In considering the vast oeuvre of the neo-conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, one could undeniably argue that her works are best characterized by their deeply political and socially applicable messages that raise questions, invite reflections, and “catalyze thinking about the role of individuals in society and the relationship between the public and private realms.” Holzer sought to explore the language-image dialectic in an evocative and dynamic socially conscious new art that arguably reached maximum expression in her series from 1979-82, Inflammatory Essays. As the title suggests, Holzer’s Inflammatory Essays were meant to shock, agitate, and ultimately inspire the once passive viewer to become an active questioner. Decidedly more provocative and polemical in tone than her previous work entitled Truisms, this text-based series of Essays is comprised of fifteen multicolored grids of wallpaper that were displayed on building walls in New York City. Through their form, content, and distribution, Holzer’s Inflammatory Essays were meant to encourage and challenge the everyday audience to reflect on the intentions, meaning, and authorship of a socio-politically engaged art.
Each of the individual fifteen essays is on a separate sheet of square cut, colored printing paper, containing twenty lines and exactly one hundred words. Like much of Holzer’s text-based work, the series is devoid of any images containing only black words marked in capital letters with a simple and standard times new roman type font. Despite the varying subjects of the essays, it is clear from the uniform presentation that the series is intended to be interpreted as a recognizable whole, though each of the essays noticeably different from one another signified by the different texts on different colored pieces of poster paper. As for subject matter, each of the fifteen essays “begins with an extremist position, then pushes to the limits of sanity and beyond.” Read individually and taken as a collective whole, the essays are quite nasty and brutish and unmistakably “inflamed” by a sort of wild passion reinforced by the vibrant poster colors that attract the eye. Whether it is bloodlust, sexual domination, or revolution, each of the individual essays grapples with notions of power taking for instance the gun-right activist or Anarchist position. Each of the individual voices is ideologically extreme and absolutely one sided. “They point to a region of the psyche inhabited by political extremists, sadists, moralists of hair-raising riteousness…In a way, all the voices are the same voice: that of isolation, of personalities so enraged by the loss of a place in the world that they can only strike postures of outrageousness –– and thus they isolate themselves further.”