It wasn’t until the late eighties, though, that Holzer’s work moved beyond the art world. In 1989 and 1990, she hit the trifecta with prestigious shows at the Guggenheim, the Dia Center, and the Venice Biennale (for which she won the Golden Lion for Best National Pavillion, and where she was the first woman to represent the United States). With her Venice project, she reached an apex of “information overload,” in her own words, flashing electronic texts in five languages. Her takeover of the Guggenheim’s rotunda, where LED text in three colors spiraled up the parapets, was equally commanding. Holzer, like her contemporaries Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman, became a minor celebrity; in 1990, Dennis Hopper even made a film, Catchfire, about a Holzer-like artist played by Jodie Foster. Not all the attention was positive; Robert Hughes disparaged her, in his Time review of the Biennale, as “the modern version . . . of those American maidens who, a century ago, passed their hours stitching improvised text on samplers.”
In post-9/11 New York, Holzerisms seem to pop up everywhere—consider the ominously vague subway-poster slogan IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING.
“A fair criticism would be that I can’t write,” Holzer admits. “My rejoinder would be, it doesn’t matter—I can write well enough to deliver the content, and I place it in the right form, the right medium, the right vehicles. And now I’ve found people who can write.” She’s referring to the poems she’s chosen for the projections at Rockefeller Center and the Library: Some are personal (“Staying at Ed’s Place,” by May Swenson), some visual (“The Great Figure,” by William Carlos Williams), but most are polemical (exemplified by Yehuda Amichai’s “Wildpeace.”) There’s a strong elegaic undercurrent to her selections, partly because of 9/11 and partly because death and suffering have always been important themes for Holzer. “Memorials are the third sphere of my practice,” she says, citing Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial as one of her favorite public artworks, period.
In fact, Holzer is surprised that people find her work “all dry, conceptual rather than expressionist,” as she puts it. “The electronics can be extraordinarily aggressive, or they can make you very wistful and weepy,” she notes. “The light washes over the building, and it’s emotional and tactile as well as cerebral.” It seems a surprising thing for her to say, but then she told us as much in one of her “Truisms” two decades ago: WORDS TEND TO BE INADEQUATE.