Jenny Holzer began the Truisms series in 1977 as a distillation of an erudite reading list from the Whitney Independent Study Program in New York City, where she was a student; by 1979 she had written several hundred one-liners. Beginning with a "little knowledge goes a long way" and ending with "your oldest fears are your worst ones," the Truisms employ a variety of voices and express a wide spectrum of biases and beliefs. If any consistent viewpoint emerges in the edgy, stream-of-consciousness provocations it is that truth is relative and that each viewer must participate in determining what is legitimate and what is not. Since the Truisms, Holzer has used language exclusively and has employed myriad ways to convey her messages. Selections from her Inflammatory Essays series, for example, appeared on unsigned, commercially printed posters, which were wheat-pasted on buildings and walls around Manhattan.
When such Holzer phrases as "abuse of power comes as no surprise" and "money creates taste" flashed from the Spectacolor board above Times Square in 1982, it marked her first appropriation of electronic signage. In doing so, she brought her disquieting messages to a new height of subversive social engagement. Her strategy—placing surprising texts where normal signage is expected—gives Holzer direct access to a large public that might not give “art” any consideration, while allowing her to undermine forms of power and control that often go unnoticed.
In Holzer's 1989 retrospective installation at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, blinking messages from her various series, programmed to an insistent but silent beat, raced the length of an L.E.D. display board installed along the winding inner wall of Frank Lloyd Wright's spiral ramp. Her Installation for Bilbao—nine vertical L.E.D. signboards, each more than 40 feet high—transmit aphorisms in Basque, Spanish, and English. Developed over time, the texts were first written for an AIDS fund-raising event. While consideration of the epidemic provides an immediate and tragic context, these writings—such as "I say your name" and "I save your clothes"—evoke universal themes of intimacy, death, and loss. In bringing her art from the street to museum environments, Holzer focuses on an audience that differs markedly from the unsuspecting passerby. These installations address such issues as the viability of public art, the commodification and consumption of art, and the conflation of the personal and the political.