From fliers to billboards

Some conceptual artists work mostly with language and words. This includes Glenn Ligon, Barbara Kruger, and Jenny Holzer. (Lots more here!)

Image: Phil Gyford/Flickr

Holzer was the most familiar to me; I came across her truisms in books, and also through her collaboration with Virgil Abloh in 2017. I recently found out that Holzer’s work didn’t start off with big screens and careful lawyering; quite the opposite.

The start was much more straightforward; Jenny Holzer wheatpasted posters and fliers around New York City, illegally. (This blog is not legal advice, and I definitely wouldn’t advocate breaking the law—though a true passion stance would try to figure their way around it). Holzer says to Even magazine:

The Truisms and the Inflammatory Essay posters both were sneaked in the street. Some Living plaques went out illegally. There were street stickers. But you’re right, the projections mostly are done with permission. It was good, encouraging practice to start out illegally, because then I could realize anything I wanted to get done, to the limits of my endurance and stealth.

Moreover, Holzer’s original vision for the truisms were simple; she sourced inspiration from a reading list:

Her original aim in 1977 was fairly modest. Then attending the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program, she said, she was so daunted by the director Ron Clark’s reading list that she rewrote it as one-liners which became posters. “I wanted to see if these ideas — as contradictory as they could be — might be capable of stopping people in their tracks and having them muse over them,” she recalled. Passers-by began writing responses on the posters — call it proto-social media. “There was some voting, pre-Facebook ‘likes’,” Ms. Holzer said. “People would star things or underline parts. Sometimes I would come back around and stand close enough to listen to people argue over them.”

Ms. Holzer’s message to young artists seeing this work for the first time is: “Do it yourself, do it now,” she said, noting the enduring visual power of a simple run of street posters. “It’s not hard and I was only arrested once,” putting up posters at 3 a.m. in SoHo, she added, and chuckled. Tossed into the back of a police car, “I launched into a rambling explanation and they decided I was not worth keeping,” she said. “I was dripping with so much wheat paste they probably didn’t want me on their back seat much longer.”

Big things start small, often with one person! Put your work out there, pound the pavements, and let the people decide. (And look for technological disruption.)

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