Jenny Holzer: Conceptual Art

Jenny Holzer

I was first introduced to Jenny Holzer my sophomore year of high school in art class. Our assignment was to take inspiration from her concept of “truisms” (which I’ll cover more below), or broad, sweeping, controversial statements meant to make people think. I thought the assignment was really interesting (I wish I had a picture of my pieces to show you guys!) and she was one of the first artists who made me realize that words could have a massive impact on a piece of art. In fact, they could even be an art form all on their own.

Holzer went to several colleges to study art, including the Rhode Island School of Design, where she began exploring what she is so well-known for today. When moving to New York City after college (the obvious choice for any aspiring artist, apparently), she really delved into the idea of using words and installations as her main art form.  In 1977, she began working on her Truisms series, which I alluded to earlier. What’s so interesting about this series is that it was truly interactive artwork– Holzer would post papers around the city printed with her truisms in all capital letters. The truisms were often shocking statements meant to inspire discussion like “FREEDOM IS A LUXURY NOT A NECESSITY” or “THE IDEA OF REVOLUTION IS AN ADOLESCENT FANTASY,” but also more reasonable (and kind of really obvious) things like “TORTUE IS BARBARIC.” I think all of us would agree with that last one (at least i hope so, anyway). Apparently, people had a really strong reaction to her efforts. Oftentimes, a passerby would “scribble messages on the posters and make verbal comments” and Holzer would stand around to listen and observe the effects her work had on people.


An example of a truisms poster.

Her blunt, often contradictory statements took not only the art world by storm, but also the general public, which I think is really admirable since she actively tried to make her work so accessible. I like that Holzer sees art as something that everyone should have the privilege to absorb and react to. She really took that concept to the next level in the 1980s, when she began using light emitting machines in order to project her truisms onto public spaces, like in Times Square or the World Trade Center. She didn’t dilute her messages at all, despite the fact that they were so widely publicized. From the 1980s and into the early 1990s, she continued covering heavy, dark subject matter like death and corruption.


One of Holzer’s projections. I’ve noticed that most of the photographs of these installations are in black and white, which makes the text seem so powerful to me. It’d be interesting to see what kind of vibe these projections give off in real life.

Interestingly, Holzer has been compared to Diane Kruger, a graphic artist who I covered earlier in the semester. They both tackle some pretty intense themes, and use text in their work, so I think that’s where the parallels are drawn. As with Kruger, a lot of Holzer’s truisms have been reprinted on clothing, posters, mugs, etc. Both women have created art that really managed to seep into mainstream life.

I think people are drawn to the rawness and simplicity of Holzer’s work– I know I do, at least. She is unafraid to use controversy as a means to inspire rich discussion and dialogue with uncomfortable topics, which is really, really cool. I encourage you to look up more of Holzer’s work, because it’s so interesting! You can skim through a huge list of her truisms here.



Mariko Mori: Sculpture, Photography

Fans of sci-fi and fantasy will likely be drawn to the artist Mariko Mori. Some of her work looks like it could be a still from the movie The Fifth Element, with its bright colors and futuristic backgrounds. Mori disregards typical standards for modern art and explores what she is interested in, instead. In short, her pieces are really, really cool to look at.


Mariko Mori

Mori was born in Tokyo, Japan in 1967. One of her parents was an inventor while the other was an art historian, which seem to explain a lot about Mori’s passions. She followed in their creative footsteps by eventually studying fashion design, and later art. Her work blew up in popularity in the 1990s, when she was only in her early twenties. At this point in her career, her pieces were largely influenced by manga and presented futuristic “cybergeishas” (is that not the most awesome word, or what?) in modern day cities.




Tea Ceremony III, 1995                                               Subway, 1994

Mori often used herself as the models for her photographs. As you can see, her pictures show these spacey, dream-like characters that seem to be almost stuck in their urban environment. There’s clearly a disconnect between these women and modern society.

In addition to photography, Mori also plays with some more interactive elements with her art. Some of her pieces feature videos and sound– one, known as Pure Land from 1996, brings viewers wearing 3D glasses into a theater playing her film, while they are “treated to burst of cool, scented air on their faces.”


A still from Pure Land. It looks just as strange and whimsical as the experience above sounds. She starts incorporating some Japanese traditions and cultural elements in her art during this time in her career.

Mori further delves into the ideas of spirituality and nature with her project called Primal Rhythm which she began in 2010. She plans on putting one permanent installation on every continent (minus Antarctica), which will be nondestructive to the environment. In doing so, she is trying to embrace the history and culture of each place, by reacreating “modern version of celstial sites.” Her first installation, which was finished in 2011 in Miyako Island, Japan, features a tall, reflective “Sun Pillar” meant to observe the solstices.


