A Times Square Art Excursion with Carole Teller
Jenny Holzer's "Truisms" found on Times Square theater marquees in 1995. archive.gvshp.org

A Times Square Art Excursion with Carole Teller

There are limitless things to discover among the astounding collections of photographs by Carole Teller in GVSHP’s Historic Image Archive. A resident of the East Village for over 50 years, Carole so beautifully and thoroughly documented her neighborhood’s architecture, daily life, and many quirks, we have had to dole it out in multiple parts (see Part I, Part II, Part III, and Carole’s collection of photos of the Godfather Part II being filmed on the streets of the East Village).

Jenny Holzer’s “Truisms” found on Times Square theater marquees in 1995, from GVSHP’s Carole Teller’s Changing New York Collection, Part IV archive.gvshp.org

But in our recently-added Part IV of her collection, we see that Carole also ventured north of her home, with about twenty fascinating images of Times Square in the 1990s (scroll down to the bottom of the collection to see where the Times Square images begin, or click here and scroll by clicking on “previous item” after viewing each image), many date-stamped August 31, 1995.  Much like her photographs of Lower Manhattan, these photos of the West 40s offer a look back at what has remained somewhat the same in this neighborhood, and what has changed dramatically.

You’ll notice in many of Carole’s Times Square photographs that the theater marquees on West 42nd Street have that classic black-on-white block lettering, but no show titles to be found. Instead, they display short, smack-you-in-the-face statements: “LIFE IS NOT A REHEARSAL”; “ART IS EITHER PLAGIARISM OR REVOLUTION”; “ALL FAREWELLS SHOULD BE SUDDEN”. These are just a few of hundreds of “Truisms” by artist Jenny Holzer (b. 1950), famed for her public, text-based works that challenge art-world convention and reveal the transformative power of words.

“Inflammatory Essays”, another of Holzer’s extensive projects. Credit: artnet News.

Holzer came to New York in 1976, after a quick stay at RISD’s MFA program, to participate in the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program. Intrigued by the brevity, rhetoric, and relative anonymity of the kinds of texts that surrounded her – advertisements, propaganda posters, new headlines, even textbook captions – she began to write her “Truisms”. This project allowed the artist to experiment with clichés and aphorisms, stepping into different personas (“feminist militant”; “callous Yuppie”; “buckeye sage”; and “psychobabbler”, for example) through her writings and (illegally) posting them around town in the middle of the night.

Into the 1980s she continued to explore other tones and formats – her “Inflammatory Essays” somewhat longer and much more emotionally charged, and her later “Survival” series more personally sincere – and in 1982 was selected by the Public Art Fund to create a piece for the enormous Spectacolor screen in Times Square. Her “Truisms” spoke to the passersby down below in huge flashing lights, raising questions about consumerism, politics, and our collective conscience in this most appropriate location.

Her name up in lights in the heart of Times Square. Credit: www.PublicArtFund.org

Another view of the Lyric Theater marquee, from GVSHP’s Carole Teller’s Changing New York Collection, Part IV archive.gvshp.org

Then in the early 1990s, as the theaters lining 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues sat empty waiting for the New 42nd Street organization to redevelop them), their marquees became temporary homes for Holzer’s work as well. Like the ones Carole Teller captured, Holzer’s “Truisms” engage readers in a strange sort of conversation or mental game. Especially viewed together, the reader might recognize that they cover a huge range of voices, topics, and conflicting views. They’re quick to consume yet strange to process. Broadcasting these proclamations on such public, traditionally impersonal platforms, Holzer tested the boundaries of art and its ability to inform. She strove to reveal a few things about how we are and how we think.

A portion of Holzer’s engraved pavers at the NYC AIDS Memorial. www.flickr.com/gvshp

And, bringing it all back to the Village, Holzer’s work now permanently lives here, in St. Vincent’s Triangle Park. Beneath the NYC AIDS Memorial canopy designed by Studio ai, Holzer placed granite pavers engraved with passages from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”, surrounding the central water feature and flanked by benches that honor the park’s major donors. Instead of quips or personal statements, Holzer began in the early 2000s to incorporate other writers’ words into her work. For the NYC AIDS Memorial project, she chose Whitman’s. She explained in an interview with Phaidon, “’Song’ has love, and lovely words overflowing, and represents ardent unashamed people abounding, people of all sorts, and that is how and what the memorial must be.”

Thank you, Carole, for sharing your photographs and leading us to discover all of these treasure troves of NYC history! View the rest of Carole Teller’s incredible photographs in Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

And check out the rest of the collections in our Historic Image Archive, prints of nearly all of which are available for sale, with proceeds benefitting GVSHP.

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Laura Fleischmann

Laura Fleischmann is a Program and Administrative Associate

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