" (USA Today), 1990; right wall, from left to right: Jenny Holzer, Inflammatory Essays, 1979–81, and Laments: I am a man . . ., 1987. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology. February 9–May 18, 2014. Photography by Brian Forrest
In Laments: I am a man . . . (1987), Holzer used the electronic LED signs for which she is best known to display her texts. Evocative of the information age's never-ending barrage of opinions, facts, and fictions, the proto-pixel technology adapted from commercial signage employs small diode lights to generate phrases that disappear as quickly as they arrive. Holzer has used technology to smuggle her urgent and provocative texts into unlikely sites, displaying, for instance, "Protect me from what I want" on the large electronic billboard in Times Square in 1986. In Laments: I am a man . . . , yellow text scrolls up an LED sign that is oriented vertically. The text, which repeats twice over the approxi­mately six minutes of running time, begins "I am a man" and then continues with a series of short phrases, most of which begin with "I" and describe a selfishly motivated behavior or egocentric viewpoint: "I chase people around the house," "I can do it more than once," "I need perfection but when I implement it half of everyone dies," and, at the end, "I will kill you for what you might do." The work, first exhibited at Documenta 8, is part of the Laments series, a set of texts often displayed on both LED signs and stone sarcophagi that revolves around themes of sorrow, pain, power, and destruction.

In the current era of terror, Holzer has turned her attention to the erasure of language and information in declassified government documents. Part of her series of thirty-two Redaction Paintings, MEMORANDUM FOR CONDOLEEZZA RICE GREEN (2006) reproduces a magnified copy of a typed memo, dated January 25, 2001, from Richard C. Clarke of the National Security Council to then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice seeking clarification on terrorist threats. Screen-printed black text on bright green, the memo requests a review of the "al Qida network" (eight months before 9/11) and inquires about funding groups in opposition to "the Taliban/al Qida," such as the Afghan Northern Alliance, the perceived "threat magnitude" from the terrorist network, and the Bush administration's intended strategy. Holzer's Redaction Paintings—which include witness and soldier depositions, George W. Bush's opinion on the authority of the Geneva Conven­tions in a period of international terror, and even autopsy reports—index the same unsettling mix of violence, ignorance, and truth that has always intrigued Holzer and remained at the center of her work.

—Ruth Erickson