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That '80s Artist

That '80s Artist

One sure sign that you’re getting old is when the decade you grew up in becomes the subject of campy nostalgia. It’s a 20-year cycle, so when I was growing up in the 1970s, we all watched Happy Days and Grease and put on what no doubt were grotesque parodies of 1950s sock hops in our high-school gyms. Did 1950s kids imitate the Depression, I wondered? Maybe not, but a few years ago, when I was reading a lot about the late 1940s, I was surprised to learn that Al Jolson and live vaudeville made comebacks after World War II.

In recent years my own decade has gone through the wringer, though it seems to be waning now. I knew the ’70s revival had passed its peak when I went to a basketball game and the team’s mascot appeared during a time-out disguised as what the announcer called “Mr. ’70s.” This basically amounted to a hippie on a skateboard, and I thought: Okay, if you take the average of ’60s and ’80s, I guess it comes out to ’70s.

Right now it’s the ’80s’ turn, and not just in pop culture. Jenny Holzer, a stalwart of that decade’s art scene, is back too. For a while now, she’s had an installation over the front entrance at 122 Fifth Avenue in New York, a few blocks north of American Heritage World Headquarters, and now she has installed a much bigger one at the New York Public Library that will be on view from tonight (Thursday) through Sunday, October 9:

http://www.nypl.org/research/calendar/eventdesc.cfm?id=1471

Holzer is a word artist; her work consists of sentences or phrases, usually with a vaguely menacing tone (e.g., EVEN YOUR FAMILY CAN BETRAY YOU or YOU ARE A VICTIM OF THE RULES YOU LIVE BY), which are projected onto walls, programmed into electronic signs, or occasionally even painted on canvas. This may sound lame, but by the standards of 1980s art it’s actually quite advanced, because she went to the trouble of writing the phrases herself. I knew an artist whose paintings consisted of sentences or phrases extracted from novels—sometimes just a single word—that he painted on canvas over and over until he ran out of room. That’s it. He didn’t even do the lettering by hand; he used a stencil. And you can get posters of his stuff at the Whitney. Jenny Holzer is Michelangelo compared to that guy.

At any rate, after looking at some of Holzer’s literary/artistic productions—you can get a sample at

http://slate.msn.com/SlateGallery/96-06-24/holzer.htm

—the thought occurred to me that she has missed out on her most natural medium: fortune cookies. Almost any of her mottoes would sound great when read out loud after a nice plate of General Tso’s chicken. Some of them even work with “in bed” at the end:

SAVOR KINDNESS BECAUSE CRUELTY IS ALWAYS POSSIBLE LATER

OLD FRIENDS ARE BETTER LEFT IN THE PAST

PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT

YOU HOVER NEAR LOVELY UNCONSCIOUS LIFE FORMS THAT OFFER NO IMMEDIATE RESISTANCE

So that’s my brilliant business idea: Get in touch with Holzer’s agent, arrange for a license, get the cookies made, and sell them to hip restaurants or irony-oriented novelty stores. It’s a potential gold mine—okay, maybe a tin mine. And all I want out of the deal is the knowledge that I’ve done my bit to advance the cause of Art. (Well, that and maybe a small royalty . . .)