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Street Art in the Age of Basquiat: Jenny Holzer and Lady Pink on Streetwise Feminisms, Satanism, and Reaganomics

The following is part of a series of interviews with key figures in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s downtown New York circle in the 1980s. The interviews were conducted in February by Museum of Fine Arts Boston curator Liz Munsell and writer and musician Greg Tate, who together curated the exhibition “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation,” on view at the MFA through July 25. ARTnews will publish four interviews from the series each day this week.

In Downtown New York of the early ’80s, radically minded artists associated with graffiti art and post-punk/new wave had become unlikely bedfellows and allies in a mission to locate art in the streets, where people from all backgrounds could access it. On the flip side, artists associated with graffiti were demanding and generating access to galleries, and exhibiting their work inside white cubes as part of the post-graffiti movement. Within this mix, an intersectional collaboration between artists Jenny Holzer and Lady Pink, fueled by feminist values and mutual admiration, broke down racial, cultural, generational, and aesthetic barriers that are still, to this day, erected high and low between the so-called fine art world and so-called street art. Holzer was a member of the artist collective Colab that created projects in abandoned spaces, and an established conceptual and street artist with a solo practice across media—from stickering to the Times Square Spectacolor board. Lady Pink was a talented teenage wonderchild who began exhibiting in art galleries at age 16 while creating mural-size works on trains. She was also studying at New York City’s prestigious High School of Art and Design—an epicenter for young graffiti “writers” in the ’70s. In 1983, Jenny invited Lady Pink to collaborate on a series of a dozen paintings whose scale referenced the muralism that was happening on the trains. These collaborative works were overlaid with Jenny’s own Survival series texts that spoke loud and true to the brutality of a New York in decay and the beauty of resilience. This is their first interview on the series since 1983. –Liz Munsell and Greg Tate

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Swiss art collector Uli Sigg pictured

LIZ MUNSELL: When and where did you meet?

JENNY HOLZER: I sought you out, maybe through Weird John’s pet store across the street from where I lived, where Lee [Quiñones] worked. Maybe that was the route?

LADY PINK: Yeah, I remember those guys, yeah. The pet store. Uh-huh.

JENNY HOLZER: John’s store had something to do with getting together. Anyway, I was very glad when Pink materialized, so that the legend was present.

LIZ MUNSELL: And what were your impressions of one another at the time? What differences did you have? And what brought you together? Jenny, you alluded to Pink being mythical (and perhaps strategically evasive). Both of you are known to be avid feminists.

JENNY HOLZER: Differences: Pink had swagger. I prefer to be at least semi-invisible. Similarities: neither of us apologize for women, or for being female.

Jenny Holzer and Lady Pink on

Contact sheet of portraits of Jenny Holzer and Lady Pink, ca. 1980s.
Photographer unknown/Courtesy Jenny Holzer Studio

LIZ MUNSELL: Pink, you’ve spoken to me in past interviews about Jenny being one of the only other females on the scene, if not the only one, working in public space.

LADY PINK: Jenny was the only other female that went out and did things at night, on other people’s properties. I painted, she did postering. But she was one of the few … and she got away with it more because she was taller, so wearing a big, heavy coat, and a hoodie, and stuff like that, you could pass off as a big guy. But I was always very petite and small and had to run with a pack of rug rats to watch my back!

JENNY HOLZER: We both got it done. We’re both pretty good after-midnight skulkers.

Graffiti artist Lady Pink photographed in Times Square, July 1983, wearing a t-shirt by Jenny Holzer displaying one of Holzer's Truisms (1977-79)

Graffiti artist Lady Pink photographed in Times Square, July 1983, wearing a t-shirt by Jenny Holzer displaying one of Holzer’s Truisms (1977-79) Photo © 1983 LISA KAHANE, NYC  All Rights Reserved
Lisa Kahane

GREG TATE: Yeah. You guys collaborated at the onset of the Reagan presidency. Looking at the feminist messaging in the work, the confrontation with the abuse of women, you’re also confronting militarism and imperialism, and the resultant death urge of murder, massacre, under that administration. And I’m wondering how much you guys talked about the politics of the moment, when you discussed your collaboration?

JENNY HOLZER: One thing we spoke about, because it became omnipresent under Reagan, was how Reagan’s economic policies put so many people out living on the street. On the Lower East Side, in a subway station, I recall seeing a woman and her two kids sleeping on a subway bench night after night. That was a topic, because the evidence was right there, and horrible, and growing.

GREG TATE: So, there was a dialogue with one another. How did the process work, in terms of you guys generating work?

LADY PINK: I don’t recall … I had pretty much a lot of freedom to paint whatever I wanted. Jenny would apply one of her texts [from her Survival series] to what I painted. And then the sign painter came in, who I don’t recall ever having met, but then she came in and applied the text that Jenny chose.

