Jenny Holzer (1950—)

Image of west wall of Ruth Duckworth's Earth, Water, Sky mural

Created 1981
Installed 2022

Text on cast bronze plaque, edition of 3

Located in the 1st floor hallway, Reynolds Club, 57th Street

Gift of the Artist

Artist Profile





Two bronze plaques bolted inconspicuously on plain interior walls of University of Chicago buildings escape notice. Unremarkable amid an expanse of institutional markers—named buildings, named departments, named rooms—the plaques are yet another ornamental declaration of authority. The average passerby could not be faulted for passing them by. And yet, a student looks up to read an inscribed text. There’s the rift. The metal plates, emblazoned with acerbic observations on the human condition, are public artworks by Conceptual artist Jenny Holzer. Installed in University buildings, they undermine the casual observer’s expectations. Visually akin to plates across campus that broadcast private donations, commemorate significant events, and memorialize people of import, both remembered and forgotten, Holzer’s plaques act as unobtrusive channels for distributing unsettling texts. Designed to rouse and confound, their siting in the hallowed halls of higher education echoes the erudite environment of the University of Chicago while calling attention to apparatuses of privilege and power.

Known for her incisive text-based interventions in the public sphere, Holzer produces timely and insightful works through a variety of media, spanning sculpture, painting, new media, and installation. Whether printed on paper, projected on a wall, or lit-up in LED lights, Holzer’s work always begins with text—the execution follows. Inspired by exposure to critical readings while enrolled in the Whitney’s Independent Study Program from 1976-1977, Holzer first began to author and disperse short texts, such as her Truisms (1977-79) and Inflammatory Essays (1979-82) in the late seventies. Cheaply printed and feloniously plastered across New York City streets, these writings constituted Holzer’s first interventions in public space. She continued to explore new tones of voice and new modes of execution in the early eighties. Notably, two bodies of work, “Living” and “Survival”, encompassing bronze plaques, carved stone benches, and enamel painted signs, marked a departure from the ephemeral works on paper. In “Living” and “Survival”, Holzer created permanent objects that dissuaded easy public interventions. Her past texts rendered in a signature affectless all-caps elicited a loud and powerful voice, but these works command authority through their materials as much as their words. Constructed from valuable and substantial media such as metal and stone, the material support accredits the weight and force of the inscribed texts.  

The University’s Public Art Collection acquired two bronze plaques from these series, Living: How concise that you can cry… (1981) and Survival: When you expect fair play… (1984). Gifts of the artist, the works were installed inside campus buildings in Winter 2022. While the University’s David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art acquired a rare, brushed aluminum prototype panel in Fall 2021, Holzer welcomed the opportunity for her bronze plaques to be displayed outside of a museum or other “art” context. When placed within a gallery, the most unassuming readymades read as fine art objects. Moving outside of formal art spaces allows Holzer to skirt supposition. This logic extends to the objects she chooses to circulate text. Discussing the dissemination of her work in a 2008 interview with art historian Benjamin Buchloh, Holzer opined, “More often than not I chose everyday objects that would look normal until you read the writing.”[1] Indeed, the university setting offers the perfect vessel for Holzer’s plaques, which evoke commonplace institutional accessories. Recalling the procedural and ceremonial affect of collegiate signage, the texts co-opt emblems of administration and authority.

The earlier series “Living”, assumes a tone that Holzer characterized as “upper-class anonymous”.[2] A 1981 plaque from this series installed in the hallway of Reynolds Club, the campus student center, reads, “HOW CONCISE THAT YOU CRY FROM AWFUL WOUNDS, DESERTION, HAPPINESS, MEMORIES, HUMILIATION, DISAPPOINTMENT, OR GRANDEUR.” Addressing the second-person point of view, the text performs an inflection of cultural critique. Equating the material impact of a physical wound with immaterial sensations such as happiness and grandeur, Holzer’s text flattens feeling. This quip resonates with the peculiar proposition of the college campus as an environment that cultivates the emotional growth and development of young students, while demanding excellence and innovation through succinct and systematic means.  

The later work, installed in the vestibule of the Regenstein Library, reads, “WHEN YOU EXPECT FAIR PLAY YOU CREATE AN INFECTIOUS BUBBLE OF MADNESS AROUND YOU.” This unvarnished bon mot from “Survival” illustrates Holzer’s shift towards politically directed and speech that aligned with her own viewpoints.[3] While the image of an “infectious bubble of madness” evinces a general mistrust in so-called equitable institutions, it positively suggests that justice may proliferate in the presence of appeals and advocacy. These two seemingly opposing truths demonstrate Holzer’s knack for generating contradiction as a way of prompting engagement with statements that we might otherwise take at face value.[4] Now located within the main campus library, the work incurs additional nuance and specificity. Libraries suggest open access as democratic repositories for knowledge. Holzer’s plaque, sited in the liminal space between the library’s exterior, open to all, and the library’s interior, which requires card access, points to the absence of fair play in a space where access is not guaranteed.

The acquisition of these public artworks follows Holzer’s rich engagement with the University of Chicago. An alumna of the college, Holzer enrolled in courses from 1970-71. Holzer returned to campus in 2019, as the recipient of the Rosenberger Medal in recognition of her outstanding achievement in the fine arts. This award prompted the University’s commission of a large-scale public artwork YOU BE MY ALLY, which featured 29 excerpts from the College’s Core Curriculum. Comprising an Augmented Reality app as well as LED billboard trucks driving around the city of Chicago, YOU BE MY ALLY epitomized Holzer’s longstanding interest in using cutting-edge technology to mobilize text in space. In contrast to the flickering of text-turned-image generated in Holzer’s light projections and LED works, the bronze plaques are stoic and static. Subverting sanctimony, the plaques nevertheless memorialize Holzer’s rigorous and enduring engagement with text and dedication to inserting critical thinking into everyday life.

Written by Alexandra Drexelius, AB’18

[1] Jenny Holzer and Benjamin Buchloh, “An Interview with Jenny Holzer,” Jenny Holzer (Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2008), 120.

[2] Grace Glueck, “And Now, a Few Words From Jenny Holzer,” The New York Times. December 3, 1989, Section 6, page 42.

[3] Glueck. The New York Times. In reference to her “Survival” series, beginning in 1983, Holzer describes her movement towards her own subject position, “I switched from being everybody to being myself.”

[4] Jenny Holzer and Benjamin Buchloh, “An Interview with Jenny Holzer,” page 119. Holzer described her relationship to ambiguity in conversation with Buchloh: “Often I don’t present ambiguities. I am more likely to present certainties simultaneously and hope people hear the competition and think about what comes next—a pounding or negotiation.”