‘I am not a painter, I am a poet,’ the poet (and art critic) Frank O’Hara wrote in 1956. And then he wrote: ‘Why? I think I would rather be a painter, but I am not.’ The envy between writers and visual artists is as old as the lust between Adam and Eve. Writers think that painters have all the luck, that painting is all action, and it results in something immediate, ambiguous and exciting. Visual artists, on the other hand, think that sentences are immediate, ambiguous and exciting. And writers, when they watch artists trying to write often wonder why they don’t just paint or make sculpture – their texts often seem shrill and silly.
These questions arise when we consider the work of Jenny Holzer. Holzer is an American artist who has been using words as though they were images for thirty years now. Her work, using her own words, is public, loud, clear and confrontational; she has also used novels and poems as visual tools. Like many artists who work in New York City, she seems to have come to the view that the imagery the city itself produced would make a small painting on canvas seem irrelevant and strange. Her job then has been to take on the imagery of the city and replace it with something challenging and complex.
She wrote: ‘Abuse of power comes as no surprise’ and put this on posters and electronic signboards and t-shirts. Later, she wrote things which were more strident and sadder, and sometimes more personal and opinionated. This was not language in the way a writer uses language, in which rhythm and beauty as well as irony generally come into play. This was language as gesture, as play, as splash. It hit the nervous system and left the intelligence for later, which is what a painting can do. In any case, what Holzer did left no room for argument. Her job was to leave the viewer defenceless.
The problem for any artist working to engage the world at a primary level is what the world should do then. The world is entitled to say: we got your message, its impact lasted a second or two, it was great, but what is the after-effect of your words?
Holzer’s words come to us as hard-won images; they are presented with considerable care, offering a context which is entirely visual and filled with an energy which is not merely immediate but oddly filled with texture. Thus if she is working in a great modern museum, she will tailor her image to do battle with the space itself, using rich colour, technology, aspects of art history. She projects her word-images onto public buildings as though they were vaporous signs from God. Her commitment is not only to her own ideas or her opinions, although it is clear that her ideas are important and her opinions are strong. Her commitment is also to enrich and question the very process of looking and seeing and knowing and being in the world.
Although her art is serious, it also carries an edge of pure anarchy, the traces left by someone passionate on the run and in a rage. There is also an aura of pure beauty about other work. ‘My work,’ she said in 1990, ‘takes you in and out of advocacy, through bad sex, murder, paralysis, poor government, lunacy, and aimlessness.’