Jenny Holzer first published her Inflammatory Essays in 1977 — square sheets of colored paper printed in all-cap italics — by pasting them on walls, lamp posts, construction sites, and other open-air arenas of public debate.
That year marked the beginning of the ill-starred presidency of Jimmy Carter, when New York City, overrun by drugs and crime, notably careened from the depths of a fiscal crisis to the chaos of a 25-hour blackout and the Son of Sam shooting spree.
Still, even for a year as dire and turbulent as ’77, the sentiments anonymously expressed by Holzer, who was then a student in the Whitney Independent Study Program, seemed over the top:
IT’S ALL GOING TO BURN, IT’S GOING TO BLAZE. IT IS FILTHY AND CANNOT BE SAVED. A COUPLE OF GOOD THINGS WILL BURN WITH THE REST BUT IT’S O.K., EVERY PIECE IS PART OF THE UGLY WHOLE.
THE OLD IS SOILED AND DISGUSTING BY NATURE. STALE FOOD IS REPELLENT, MONOGAMOUS LOVE BREEDS CONTEMPT, SENILITY CRIPPLES GOVERNMENT THAT IS TOO POWERFUL TOO LONG.
YOU ARE TOO DEPRAVED TO REFORM, TOO TREACHEROUS TO SPARE, TOO HIDEOUS FOR MERCY. RUN! JUMP! HIDE! PROVIDE SPORT FOR THE HUNTERS.
Over the top, until now. Alden Projects on the Lower East Side has responded to the election of Donald J. Trump by presenting Holzer’s Inflammatory Essays, along with Truisms, her series of posters from the same period, more than 100 items in all, in a show called REJOICE! OUR TIMES ARE INTOLERABLE: Jenny Holzer’s Street Posters, 1977-82.
The title is taken from the first line of one of the Essays, which continues:
TAKE COURAGE, FOR THE WORST IS A HARBINGER OF THE BEST. ONLY DIRE CIRCUMSTANCE CAN LEAD TO THE OVERTHROW OF THE OPPRESSORS. THE OLD AND CORRUPT MUST BE LAID TO WASTE BEFORE THE JUST CAN TRIUMPH.
The clarion call sounded by this passage seems more of an echo from the Vietnam War than an indictment of the abject Carter years, but with each succeeding Republican administration — Reagan, Bush I, Bush II — Holzer’s declarations of outrage have taken on a new dimension. And finally with Trump, we find ourselves living in a state of siege entirely framed by her incendiary rhetoric:
MANIPULATION IS NOT LIMITED TO PEOPLE. ECONOMIC, SOCIAL AND DEMOCRATIC INSTITUTIONS CAN BE SHAKEN. IT WILL BE DEMONSTRATED THAT NOTHING IS SAFE, SACRED OR SANE. THERE IS NO RESPITE FROM HORROR. ABSOLUTES ARE QUICKSILVER. RESULTS ARE SPECTACULAR.
What is remarkable about these texts — and what foretells the complex and enigmatic artist Holzer would become — is that their extremities of idealism and abhorrence, compassion and vengeance, analysis and absurdity consolidate into a moral directive within their own amoral universe, aka the realm of art.
As stated on the gallery website, the artworks’ texts are “drawn from far-flung sources, including Emma Goldman, Lenin, Hitler and Valerie Solanis [the would-be assassin of Andy Warhol], but which are strategically distilled into an anonymous, non-unitary voice.” Holzer’s undifferentiated fusion of communism, fascism, and anarchism unsettles the reader even without knowing the derivation of the material; the awareness of it is all the more disturbing.
What should give us pause is not what Holzer says in these texts but what these texts say about us — the harrowing wages of repression and ignorance, the hollow gains of superiority and arrogance, the ubiquity of willful blindness and the thunder-flash of blind rage.
Holzer invokes in these works the lurid madness of biblical prophets from Isaiah to John the Evangelist, pouring out her own incantations, not via divine inspiration, but through a ruthless criticism of everything existing (to invoke Karl Marx).
Such a critique presumes a ruthless process of self-examination on the part of the artist who, through the rigors of imagination and insight, bores through the floor of her own loathing into the subbasement of our own, where we are left to contemplate the face of Trump lurking behind one of our many masks.
REJOICE! OUR TIMES ARE INTOLERABLE: Jenny Holzer’s Street Posters, 1977-82 continues at Alden Projects (34 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through February 12.
Saudi Arabia Announces $1M “Freedom of Expression” Art Award
Kanye West, Roman Polanski, and Carl Andre are among the shortlisted artists.
British Museum Offers Greece “Exclusive NFT” of the Parthenon Marbles
“With the power of blockchain technology, there will be no question who the real owner is,” said a British Museum spokesperson.
The Public Theater Explores the Hurricane Katrina Diaspora in shadow/land
Written by Erika Dickerson-Despenza and directed by Candis C. Jones, this lyrical meditation on legacy, erotic fugitivity, and self-determination is on view in NYC.
MoMA to Co-Curate Exhibition With NYPD
Arrest Me, Daddy hopes to cast a more positive light on the work of law enforcement officers.
Repatriation-Inspired Fragrance Line Hopes to Heal Collector Wounds
The exotic scents of the Rapatriement line offer solace and joy to dismayed collectors who were forced to return looted artifacts.
The Rubin Museum Presents Death Is Not the End
Tibetan Buddhist and Christian works of art made across 12 centuries explore death, the afterlife, and the desire to continue to exist. On view in NYC.
Mediocre Painting Thought AI-Generated Revealed as Work of Real Artist
Visitors who spoke to Hyperallergic said they were “horrified” to learn that a human could come up with such a banal and poorly executed artwork.
Prince Harry to Star in New Van Gogh Biopic
The estranged prince said he took the role to raise awareness of mental health issues.
When I Am Empty Please Dispose of Me Properly
Ayanna Dozier, Ilana Harris-Babou, Meena Hasan, Lucia Hierro, Catherine Opie, Chuck Ramirez, and Pacifico Silano explore the myths of the American Dream at Brooklyn’s BRIC House.
Newly Discovered Trove of Vermeer Works Reveals He Painted Mainly Dogs
A cache of 243 paintings found in an English castle, all depicting canine subjects, suggests Vermeer’s true aspiration was to become a dog portraitist.
Vatican Partners With Balenciaga on “Spiritual” Menswear Line
A spokesperson for the church cited “shared values” with the fashion brand.
Pratt’s 2023 Fine Arts MFA Thesis Exhibition Is On View in Brooklyn
The two-part exhibition features the work of 41 graduating artists across disciplines, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, and integrated practices.
Iran Issues Fatwa Against AI
A reinterpretation of the Quran through a queer lens, written by an AI chatbot, is said to cause the move.
Met Gala Announces 2023 “Looting and Plunder” Theme
Select A-list guests will be invited to wear any artifacts from the museum’s collection that have not yet been seized by the Manhattan DA’s office.