JENNY HOLZER: Sometimes Pink would come packing her great Amazon figures; giant ladies were always most welcome. Once in a while I would have an idea for the picture. An example would be building from Susan Meiselas images [the American documentary photographer who worked in Central America during the Nicaraguan Contra war and the civil war in El Salvador]. I had books of Susan’s and I proffered those, and Pink would riff on them. Other images, I have no idea where they came from but I’m glad they arrived! Then [signpainter and artist] Ilona Granet would visit to paint text after Pink had done the images. By Ilona’s arrival I had figured out what text might resonate, or at least be a counterpoint. Sometimes Ilona would take suggestions from me about what kind of font to use where. Other times she would contribute her own very good graphic and placement sense. Ilona had it going. Still does.

LIZ MUNSELL: So that actually circles back to Greg’s question about the Reagan administration. Can you both speak to your awareness of, and involvement in, any activism against the Reagan administration’s interventions in Nicaragua at the time?

JENNY HOLZER: I didn’t do anything directly about Nicaragua but maybe the paintings, using Susan’s fantastic, dire images, offered awareness that could do oblique good when the works were put in front of people. I tried to prevent Reagan’s election in 1984 with Sign on a Truck [an 18-foot electronic board, mounted on a truck, that displayed images, quotes and statements] but that sure didn’t work.

LADY PINK: I didn’t have any activism that I was involved in. I tagged along on a few events, but I wasn’t into that kind of stuff. Or even being aware of what politics, or anything, was going on.

Jenny Holzer and Lady Pink on

Jenny Holzer and Lady Pink: Tear Ducts Seem to be a Grief Provision Text: Survival, 1983-85.
Private collection, Switzerland/© Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

GREG TATE: Well, talk about the inspiration for this recombining flowers and skulls and death’s heads in flowers? Those are pretty epic … I mean, the two paintings we have in the [MFA Boston] show are epic in scale, and really bold and audacious, and confrontational, I would even say.

LADY PINK: I was reading somewhere that [quoted me in the ’80s saying] I had painted the skulls in tribute to a friend of mine who was arrested with a bag of human skulls, back in ’77. I don’t have any memory of my motivation for any of those paintings.

JENNY HOLZER: The skulls make an incredible image, and I salute you for it. And I love the story, whether it’s accurate or not, so stick with it.

LADY PINK: Well, it probably is. That was a heavy thing. The article mentioned something about voodoo. I think that’s wrong; it’s more like witchcraft, not voodoo. White people’s stuff, not voodoo. One of the other paintings was a statement about the same friend who was murdered in 1983 at the age of 24 because he had been involved in a witch cult. When he witnessed a human sacrifice he left the witch cult and was talking to the media about it. And they had him killed. So, you know, stuff like that, when you’re a kid, it sticks with you; that’s some heavy-duty, powerful stuff. You lose a friend, people die, they get arrested, human skulls, witch cults, human sacrifices; that’s some pretty deep stuff. So I can see why that motivated some of those paintings.

GREG TATE: Got it. Got it.

LIZ MUNSELL: That’s very charged, Pink. Yeah, that quote came from the East Village Eye, in ’83, from you. And Jenny, not to get into super dark subjects here, but, interestingly, in that same article, you said …

JENNY HOLZER: Wait … wait. I have one happy flower story; let me not be me for a moment. In addition to the skull zone, once I went to a flower shop and came back to the loft with any number of posies, including the orchid that wound up in the painting in your show. So, in between voodoo, people with their children sleeping in the subway, Reaganomics, murder, and associated, there were some posies.

LADY PINK: Oh, I did a still life? Wow! Okay.

JENNY HOLZER: Remember that? Like a big bundle of flowers.

Jenny Holzer and Lady Pink on

Jenny Holzer and Lady Pink: When You Expect Fair Play You Create an Infectious Bubble of Madness, 1983-84.
© Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Courtesy Sprüth Magers

LADY PINK: I don’t remember that I had a real, actual bouquet of flowers; I thought I made up that image.

GREG TATE: Yeah. Yeah. I mean it’s fascinating to think about us imposing the lens of Reagan and Nicaragua on these pieces. And you’re really dealing with some extreme violence that was happening very close to home. Which also speaks to New York, in that period of time, and the range of violence that could occur inside the city, interacting with all its various secret societies, as it were. I’m curious, though, about, what was the respective response in your communities to your collaborations? What did you hear from your colleagues? What do you remember the critics’ response being? And so forth.

JENNY HOLZER: I recall there were a number of groups in sometimes loose, sometimes close association. [The collective] Colab was a very mixed bunch of artists, who at times did things with your people, Pink, the graffiti wonders. And then there were older people, now-ancient people like me, who had been geeking out in the ’70s about what [Daniel] Buren had done outdoors, and about conceptual, text-based work like Larry Weiner’s. I was particularly fond of Weiner’s output. And then, of course, there was the club scene.

There was a fair amount of movement, in and around and through these groups. I found it a really, really interesting time, if sometimes utterly frightening, courtesy of what you were talking about: the violence, the poverty, the likelihood of being assaulted, politics at large, international politics. Much downtown activity was not driven by money, though, and that was a beautiful thing in this part of the art world. When people were working it was because they were compelled to create, they had to proffer, and they needed to show reality—and better alternatives—to as many people as possible. Not bad.

