LIZ MUNSELL: That’s what I was trying to get at because I’m imagining Jenny with the posters in Times Square and the letter-sized approach. And then, thinking of graffiti artists working in a much larger format. So, was that shift in scale of interest to you, Jenny?
JENNY HOLZER: Yes. I made repressed little stickers and small posters because they’re easy to carry around, and you can put a lot of them up because they don’t weigh anything even in the hundreds. But it was serious fun making twelve-foot long paintings, too. And it was serious fun working with Jane Dickson of Colab, to have text on the big Spectacolor board at Times Square. I liked working across media.
GREG TATE: The intention of our show is to look at this transition from work on the trains and walls, to work inside the galleries, in this whole post-graffiti space. And when we talked to Lee [Quiñones], he actually remembered the last train that he did, before he stopped completely. I notice you went back and forth, even after you began having gallery shows, Pink, to the trains. What inspired you to keep going back to the trains, even after you were coming in from the cold, as they say?
LADY PINK: Just for the sheer fun of it. Friends dragged me out. I took up with a lot of the older guys that were in their early twenties who did their thing through the ’70s, they paid their dues. I had not painted enough [on trains] but I started exhibiting at the age of sixteen. At the same time, I [kept] painting subway trains, I was not ready to give it up. The older guys wanted me to stop, because it’s dangerous, and to focus my energy on the galleries. I was still a high school kid. My schedule was just full with galleries and exhibits and parties. And every weekend I’m dolled up like a fashion plate, instead of being underground and painting some trains. [In the end, I] didn’t paint enough trains. The party life—and that is all very seductive—that took over. That took over my weekends, and all of my free time. Carrying on, doing galleries and shows and selling work; all that took priority, rather than me sneaking around with teenagers my age and trying to not get arrested, trying to not get killed, or worse, underground.
So, that’s why I kept going back; I was not done. I went back for a visit in ’88 once, and the last train I did was in ’94, on a date with my husband. On Christmas day of ’94, I painted a whole car, with this woman named Mickey, from Amsterdam, Holland; she’s like the queen of Europe. We did a whole car, end to end, two females, and my husband took a videotape. So, at [least] one point in time, two girls did a whole car in New York City. And that was the last train I painted, but once in a while, I feel like just visiting. It was just for the sheer fun of it, man. I had fun making loads of money, or exhibiting in the finest galleries, all of that. That’s awesome, don’t get me wrong; that’s amazing, but just for sheer fun, it’s the underground.
LIZ MUNSELL: How many collaborations did you do? I’m counting twelve, and then possibly two collaborations between Jenny and A-One.
JENNY HOLZER: Maybe three and a half A-One collaborations: three completed, and then a half because I’m still worrying about a text. That’s on my bucket list. I’ll determine the text for the last A-One before I kick off.
LIZ MUNSELL: Can I ask about the relationship with [artist] A-One in all this? It seems to me that they were very separate collaborations. But I think Pink had some memories about A-One? And Jenny, I’m not sure if you could speak to you approaching him, and how you saw your collaboration with him as different, or similar, with Pink?
LADY PINK: No, I’m not touching that! Go ahead, Jenny?
JENNY HOLZER: One anecdote … and I didn’t see it, so I can’t certify it. I came back to the loft once, and there’d been a tussle; that’s all I know.
LADY PINK: I didn’t get along with A-One. He was completely out of his mind, and we got into this fight. I shouldn’t have let him in. Jenny left to run errands, and said, “Don’t let anybody in.” But, for some reason I rang [him] in, and he came upstairs. And he was upset that I was painting on a canvas; he thought that it was for him. So, he started hitting me, and I started hitting him back …
JENNY HOLZER: Oh man!
LADY PINK: … and we were, like, smacking each other around really hard. I’d never really had a fistfight with a guy before. I had to use spray cans to hit him, because he had a hard head. So, I happened to look out the window, and I saw two fellas across the street, painting that very same pet store. They were spray-painting some animals. And I hollered for them to come upstairs and show A-One out, because I couldn’t throw him out. I wanted him thrown down the flight of stairs, but they didn’t want to do that; they thought that that might kill him or something. And then Jenny came in, and she didn’t like the idea of throwing him down the stairs either. So, he had to walk down, and they left. And then, that was it; Jenny had had enough of us, and none of us were able to come back after that I think.
JENNY HOLZER: No, you came back. You were welcome. But it was … let’s say I’m glad you survived, very glad you survived.
