Pioneering artist Jenny Holzer to receive Jesse L. Rosenberger Medal

Courtesy Jenny Holzer

Courtesy Jenny Holzer

by UChicago Arts

The University of Chicago will award the 2019 Jesse L. Rosenberger Medal for Outstanding Achievement in the Creative and Performing Arts to artist Jenny Holzer, “whose unique text-based work is ambitious, relevant, and influential.”

Holzer will receive her award at the University’s Convocation ceremonies on June 15. She is the 54th recipient of the Rosenberger Medal, established in 1917 by Jesse L. and Susan Colver Rosenberger. Recent winners include musician and educator Steve Coleman and artist Kerry James Marshall.

A pioneer in using public art as social intervention, Holzer is perhaps best known for her Truisms—aphorisms such as “Abuse of power comes as no surprise” and “Protect me from what I want” featuring posters, billboards, LED signs, light projections, and more.

For 40 years, the New York-based Holzer has presented her works in public places and international exhibitions, including 7 World Trade Center, the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the Guggenheim Museums in New York and Bilbao, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. She was the first woman artist to exhibit at Blenheim Palace.

Prior to receiving her BFA from Ohio University and her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, Holzer studied painting, printmaking, and drawing at the University of Chicago in the 1970s. She was nominated for the Rosenberger Medal by faculty members in the Department of Visual Arts and the Department of Art History with the support of the Smart Museum of Art.

In 2012, Holzer collaborated with Zachary Cahill, director of programs and fellowships at the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry, on the large-scale exhibition Wall Text, which was hosted throughout the spaces of UChicago’s Logan Center for the Arts. Below, Cahill, who curated the exhibition for the Department of Visual Arts’s Open Practice Committee, reflects on Wall Text and his appreciation for Holzer’s work.


The Alchemy of Language in Plein Air: Jenny Holzer 
by Zachary Cahill, director of programs and fellowships at the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry 

I like Jenny Holzer.

What a woefully uncritical statement to submit, especially given the context for which I am writing here. Context or not, to say you “like” something is a verbal tic for which art students the world-over are hammered away at until the word vanishes from their lexicon. Of course, the wisdom behind this pedagogical disciplining is not wrong, mostly because it trains students to develop a more sophisticated language to articulate their thinking process. It helps them avoid toiling away in vague solipsisms and connect to their immediate and future peers. Nevertheless, I’ll state it again and transgress this observed decorum. 

I like Jenny Holzer, her work, and what it stands for in the world.

In 2012, I had the very good fortune to work with Holzer on an exhibition entitled Wall Text at the Logan Center, which I co-curated with Monika Szewczyk, the former curator of the Logan Center Gallery. Holzer generously, and without hesitation, agreed to loan ten bronze plaques that were installed throughout the Logan Center on the occasion of its grand opening. Because the show was displayed throughout the building and not sited in the gallery-proper, it took on a special relationship with the student, the wider art viewing audience, and all of us who work in the building every day. This was true of all the works in the show, and Holzer’s work in particular, because of the way it evokes a double-take in the viewer. While this double-take effect is complicated to explain, I’d say it is a form of alchemy that is achieved through placing poetry in public space. It is a type of poetry that traffics in the rhetoric of official speech, often uttered by political slogans or advertising, but really functions like a latter-day koan, whereby language is used against itself and its own appearance to create a kind of revelatory shock in the viewer. 

A note left by Joy Miller of the Department of Visual Arts DoVA as a tribute to Holzer during the  Wall Text  exhibition at the Logan Center.

A note left by Joy Miller of the Department of Visual Arts DoVA as a tribute to Holzer during the Wall Text exhibition at the Logan Center.

Still, I am not sure these cursory thoughts on alchemy fully answer my claim that Holzer’s work had a special relationship to the people who work at the Logan Center. Why they liked it. It is impossibly reductive to try to speculate as to what living with Holzer’s work day after day might have meant to my colleagues. I can only speak to why it was special to me.  

Why I liked it.

Signs and official speech are something that happen to us. They are things that shape our day-to-day world, almost to the point that our daily life becomes rote, unthinking, and bland. Go here. Go there. Think this. Think that.

Holzer’s short-circuiting of official language in public space turns it back over to us. Through a near subliminal, often fleeting, almost tiny speech act in public, we can recognize our own agency, creative intelligence, and the possibility of not being transformed into drones governed by some unseen power of the state or market forces. That through her plein air alchemy, we might come to realize that we possess the tools to re-imagine our everyday existence, and exercise creative autonomy through solidarity in and by language that once sought to control us.

This is why I suppose I feel fully comfortable in informing you that I like the work of Jenny Holzer.


Rosenberger Medalists are invited to give a public lecture or workshop during the following academic year. Stay tuned for more information about Holzer’s engagement on campus. To learn more about the artist’s work, please visit jennyholzer.com.