Jenny Holzer and Lady Pink on

Photograph of (left to right) John Fekner, Jenny Holzer, David Wojnarowicz, Keith Haring, and Michael Smith
Photo David Lubarksy/Courtesy John Fekner Research Archive

LADY PINK: There was a big crossover in the early ’80s, between the graffiti “writers” and what we now refer to as the street artists: everyone from John Fekner, Jenny Holzer, even Martin Wong, Richard Hambleton, all of these guys, Keith Haring, Basquiat, they all worked in different modes than we did. We were the real tribal group that did fonts in spray paint, and we loved to hit things on wheels—like trains and stuff that moved. And then there were all the other street artists. They were always trying to call Keith Haring a graffiti writer, and he always resisted that. He worked with chalk, he was an anomaly. He didn’t do fonts and letter, and his name. But there was no other name to call him back then. John Fekner with the stencils, and Jenny Holzer with the posters, and Richard Hambleton with his splatted people. Those are not graffiti writers. Now we refer to them as street artists, and now, the graffiti writers, we’re being called that as well. In the same way that rock and roll is described, [street art] has its own categories and genres as well. There’s metal and pop and funk and disco, and even hip-hop is rock and roll, it’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And everyone is very different and distinct, but it’s all called rock and roll.

We all share the same grassroots desire to get arrested for messing with other people’s properties! The same kind of vandalism spirit lives in us all. But there’s different mediums; there’s rubber bands, and glass, and metal, and wood. And posses of old ladies doing knit-bombing, of all things; getting arrested for knitting and putting it where it doesn’t belong. And now Jenny Holzer can easily be called a street artist. That’s the term for it.

JENNY HOLZER: Ilona was a street artist, too. She painted alternative signs and stuck them on sign poles.

LADY PINK: How cool is that? I love that. Yeah.

LIZ MUNSELL: I know that Colab was one of the things that inspired Jenny to work in public space. Jenny, do you think you were influenced by seeing graffiti culture on the trains, and seeing young people taking over the subway system, as one of the largest systems for circulating artwork ever imagined in the history of art (to paraphrase Rammellzee)? Do you think you were influenced by graffiti culture, as well as the post-punk, postering, public-space takeovers that were happening at the time?

JENNY HOLZER: I certifiably was inspired by graffiti culture and practice. It was exemplary and effective, and omnipresent in the best possible way. I also thought about people who would get up on a soapbox at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, in London, or anybody proclaiming in any park anywhere. Or about the American anarchists who would be compelled to say or demonstrate something in public. So that was on my mind as well as what the conceptual artists did, and of course what Colab wanted, bringing art with content to as many different sorts of individuals as could be reached.

Jenny Holzer and Lady Pink on

View of the exhibition “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation,” showing (on walls) works by Jenny Holzer and Lady Pink.
Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

LIZ MUNSELL: To get back to the question of the skulls—sorry—before we move on to happier topics: TEAR DUCTS SEEM TO BE A GRIEF PROVISION, the skulls painting, seems to be one of the first you made together, as well as the one whose text reads “SOME MEN THINK WOMEN ARE EXPENDABLE, THEY FUCK THEM, KILL THEM AND THROW THEM AWAY LIKE CANDY WRAPPERS.” Jenny, can you speak to what inspired the text of that painting?

JENNY HOLZER: The inspiration was that I knew way too many—forgive me—fucked women. I knew about way too many murdered women. So that was horribly available, that firsthand, secondhand, and acquired knowledge.

LADY PINK: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

LIZ MUNSELL: You had mentioned the murder of a close friend in that East Village Eye interview, and I’m sorry for that context informing this painting. But obviously, the making visible of it … Pink, you said you’re not an activist, but I consider this absolutely a form of activism.

JENNY HOLZER: Claim it, Pink; you are!

LADY PINK: Okay. Okay.

GREG TATE: Yeah. Yeah.

LIZ MUNSELL: So, shifting topics to process, for the art history nerds out there: Who would prepare the canvases? Who would decide the scale of these works? And who would bring the spray paint and any other materials, and choose the palette?

LADY PINK: Jenny would prepare the canvas. She would choose the scale, because it was already pinned up on the wall, and gessoed, and sanded three times; I believe she did that by hand, by herself, I’m pretty sure. And I would bring the spray paint. And the palette: I’d bring a big bag, as much as I could carry, with a broad range of colors, and then I would see what happens.

LIZ MUNSELL: Anything to add about scale, Jenny? It’s interesting because… it’s not like you were making canvases, left and right, for other purposes.

JENNY HOLZER: Yeah. I had already quit painting once or twice by that stage because I was so bad at it! So, it was such a relief to meet Pink and have her paint. I limited myself to preparing the canvases, which we made as big as the walls, so the works fit the walls. The extra-large scale seemed right for the Amazon women and the trouble we portrayed.

LADY PINK: Well, for spray paint, we need a big surface; the bigger the better. A two-story building, I prefer. But a ten-foot canvas lent itself to the spray paint just fine.

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