Originally plastered around New York City without attribution in the late 1970s and early 80s, Jenny Holzer’s Inflammatory Essays were made to confront passersby. Though she was relatively unknown at the time, Holzer’s careful combination of poetics and politics soon drew international attention and acclaim. In 1990, she became the first woman to officially represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, and was awarded the Golden Lion—the Biennale’s top prize. Just six years prior, Seattle Art Museum’s Contemporary Art Council sponsored the installation of Essays along a wall at Second Avenue and Pike Street in 1984. The posters would resurface 16 years later at SAM as part of the 2001 exhibition, Art of Protest.

Each essay, comprising 100 words and neatly arranged in 20 lines, is laden with conflicting views. As Leah Pires recently wrote in Art in America, “The concision and conviction of the language invites easy agreement—a feeling that is quickly complicated by the contradictions that become apparent when the statements are read together.” The commercial history of offset printing, coupled with Holzer’s typographic choices (the essays’ typeface is reminiscent of billboard advertisements), suggests a mass-distributed message in an aggressively declarative tone. The first line in one essay reads: “FEAR IS THE MOST ELEGANT WEAPON, YOUR HANDS ARE NEVER MESSY.”

These texts do not mirror Holzer’s own sentiments, but are rather drawn from the writings of anarchists, dictators, and revolutionaries around the world. Such voices include Emma Goldman, Adolf Hitler, Vladimir Lenin, Mao Tse-tung, and Leon Trotsky. Whether directly stated or implied through irony, Inflammatory Essays critiques power and control, sex and abuse—themes that continue to inform Holzer’s practice today. Her work is meant to provoke, but Holzer is well aware of the weight words carry. In a 2016 interview with Even Magazine, she says, “Later I found it necessary and proper at times to be careful…I’ll put tough stuff out, but not what might incite gratuitous, hideous violence. I’m pro-expression but not pro-murder…I think it is utterly irresponsible and reprehensible…to incite violence in a political campaign, or anywhere else. One should not do it. We are a murderous species. We don’t need encouragement. Once we get rolling, it’s hard to stop.” 

Produced 40 years ago, Inflammatory Essays feels eerily contemporary. In a polarized era marred by fake news, the quick dismissal of credible journalism, and our self-imposed curation of media, Holzer urges us to question the statements we are bombarded with on a daily basis. Through their challenging and, at times, aggressive statements, Inflammatory Essays continues to elicit critical public discourse by means of self-examination.

Rachel Hsu, SAM Exhibitions Coordinator

Images: Inflammatory Essays, 1979-82, Jenny Holzer, offset posters on paper 17 x 16 3/4 in., Gift of the Contemporary Art Council of the Seattle Art Museum, 2012.9.20 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Poster Project, Seattle, Washington, USA, 1984, © 1984 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Installation view Art of Protest, Seattle Art Museum, 2001, photo: Nathaniel Wilson. Inflammatory Essays, 1979-82, Jenny Holzer, offset posters on paper 17 x 16 3/4 in., Gift of the Contemporary Art Council of the Seattle Art Museum, 2012.9.16 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Inflammatory Essays, 1979-82, Jenny Holzer, offset posters on paper 17 x 16 3/4 in., Gift of the Contemporary Art Council of the Seattle Art Museum, 2012.9.21 © Artist or Artist’s Estate.

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