PRINT April 2003

’80s THEN

Jenny Holzer

STEVEN HENRY MADOFF: I’m sorry, I’m just stuck in the present here for a moment. I mean, what your “Truisms” series makes me think about now is the swirl of confusion and anxiety around terrorism. Don’t you think the “Truisms,” with all their weird thoughts and different voices, have an eerie resemblance to what’s going on in our heads today?

JENNY HOLZER: Well, the work with multiple voices from the late ’70s and early ’80s—the “Truisms” and the “Essays,” for example—looks hopeful to me. I presented the voices more or less simultaneously, and weighted evenly, to suggest that the thoughts were true to somebody. It seemed like a comprehensive and clean way to present belief systems, since I wasn’t choosing. I wanted to avoid polarization. Then a young artist pointed out that contemplation is fine when there’s no crisis, but when there is a crisis, you may have to come down on one side or another.

SHM: What made you think of doing the “Truisms” anyway?

JH: I came to New York in the late ’70s for the Whitney Independent Study Program. Ron Clark handed us an enormous reading list of serious and sometimes opaque books, everything from Marx to structuralism. I wanted to sort out what I was to do, or what anyone was to do, with that much dense and sometimes contradictory information. So I rewrote his library. I did it as a self-help maneuver, and posted the result—the “Truisms”—in the streets.

SHM: They put you on the ’80s map.

JH: What was important at that time was collaboration. It was a big part of those years for me and for many others who came to New York at roughly the same moment. Courtesy of the artists’ group Collaborative Projects—Colab—I became aware that you could put work in front of the general public and that you had to think hard about what subject matter would be appropriate. Colab organized any number of artist-initiated shows in non–art spaces.

Tom Otterness, Kiki Smith, Robin Winters, Becky Howland, Coleen Fitzgibbon, Jane Dickson, John and Charlie Ahearn, Mike Glier, and many more artists were part of Colab. Coleen and I did “The Manifesto Show” in a storefront on Bleecker Street by the Bowery. I was trying to decide how to write what to whom, not to mention why and where, so I thought a study of manifestos would be helpful. That’s what we did in the storefront with maybe a hundred artists and non-artists—anyone with something to say was welcome. There were manifestos in the window; printed tirades on the right-hand side of the room; visual manifestos—things that looked more like art—on the left; a platform for shouting in the middle; and we blasted speeches from a loudspeaker outside.

SHM: Even though you say that all of these different voices offered a plurality, it still feels awfully pointed to me, a political provocation.

JH: I wanted a plurality and I wanted provocation. Even though this is ridiculously imprecise, I’d like to split the ’80s in half. I’d say that the first part of the ’80s looked to the ’60s and ’70s, and I believe much of Colab’s work and mine had the politics of the ’60s in mind. The work was intended to be—and was fairly active as—protest. There was a habit of objecting then.

The late ’80s were different. The national and the art economies were booming. People were heedless from sloppiness, happiness, or avoidance. That there was trouble around, from the AIDS epidemic to the country’s domestic policy, was obvious, and though I recall many exceptions, I think Americans became less willing to recognize trouble. This showed up in the art—there was less critical work and more large, congratulatory painting.

The reawakening of the galleries in the mid- to late ’80s did a lot to energize the art world, but the commercial emphasis killed or dimmed performance, alternative spaces, collectives, the mixing of street, film, video, magazine, club, dance, music, and art lives; and commerce neglected or starved sprawling, site-specific work in rough places. On the other hand, galleries and collectors helped many artists make a living, and the time off from plumbing, waitressing, sheetrocking, or black-market activities gave artists time to concentrate and expand, with mixed results.

SHM: Let’s talk about that split down the middle of the decade in terms of your own work.

JH: I’m not sure there was a change in my subject matter. In my writing, I was more explicit as I became aware of a general unwillingness to look at distress. I wouldn’t proffer hundreds of possible causes. I would talk about specific, terrible consequences regarding a few subjects, such as aids or attacks on women and children.

SHM: And what about the reception of the work? How did people respond?

JH: Maybe it’s useful to keep the early-/late-’80s split going. At the beginning of the decade in this country, there wasn’t much of an official art audience for what I made. Then Dan Graham was extraordinarily helpful when he noticed what I was doing. Dan told Kasper König about my posters in 1978 or ’79. Kasper sent me to Munich for a show at Galerie Rüdiger Schöttle in 1980, and then I was in the “Heute” (Today) section of Kasper’s exhibition “Westkunst” in Cologne the next year. Dan’s introduction was important because I’ve been able to realize public pieces in Europe more often than I have here.

SHM: So you were the toast of the town there, while nobody loved you at home?

