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Jenny Holzer’s ‘Truisms’ feel urgent as ever at MASS MoCA

Condoms printed with Jenny Holzer's "Truisms" and words from Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass."Kaelan Burkett/Jenny Holzer and Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

The Jenny Holzer display at Mass MoCA opened in 2017 and runs, incredibly, through 2032. But could it ever be more timely than right now? On a recent visit, with the lamentations of impeachment ringing in my ears and a freshly acquitted president relishing his victory lap, that’s sure how it felt. It started after a few steps through the door, right there in the gift shop, with a T-shirt bearing Holzer’s best-known phrase: “ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE.” Hate to say it, but she told us so.

Holzer, of course, has been offering such terse wisdom for decades, and its timeless relevance should be worrying on its own. “Abuse of power,” one of dozens of her ominous slogans, debuted in 1977 on a series of anonymous posters she pasted all over New York City while still a student. She called them “Truisms” (dictionary definition: “An undoubted or self-evident truth; especially: one too obvious to mention”). And the more things change, the more these truisms stay the same (“An elite is inevitable” and “Humanism is obsolete” are two more).


Up on the third floor, the museum’s Jenny Holzer galleries are a fluid monument to the artist’s pertinence. Language has always been her medium, and its immensely adaptable nature has her work festooning all kinds of things. Here, you’ll find condom wrappers, baseball hats, golf balls, coffee cups, and, yes, T-shirts. Being endlessly reproducible has been key to Holzer’s work from the very beginning, a strategy that helped ensure both longevity and timeless timeliness. On Twitter, a medium that feels almost conceived with Holzer in mind, the account @holzertron posts “Truisms” twice daily (A recent example: “IT CAN BE HELPFUL TO KEEP GOING, NO MATTER WHAT.”)

T-shirts, hats, and shoes are displayed in the Jenny Holzer galleries at MASS MoCA.Kaelan Burkett/Jenny Holzer and Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Holzer has nothing to do with @holzertron — it’s a fan account, and a dutiful one at that — but the fact that it’s six years old with no cease-and-desist issued from the artist’s studio seems like tacit approval. This shouldn’t surprise. Holzer’s work has always been in public, for the public. Condom wrappers and T-shirts are, for her, a form of mass media, a way to get the word out. They might not have the presence of an electronic billboard in Times Square or the LED news scroll at Rockefeller Center — both venues for her blunt sloganeering over the years — but they’re mobile, infiltrative, and viral, an analog version of social media. They travel from the hands of few to the eyes of many.


That’s important. Holzer’s work emerged as a clarifying bout of conscience for an art world obsessed with itself. Just as its extreme self-isolation reached apotheosis came the debut of “Truisms.” Conceptualism, conceived as an antidote to the bluster of Abstract Expressionism, was astringent and insular, countering excess with reductive glee (Carl Andrestacked fire bricks, Dan Flavin arranged fluorescent tubes into angular configurations). A decade before “Truisms,” Lawrence Weiner put language to sly use with vague aphorisms and instructions, stuck to gallery walls. (One was “MOVED FROM UP FRONT,” in big block letters; another was “GLOSS WHITE LACQUER, SPRAYED FOR 2 MINUTES AT 40LB PRESSURE DIRECTLY.” They’re both owned, in as much as they can be, by the Museum of Modern Art.)

As the culture wars flared through the mid-1970s, Conceptualism felt fusty and out of touch — art about art, willfully sealed off from the world’s burgeoning tumult. Along with Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman, Holzer came to embody a distinctly brainy strain of feminist art. But where Kruger and Sherman could be both blunt and seductive (Kruger, a graphic designer, employed the techniques of mass advertising; Sherman, the language of Hollywood) Holzer’s plain text seethed with cool restraint. It subverted Conceptual strategies, reloading the movement’s oblique riddles with frank and timely language. Instead of keeping her works holed up in museums and galleries, Holzer released them to the world. Oracular, unsettling, and laced with dread, a Holzer piece could be darkly mysterious, but it was never obtuse; there was no question whose side she was on.


When MASS MoCA opened Building 6 in 2017, Holzer and Laurie Anderson arrived in tandem as 15-year residents (call it slow art — way, way off the seasonal exhibition schedule). Anderson, a gleeful polymath with a magpie-like affection for new technology, has been producing virtual-reality installations (a new one debuted in the fall). Holzer, whose taut and disciplined practice allows few such flights of fancy, instead turned inward, excavating 40-some years of work and thinking, cycling through the two big rooms that are her exclusive domain.

There’s a consistency to Holzer’s work here that would be comforting — an artist committed to a mission, unswayed — if discomfort weren’t her explicit goal. Bits and pieces from a life’s worth of work — sketches and notes, hats and golf balls, a delicate pile of bones heaped next to a book emblazoned with “I AM AWAKE IN THE PLACE WHERE WOMEN DIE” — are arranged across a couple of dozen vitrines.


Her refresh of the galleries last fall jarred, but didn’t surprise. One wall is papered with brightly-colored grids featuring timely, stream-of-consciousness rants (“YOU HAVE LIVED OFF THE FAT OF THE LAND. NOW YOU ARE THE PIG WHO IS READY FOR SLAUGHTER” is one, printed on eye-stinging yellow).

Jenny Holzer's "Inflammatory Walls," from 1979 to 1982, at MASS MoCA.Kaelan Burkett/Jenny Holzer and Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

But one of the charms of the decade-and-half MASS MoCA cycle is seeing that the artist, never at a loss for words, was once trying to clear her throat. A group of early paintings here predate “Truisms.” They’re awkward, inarticulate, like a writer finding her voice. “WHAT EFFECT DOES IT HAVE TO SHOW PEOPLE VISUAL PROOF OF ATROCITIES?” is painted roughly on brown paper, its deep crimson letters the color of dried blood. Another, painted once and then painted over, reads “OUTER SPACE IS WHERE YOU WANT TO GO BUT MAYBE YOUR BODY WON’T GET THERE IN TIME.”

For Holzer, the medium was surely part of the message; maybe that’s why the painted pieces feel off-key. Typeset and mass-produced, her chilling exhortations infiltrate and multiply, like the systems of control they so ruthlessly subvert. In an era of alternative truths, they feel like a distant early warning system gone unheeded. So maybe this is the inevitable doomsday scenario, for the artist and the rest of us: In December, during President Trump’s House impeachment hearings, Holzer arrived at Art Basel in Miami with a painting titled “Call Me,” which splayed emails (culled by the House Intelligence Committee) between the President Trump-appointed European Union ambassador Gordon Sondland, former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, and U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor. The words swam on a shimmering background of red and gold. Another very recent Holzer piece, a marble skateboard engraved with the word “IMPEACH” was released in early February, marking Trump’s impeachment trail in the Senate.


It’s not the first time Holzer has embraced the moment so explicitly. One of her most sinister pieces, created in 2009 with the Iraq War near its apex, scrolled covert State Department dispatches in red LED signs. The bones on view here evoke her piece “Lustmord,” a German term for a sexually-motivated murder, which she made in response to crimes committed during the Bosnian war in 1993.

“I want to paint the present,” Holzer told ArtNet, when asked about “Call Me.” But isn’t Holzer’s work the “Groundhog Day” of the art world, doomed to an eternal present? After 40 years of perpetual relevance, I doubt she’d mind drifting into the history books. Given our current circumstances, don’t hold your breath.


At Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams. Through 2032, with works rotating on an irregular schedule. 413-662-2111, www.massmoca.org

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.