Long before Twitter, there was Jenny Holzer, the soothsayer and conceptual artist who plastered New York with biting aphorisms in the late 1970s. Money creates taste. Lack of charisma may be fatal. Much was decided before you were born. These are just three of her 250-odd “truisms”—deadpan zingers displayed on LED screens around the world, projected onto buildings and carved into marble benches.
Holzer was the first woman chosen to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale (1990), where she won a prize for the best pavilion installation. Since then, her star has continued to rise. Starting this summer, Canada is lucky enough to host a comprehensive retrospective of her work and, curiously, it will be held in a little-known exhibition space in Old Montreal.
On June 30, Holzer’s latest show opens at Dhc/art Foundation, a three-year-old institution with only six shows under its belt. Holzer’s works are usually exhibited in household-name museums like the Guggenheim and Tate Modern. Montreal’s Dhc/art is a surprising venue for another reason: she has an old association with the Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation in Toronto, where Holzer had a small solo show in 1989. Has there been a rift with Hendeles? “No, no,” clarified Holzer, in an exclusive phone interview with Maclean’s. “It would sadden me if my show at the Dhc was problematic for her.” Not to worry, Hendeles sent her blessing from Switzerland, where she was attending Art Basel. She’s keen to attend the Montreal opening next Tuesday night. With this sticky issue of gallery loyalty taken care of, we must wonder how Dhc/art convinced Holzer to exhibit in such a fledgling space.
“It all started when I met their curator, John Zeppetelli, at a garden party in Venice at the Peggy Guggenheim museum,” recalled Holzer. “We got to talking. It was one of those conversations that ends in, ‘We should do something together some time.’ ”
Zeppetelli is not only the curator at Dhc/art Foundation, but he’s an alumnus of the Whitney Museum’s independent study program, as is Holzer. “Jenny and I have that Whitney connection, for sure. I approached the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art about their touring show of her new work and everyone agreed we could be the Canadian location,” said Zeppetelli. “But I think we got Jenny’s show mainly because we made a splash exhibiting high-calibre contemporary artists, like Marc Quinn and Sophie Calle, who have a dash of glamour.”
“It’s a divine recipe for success,” Holzer said about Dhc, “in that everyone is capable, optimistic and on point.”
On point. That’s what you’d call her new work, the ongoing Redaction series. They are oil silkscreens of declassified war documents from the National Security Archive. Text is blacked out, leaving only one telling phrase, such as “water board.” They’re chillingly beautiful, minimalist paintings. By subjugating her own voice, she delivers a new kind of blow—more of a silent scream than a word in your ear. Unlike her elaborate light installations, the Redaction pieces are more affordable for collectors, costing between $75,000 and $175,000. “But I imagine they’re not accessible because they’re tremendously sad pieces in many regards,” said Holzer, a fan of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. “It’s tough subject matter. I want to salute the courage of people who do buy this dark art.”
Lustmord Table is equally haunting, featuring tidy lines of human bones on a table. “It’s about Bosnia and the systematic use of rape, torture and murder of women as a tactic of war, stated as such,” said Holzer. “It’s horrifying. Placing bones on a table is much more literal than I tend to be.”
Pieces like Lustmord Table are explicitly anti-war, but they’re also in line with the iconic feminism embedded in her earlier work: Survival of the fittest applies to men and animals; romantic love was invented to manipulate women. Is Holzer finished writing her caustic truisms? “For better or worse, I cannot get away from the truisms,” she laughed. “My daughter now gets me with my own pronouncements. She says ‘The abuse of power comes as no surprise.’ ”