As an art student, Holzer studied painting and admired the work of abstract artists such as Kazimir Malevich, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman. However, in the late 1970s, while at the Whitney Independent Study Program in New York City, she began focusing on public art, using text as her primary mode of expression.
Holzer has said, “I chose language because I wanted to offer content that people—not necessarily art people—could understand.”
Her earliest text, Truisms (1977–79), is made up of over 250 single-sentence declarations. Resembling existing aphorisms, maxims, and clichés, they bring together a wide range of conflicting theoretical, philosophical, and political positions. Each sentence distills a potentially difficult and contentious idea into a seemingly straightforward statement. Privileging no single viewpoint, the Truisms examine the social construction of beliefs, mores, and truths.
Between 1977 and 2001, Holzer wrote 13 unique text series, which she has presented to the public in a wide array of media. In the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, she began researching U.S. government documents released under the Freedom of Information Act to learn more about 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of the Middle East. Holzer has sourced material from George W. Bush–era U.S. military initiatives in Iraq and from the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, as well as FBI and other documents concerning terrorist threats and cyber counterintelligence. Among the materials are memoranda, autopsy reports, maps, diplomatic communiqués, interrogation records, and handwritten appeals from detainees. The content from these documents has been faithfully reproduced as oil paintings, programmed in LED signs, and presented in light projections.
The early 2000s also signaled a shift in Holzer’s practice from exclusively using self-authored texts to incorporating poetry and prose written by others. She has frequently used works by Fadhil Al-Azzawi, Yehuda Amichai, Joseph Brodsky, Henri Cole, Mahmoud Darwish, Anna Świrszczyńska, Wisława Szymborska, and Adam Zagajewski. More recently, Holzer has partnered with nonprofit organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Save the Children, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Not Forgotten Association, and Protect Our Defenders, to source first-person testimonies from people all over the world whose stories shed light on the violence and injustices that afflict too many, as well as the courage and hope that persevere.
Throughout her career, Holzer has delivered texts in formats that range from the official and austere to the playful and everyday. Holzer’s works of the late 1970s and early 1980s were posters displayed throughout the streets of New York City. Passersby would often add their own reflections, critiques, and deletions; over time, the posters deteriorated or were torn down. Holzer has also printed text on single-use Styrofoam cups, condoms, and T-shirts, interrupting the everyday and mundane with challenging or tender content. As the artist was invited to work with major institutions and world-renowned buildings, she also began to produce enduring and sometimes permanent, site-specific works, often out of stone or LED displays.
Of her work in stone, Holzer has said, “I appreciate and depend on the ephemeral and disembodied—and on solid rocks. […] When words are carved in stone, they can be touched, they can be read with the hand, they might be perceived differently than when on the page. Marble and granite lock time while electronic signs and projections signal differently. Rows of benches might have people imagine waiting rooms, courtrooms, hospitals, and churches, for better and worse.” The drawings used to prepare these engraved stoneworks have, by contrast, a more fragile and palimpsest-like quality. We see notations by the artist and other manufacturing marks that are byproducts of the process of transferring text from tracing paper to stone.
The artist still produces ephemeral work, most notably her temporary, site-specific light projections, where letters slip over architectural facades or through the branches of trees before disappearing into the night sky. Recent works have also included trucks delivering timely messages of loss, courage, and hope while driving through the streets and past landmarks in major cities across the United States.
Holzer’s work confronts audiences in unexpected places and invites viewers to consider challenging subjects. In the 1990s she began receiving invitations to make memorials for sites including those linked to Nazism and the events of World War II, and to the AIDS epidemic, as well as to the idea of peace more generally. These works, like many of Holzer’s light projections, include text—sometimes authored by the artist, sometimes selected from relevant archives or literature—that meditates on the history of the particular site.
Holzer has also worked in nature. These installations offer a different modality, one tempered by the beauty, texture, and other qualities the artist finds in diverse landscapes, from forests to deserts. These works, not unlike the earlier street posters, inject potent ideas and emotions into surprising places. Boulders have served as excellent supports for these subtle yet intense interventions.
In all these works, the experience of encountering and reading a text in public is crucial. As Holzer has said, “With a sign or a poster in the street you have the space of time it takes a person to walk a few feet. […] I offer what will work in seconds, or in slightly longer blocks of time for people who are willing and able to concentrate. […] You must remember that viewers are volunteers. […] There are sentences that are complete messages, that you can absorb in an instant, but, if someone wants to stay longer, there’s an entire series in which these three-second lines are embedded that gets more complicated.”