Portrait of Jenny Holzer in front of MONUMENT, 2008 in the exhibition “Jenny Holzer” in the Fondation Beyeler Text: Truisms, 1977-79; Inflammatory Essays, 1979-82 © 2009 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ProLitteris, Zurich © Photo: Hassna Ouali

One of America’s most important contemporary artists, Jenny Holzer, has a solo show at Beyeler Foundation in Basel. Holzer is best known for the teasing aphorisms or poetic texts splashed in light at night on monuments and landscapes throughout the world. The cities of Basel and Zurich become part of the Beyeler exhibition as public buildings or water ways light up to thoughts dancing on their surfaces.

Jenny Holzer Light projection Cathedral / Pfalz (wall), Basel, November 3 – 4, 2009 © Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main Photo: Pino Covino

The name Jenny Holzer doesn’t mean much to most people. But chances are many of them have seen her works without knowing the author. During the past decade some thirty cities, including Vienna, Rio de Janeiro, Oslo, Liverpool, Prague, New York, Dublin, London and Singapore, have hosted Holzer’s projections.

The Jenny Holzer exhibition in Basel retraces the creative itinerary of an artist who uses words as painters use paint brushes. Several of her room-invading electronic sculptures that tumble, toss or pour luminous messages are on display. The effect is beautiful and also intriguing.

Furthermore, Holzer has been invited to curate a show within her show by including masterpieces from the Beyeler Foundation’s collection. Striking contrasts emerge by placing a Picasso, a Giacometti, an Ernst or a Bacon alongside her dizzying messages. “It is frightening to plan a show with so many great artists,” she admitted.

But there is nothing cute in what Jenny Holzer does. “Socially useful art” is how the co-curator, Elisabeth Smith, from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, who coproduced the exhibition, qualifies the artist’s work.

For Chicago, 2007, Photo: Attilio Maranzano

The show also features pieces that are Holzer’s response to torture, rape and military disinformation, including silkscreened paintings based on copies of declassified US government material (‘Hands’) and an installation of bones (‘Lustmord’) set out on a table to alert to the continuous violence against women. “There is an unusually close connection between this artwork and my private politics,” Jenny Holzer stresses.

Born in Ohio in 1950, Jenny Holzer moved to New York in 1977 to complete her art studies and has lived there ever since. Her Truisms series, all-text works printed on sheets of paper that she plastered anonymously on surfaces all over the city, were started the same year.

“Humanism is obsolete”, “Pain can be a very positive thing”, “Morals are for little people”, were some of the hundreds of messages pitched out into the public sphere.

In 1982 Holzer began to program electronic billboards. “I wanted to inhabit the places where news comes and put surprising content in its place,” she said to explain her first experiment on New York City’s Times Square. “Protect me from what I want”, first used on that occasion, was to become her catch phrase.

The development of LED technology (light-emitting diodes) offered Jenny Holzer a new range of possibilities, including the opportunity to wrap textual light around buildings and inside structures to enhance their intrinsic architectural beauty. This she did in 2001 with Mies van der Rohe’s legendary New National Gallery in Berlin and with Pei’s glass pyramid in the Louvre courtyard in Paris, both in 2001 and in 2009.

Xenon for Paris, 2001–09, Photo: Lili Holzer-Glier

Holzer says she wants “to transform spaces, to disorient and transfix people, to offer up beauty, to be funny and never lie.”

Because “I’m kind of sick of my stuff and not very good at writing”, Holzer now uses the texts of others, including the Austrian Elfriede Jelinek or the Polish poet Wilsawa Szymborska, both Nobel Prize laureates, in order “to obtain a greater range of emotions”.

Szymborska’s poems are the main body of the texts used to light up Basel’s Bahnhof, Rathaus and cathedral, and currently the Lindenhof over the Limmat in Zurich. Margarethenhügel, Binningen near Basel will be graced with the projections in the second week of January, 2010.

Basel Bahnhof, November 5 – 8, 2009. Truisms © 2009 Jenny Holzer, Photo: Serge Hasenböhler

Jenny Holzer is only the fourth contemporary artist who has a solo exhibition at the Beyeler Foundation and the first woman.

“We started talking about the possibility of her coming to Basel at the end of 2007,” said Samuel Keller, director of the Beyeler Foundation and former director of Art Basel. “Although I have already programmed other exhibitions since taking over less than two years ago, the Holzer show is a very personal choice”.

Conceived in close cooperation with the artist and the MCA, Chicago, the exhibition was curated by Elizabeth A.T. Smith and Philippe Büttner. It was presented in fall 2008 in Chicago and in spring 2009 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. After the presentation in Riehen, it will travel in spring 2010 to the Baltic Museum in Newcastle, England.

Jenny Holzer at the Beyeler Foundation until January 24, 2010

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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