Her next project is planned for Brazil. In the meantime, she’s also making art based on some astrophysics-y kind of stuff. Mori’s pieces are looking at different theories of the universe, and are often twisted, spiral shapes which don’t have any set start or end. They are meant to show the “theory that the universe is filled with infinite cycles of energy, and even parallel universes.” She accomplishes them by using 3D printing (another clear indication of her interest in technology) and gives them a white, pearlescent hue. They really do look almost otherworldly.


Ekpyrotic String II, 2014

Mariko Mori is probably the most “out there” sort of artist I’ve covered– and I love her for that. Everything she does is so ethereal and odd… I feel like she’s almost more alien-like than human-like! Nonetheless, her artwork is fascinating, and I hope you enjoyed learning more about it.


Visualizing an Endless Universe: Mariko Mori Makes the Cosmos Life-Size


Vija Celmins- Drawing and Painting

When people think of modern art, I think there’s this tendency to assume that it’s all pretentious nonsense that doesn’t require any skill. Installations featuring a single toilet set, or a painting with only a few strokes of color on it come to mind. But, Vija Celmins goes against this entirely with her incredibly detailed drawings and paintings. She opts to use photorealism in her pieces, and started during a time when abstract and conceptual art was the norm.

Born in Latvia in 1938, Celmins moved to the United States with her parents as a child. She would go on to study art in college, eventually receiving a masters degree in fine art. Her pieces quickly became noticed because they were so unusually realistic. Celmins often copied photographs, which she carried out very accurately, and in doing so, doesn’t really give them “a point of reference, horizon, or discernable depth of field.”


Big Sea II, 1969

This piece is pretty much indiscernible from a simple black-and-white photograph when looking at it. In fact, I probably wouldn’t even guess it was a drawing if I hadn’t known about it beforehand.

I couldn’t imagine doing this myself– putting that level of detail and focus into one image…. It’s no wonder that her drawings (which are sometimes pretty big, by the way) usually take months to finish.

Unsurprisingly, people really like Celmins’ art. She is, in fact, one of the “most expensive” female artists living today. Her pieces are very highly priced– a painting of the night’s sky, for example, sold in 2013 for over $2 million dollars at auction!


This is it– the illustrious, multi-million dollar painting. At 19.5 x 22.5 in, the buyer spent about $5,500 per square inch. This isn’t the best image of it, but it really is quite a cool, if not simple, painting.

I think the focus of Celmins’ work is pretty unique, in addition to her style. Her pieces are almost exclusively all centered on nature. From the night’s sky, to a spider web, to the ocean, Celmins captures a sort of serenity in her paintings. I enjoy looking at her pieces for the simplistic beauty she portrays, and appreciate the fact that they don’t have to require a ton of thought.


Spider Web, 2009. Print.

I would guess that the photograph Celmins based this on was old and fading in some spots. I think this gives a really neat effect on the image, because the quality makes it look like simply an old polaroid picture. It’s crazy to me how she is able to capture that look by just using just a pen, pencil, and paint.


Reena Saini Kallat

I think that contemporary art as a whole has a tendency towards making political statements. Sometimes, this involves examining sexism and racism, as with artists we looked at previously. Other artists, though, take less of a specific approach, and just explore trends and ideas present throughout all of humanity. An example of such a comprehensive artist is Reena Saini Kallat, who creates art to examine life in our incredibly globalized world.

Reena Saini Kallat was born in 1973 in Delhi, India. She went to art school in Mumbai, and has come to use a variety of media, like drawing, painting, photography, and sculpture. She has had numerous exhibits around the world– in England, the United States, Spain, and many, many more. I think the reason why people in so many different cultures are attracted to her work because it’s truly applicable to everyone. Her art shows how humans shift and move and connect with each other, and how much this happens nowadays.


This is a very literal example of the themes I was discussing in Reena’s work, but I think it really helps to show her themes of interconnectedness in modern society. In this large exhibition piece from 2015, she “recreates migration routes across the world through a symbolic web of human and cultural movement and exchange.” The Reena often uses wires in her work, as seen above, because, to her, they act “as conduits of contact that transmit ideas and information.” Another part of what makes a piece like this so powerful is the sheer size of it– the expansiveness of humankind feels more palpable when looking at a super-sized map of the world.


Synonym, 2009

Reena has a series of pieces like this, in which she uses rubber stamps painted with acrylics that she then arranges to create a portrait. There is a lot more subtlety behind these images, but it is interesting how she is able to create an entrancing, lifelike image out of only household items. From far away, the portrait is clear, and almost looks like a normal painting, but closer up, the individual contents of the picture become clearer, and less distinguishable, as shown below.


In modern society, I think it’s super important and admirable for artists to create their pieces with their audience in mind– not just their intended audience, but really anyone who might see their art. By integrating such a global perspective into her work, I think Reena is taking a step forward in the right direction. To me, art should be relatable and accessible for everyone. In Reena’s case, she accomplishes this by not only relating to the viewer– but encouraging them to have more of an open view of the world, as well.