De-installing, sort of


I am retiring my Jenny Holzer shirt, moving it into the shadowy realm of “clothes fit to wear around the house but not for public wear.” It’s worn, with stains that won’t come out and a few spots threatening to turn into holes. I won’t throw it out until it reaches a greater state of decrepitude, and I’ll miss it then. I rarely become nostalgic about objects, so the exceptions are noteworthy.

“Protect Me From What I Want” is one of the most famous of Holzer’s Truisms series, which were written from 1977 to 1979. The Truisms are pithy, sometimes moving, and always dancing at the edge of truth with one foot on either side of the line. She has produced posters of them, made metal plaques, had them projected on scoreboards and JumboTrons, and printed on shirts. I bought this one at Printed Matter in New York City some ten or eleven years ago, at a guess. I wore it to the Armory Show in New York one yeas, and found a display of her work there. The gallerist on hand grabbed a camera and asked if he could photograph me for Holzer: “She loves seeing people wearing her work.” Needless to say, I posed.

The popularity of the phrase led art collector Dakis Joannou to name a yacht with it. He has since replaced it with another yacht, not named after any Holzer artwork. The phrase has also been used as the title of a song and a movie – perhaps more than one of each. It’s an acknowledgement of our own predilection for what can do us harm. Fill in your own weakness(es) here.

Holzer’s truisms are statements that seem true, whether they are in fact or not, as opposed to the dictionary definition, which is a statement that is so obviously true as to hardly need repeating. While not quite “alternative facts” – Holzer’s are much more credible, for a start – they are not all easily believed on close inspection. Her humor is her saving grace; it would be easy to be overwhelmed by the underlying cynicism of many of her truisms and have the whole thing turn sour. Holzer herself said “I wanted to have almost every subject represented, almost every possible point of view…*” Her presentation is benign, even fun, but underneath there is often a broken and poisoned worldview. That so many of her works draw from real life (paintings of redacted government documents, for example) roots her to present experience. Much as I enjoy Holzer’s work, it is best seen in small quantities, to allow each work to breathe and be free from overload.


Jenny Holzer’s post-Truisms work is excellent (an example above), but the greater length of the texts, and the at times deeply disturbing subject matter, makes them harder to warm up to. But when projected onto the facade of a building, or carved into a stone bench, they are gripping. Like Barbara Kruger, Holzer has combined the forces of text and image into a single whole. In this computerized age, which melds language and image with little effort, Holzer is a perfect fit. She knew what the future would look like. Now it’s here, and she blends right in.

I took the photo at top before consigning my shirt to the laundry basket. It won’t look much cleaner when it’s done, but I don’t mind. It’s a talisman for me, a reminder that art protects me from the things I don’t want: ignorance, a blind eye to beauty, the dull plodding of everyday life. Now I have to go and find a replacement.


Holzer’s Truisms in poster form.


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