LADY PINK: Yeah. Yeah. It was bad.
LIZ MUNSELL: Survival series.
JENNY HOLZER: So to speak. Vaguely apropos, in a bleak way: that text from Survival that’s in one of the three paintings—WHEN SOMEONE BEATS YOU WITH A FLASHLIGHT YOU MAKE LIGHT SHINE IN ALL DIRECTIONS—that came from A-One. He appeared once saying that a cop had just hit him in the head with a flashlight.
LADY PINK: That guy was trouble. I think we had been friends at one point, really early on, A-One and I, and then things went sour. I don’t know why.
JENNY HOLZER: He was gifted, and hard on himself. And like you said, for a while, hard on other people too.
LADY PINK: Mm-hmm [affirmative].
LIZ MUNSELL: The contrast between the works that, Jenny, you and A-One made, and the works that Pink and you made, is stark. Because A-One has such a coded way of working, and really is quite abstract. So these paintings, they do something that’s very different than the work with Pink. I’m still wondering why you chose to work with him? Did you seek him out for his mode of working in this abstract way with spray paint?
JENNY HOLZER: When I was first failing as a painter, I was an abstract painter. I’m guessing through the mist of the decades, that I was attracted because A-One was a good abstract painter, and I wanted to try that again, to have text be relatively concrete, or as available as language ever is, against abstract backgrounds.
LIZ MUNSELL: That makes sense. This actually leads to a Pink question too: Where did you see A-One’s work, and where did you see Pink’s work, to know to even approach them?
JENNY HOLZER: I saw it on the trains and on walls. As we touched on before, there was some overlap between the groups of people. The Lower East Side was busy—right, Pink?
LADY PINK: Yeah, absolutely.
GREG TATE: Yeah. Jenny, recently you’ve returned to painting in a major way, and particularly the work you’ve done with redacted documents, which are both kind of epic and hilarious in their own way. You got kicked out of college for not painting well enough? Or for confronting—
JENNY HOLZER: Very close to kicked out. Super close to being ejected from RISD after I’d finally been admitted to an art school. RISD thought my painting and thinking were wretched but then the Whitney Independent Study Program took me and saved me.
LIZ MUNSELL: That’s super interesting, because Pink famously got kicked out of her art education experience at the High School of Art and Design, which is an important hub for youth arts education in the city, and at the time was a mecca for young graffiti writers from across the city. One thing that you definitely have in common is the rebel in both of you.
JENNY HOLZER: Solidarity!
LADY PINK: I did get my honorary high school diploma just a couple of years ago.
LIZ MUNSELL: I don’t want to miss asking you about the iconic photograph by Lisa Kahane, of Lady Pink wearing one of Jenny’s Truisms T-shirts. How did that come to be? Was it a staged moment? Was it meant as an artwork? An advertisement? Can you give us a little background on that image?
JENNY HOLZER: I can give you an educated guess, but it’s only a guess. And please correct me, Pink, if I’m off. I asked Pink to do it, if she was inclined. It was around the time that the aforementioned Jane Dickson, who often painted and worked in Times Square, helped organize the project at 1 Times Square where a number of us had stuff on the electronic signboard there. I thought this was a good place for a shot of some T-shirts that I made, as part of getting text out to people.
LADY PINK: So, yeah, there we were in Times Square. And a concert nearby in Central Park, a Diana Ross concert, let out. I don’t know if she canceled or cut it short—[something had happened]—and the crowd was upset about it. They came raging through Times Square, mugging people. Four people got stabbed. And Lisa Kahane and I were in the middle of Times Square photographing. Suddenly we get surrounded by all these very tall African American males. Like a fence, a six-foot fence around us, and we’re in the middle. And then a hand reaches out and snatches my gold chain, that said “Lady Pink,” on it. And then suddenly I realized that they’re going to rob this woman who is just draped with big cameras. She’s a little lady like me, covered in thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment. So I grabbed her, and pushed through the crowd, and we jumped into a taxi and fled. We barely got out of there with the film, and the camera equipment, and our lives intact. I lost my gold chain. The next day I hear on the news that four people got stabbed, and loads of people got robbed and mugged. The police can’t grab everyone when there’s a pack of thousands of enraged kids, rushing through Times Square, mugging people.
JENNY HOLZER: Oh, your story’s much better. That’s far superior. Scratch mine.