JH: [Laughs.] Well, there was a good street audience for me in New York in the early ’80s, but there wasn’t much of an official reception. In Europe, maybe because there’s a long-standing tradition of public art and memorial-making, there was more of an official art-world response.

SHM: And here, that street audience . . .

JH: What people wrote on the posters was a main source of feedback. On a copy of the “Truisms,” for instance, someone went down the list, starred sentences he/she liked, became impatient, slashed the rest of the text, and wrote, “Too much shit.” That was attention-getting. So was “And I love pussy.”

Of course, I was lucky that a larger art audience became interested in my work here a little later, but again, I think the Europeans have a longer history of political and social subject matter in their art, and they may even look to art for ideas about what to do politically and socially.

SHM: You keep talking about art as if it were a prescription. I guess the point is that there’s more of an appreciated instrumental value to art there than here. Still, in at least one way I can think of, your work was pretty instrumental here, too. That’s to say that it made a specific contribution in the context of the work being done at the time by Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, and Cindy Sherman, for example.

JH: I don’t want most art to be prescriptive. Often art should be militantly or serenely independent, and that’s its value. I was talking about some aspects of my thinking and art practice, and maybe it’s wishful to imagine that my work has political or social value. Please know that other parts of my work have more to do with expressionism and cruelty than with pious utility. About Kruger, Lawler, Levine, and Sherman: By the ’80s it was pleasantly routine for women to make art and for people to look at it—even to watch for it. There have been female artists for centuries, but courtesy of the women’s movement, ’80s women were encouraged and able to thrive. We finally passed the time of the single extraordinary woman, like Georgia O’Keeffe. The moment came when a number of us were active and visible.

SHM: Some of the work being done then by you and by others—and I’m not speaking only about women—dealt with media critiques, with notions about the way information is used and about information overload. Of course, those issues are even more prevalent since the rise of the Web, but you were thinking about it back then. Still, I’m wondering whether your work was as much a symptom of that overload, that information sickness, as a critique of it?

JH: [Laughs.] I’m only guessing, but I’d say that some of my work was both a critique of information sickness and was germy. At the Venice Biennale in 1990, my horizontal sign room with multiple texts in five languages flashed a glut of information. I wanted to signal the downside of the orgy of unexamined material and highlight assumptions about free-floating facts, pronouncements, and judgments. That’s why I wrapped people with electronics in that room. It was known as the “toaster oven.”

SHM: Well, there was certainly a kind of gadget excite- ment in seeing all of those electronic displays. That was true at your Guggenheim show in ’89, too—the dazzle of it. But I suppose there’s even more technological slickness in art now. It makes a lot of the ’80s art with technology in it look almost quaint. And then if you think about your early posters and little stickers on parking meters with the “Truisms” on them, that stripped-down quality feels almost like samizdat art. On the other hand, it telegraphed a greater urgency. Have you lost that in your art now?

JH: Simplicity is gone from much of my work. I’ll cop to that. I liked the cheap paper art and probably should make more, but part of choosing technology was a conscious decision to work with electronic displays that are used for news, advertising, and the financial markets—to insist that despised subjects must have equal prominence.

In 1996 I was asked to make a piece on a colossal Leipzig war monument that memorialized a battle against Napoléon. I thought it was important to have my laser projection be as large as that Napoleonic heap to demonstrate that subjects like the organized rape and torture of women in war are central. That’s an argument for giant scale and technology. But the reasoning goes back to 1982, when I played on the electronic billboard in Times Square, thanks to Jane Dickson and the Public Art Fund. That’s when it dawned on me that large active displays are perfect for public address.

SHM: It makes me think that this concept of “bigger is better,” in the sense of more powerful, coincides with the Reagan era of American Empire and that the art’s spectacle reflexively mirrored the times—and not, in this case, ironically.

JH: I think that’s a fair and accurate observation about some work, and perhaps about aspects of mine, but don’t place me with Reaganites. It’s been obvious since Speer’s “Cathedral of Light,” or maybe since show time in the Roman Colosseum, that spectacle can be problematic. But I don’t believe that thoughtful use of scale has to be corrupt or corrupting. The best part of working in the ’80s was making art outside for the public. That was the wild ride of the decade.

SHM: And then came the ’90s, with so much attention on you—being the first woman to be sole representative in the US pavilion at the Venice Biennale and to win the Golden Lion. Quite an amazing ride.

JH: A scary one, because it felt too large and fast, even though I was thrilled to be able to present my work. I had a baby in the late ’80s, and I was torn between being with her and being the first woman to do this or that. The hard side was that it was happening to me. The good side was that this was finally happening for a woman.

A frequent contributor to Artforum, Steven Henry Madoff was the executive editor of Art News in the late ’80s and early ’90s.