LIZ MUNSELL: Jenny, so you weren’t there for that, then?
JENNY HOLZER: No, no—
LADY PINK: No, I would have welcomed tall Jenny there! She would have protected us.
GREG TATE: You know, it definitely speaks to that aspect of power, being abused by folks of our own community, which can be a surprise, from time to time.
LIZ MUNSELL: If we think of Keith Haring’s Pop Shop, and graffiti culture’s belief that everything can be a surface for art, a leather jacket or a T-shirt becomes a collective artwork, tagged up by everybody. So, it’s interesting to me, the multidisciplinary ways that you are all working in collaboration and centering the body in that, through having Pink as a model.
JENNY HOLZER: Colab had stores, too. It was part of Colab’s outreach to make relatively inexpensive stuff for anybody who wanted it. There was a nod to Claes Oldenburg’s store there too. I knew Claes a little bit and admired him, so that was somewhere kicking around.
LIZ MUNSELL: That leads to the ’82 Documenta project, right, Jenny, in collaboration with Fashion Moda?
JENNY HOLZER: Yep. Stefan and I parked in Kassel for a summer, and sold schlock.
LIZ MUNSELL: A-One and Toxic were part of the project, as was Oldenburg, and many others. This desire to work with so many different artists seems rooted in wanting to subvert these dominant systems for getting your message across. Would you both say that what brings you together, what you have in common, is this idea of wanting to get the message out there, to a public that wouldn’t necessarily see it, if it were just lodged in the white cube? Pink, you make large-scale murals now, and you are very dedicated to public space, and arts education. Jenny, you continue to work in public space in a big way too.
JENNY HOLZER: In addition to the occasional impulse to vandalize, as Pink says, there was a drive to inhabit public space to present content to a lot of people. Now I do light projections because I want to stay outside. These projections, because there’s soft, enveloping light, often are good for poetry, for example. They tend to have people stand close together at night, in a relatively safe, companionable way, to contemplate much of life together.
What was more in the spirit of the ’70s and the ’80s were the LED sign trucks I had traverse the country for the [recent] presidential election, and for the elections in Georgia. We presented text by many, many different people, declaring what’s tough all the way to what’s inspirational, in the service of having people vote, and getting a man out of the Oval Office, and a man and a woman out of office in Georgia. I also was fortunate to work with one of the Parkland students around gun violence. He was kind and able enough to help us know how to be sensitive and effective with the content of the gun trucks we launched: a hard-to-achieve combination.
LIZ MUNSELL: That’s an important point, because community collaboration, even up until today, continues to be a part of your practice as well, Pink. Are you still doing murals, and classes for young people?
LADY PINK: Yes. I keep getting the art education grant from the Martin Wong Foundation, every year; it comes in January, and then I can formulate my project for the year. The previous year was challenging; all the schools were closed and nothing was going on. But I managed to squeeze out a Black Lives Matter mural, with a high school, in the summertime. We painted a big mural with the theme that all these white kids chose. They were feeling it, they were feeling it strong, so we did a beautiful mural for Black Lives Matter. I’ve now signed up with a nonprofit arts space upstate, and I’ll be doing workshops through them. Ideally, I’d like to do a permanent installation. It’s my favorite thing to do, mentoring young people.
GREG TATE: Thank you both. For all the people who are kind of romantic about the ’80s, you’ve just given them a treasure trove—
JENNY HOLZER: Of skulls! And death! But of Amazons and flowers, too.
GREG TATE: Yes. Of death and murder and attacks.
JENNY HOLZER: Why don’t you title this “Witchcraft,” if I may presume?
LIZ MUNSELL: Perfect. Very feminist title, too. So, the only other very specific thing I would love to ask: How did the work from this series that is painted in 2004 come to be? That seems to be the only work in the series that was not created in the ’80s.
JENNY HOLZER: We couldn’t determine where the first reclining lady went. I don’t know where that painting is. So we thought to make another woman and we did. We wanted that lady, and so we made her.
LADY PINK: At this time, I had the space where I can stretch, and gesso, big canvas. And I knocked that out myself, and just shipped it to her, so she could have the text applied.
JENNY HOLZER: We had some practice by then!
GREG TATE: You had a rhythm going? Yeah.
LIZ MUNSELL: Amazing. So, is that to say that the collaboration is ongoing, or could be?
JENNY HOLZER: Sure. If my friend is willing.
LADY PINK: I’m always open to any ideas you have, Jenny.