Born in 1955 in New York, Roni Horn grew up in the city and its suburbs. Her father was a pawnbroker in Harlem. She studied at the Rhode Island School of Design before earning an MFA from Yale University in 1978. Her first solo exhibition (outside the university) was held in 1980 at the Kunstraum München. Horn taught at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, for three years after completing her studies at Yale. She then returned to live in New York.
The diverse works Horn created in the 1970s included wedges of solid-colored glass set on shelves and an installation and Performance centered on an ant farm. After finishing graduate school, Horn made a journey into Iceland’s interior, where she traveled around by motorcycle. Her many trips to this nation have had a major impact on her oeuvre; there she attempted to capture the essence of this land of remarkable geological activity and of relative isolation from the forces of globalization.
Horn has made drawings in pigment and varnish, especially abstractions, throughout her career. In the 1980s, she worked on her sculpture series Pair Objects, in which identical geometric volumes, fabricated of metal, are displayed in two distinct spaces. Even though the sculptures themselves are the same in every way, the viewer’s experience of these “platonic forms,” as Horn calls them, differs as one’s expectations change after seeing the first of the pair.
In 1990 Horn began to develop an ongoing series of artist’s books named To Place, which explore her relationship to Iceland. By the end of 2001, she had produced eight volumes, along with additional, unrelated artist’s books. Horn has used some of her photographs in both books and photographic installations. For example, many of the images in You Are the Weather (1994–96)—one hundred close-ups of a young woman’s face, photographed as she bathed in a variety of Icelandic pools in diverse weather conditions—were published in one of the To Place volumes. The images, made during a six-week period of traveling, capture a sense of androgyny and, to Horn, eroticism.
During the 1990s, Horn also created a body of text-oriented sculptures, in which bars or blocks of aluminum are embedded with plastic letters that spell out quotes from the writings of Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, and others. Horn has noted the particular kinship she feels with Dickinson, who spent time working in seclusion. Beginning in 2000, Horn was using photography to explore the essence of water as well as questions of human identity and appearance.
The artist has created several public artworks, including You Are the Weather—Munich (1996–97), a permanent installation for the Deutscher Wetterdienst (meteorological bureau) in Munich. Yous in You (1997), a rubber-tiled walkway in Basel’s east train station, mimics an unusual basalt formation of Iceland. It was designed to introduce unexpected softness under commuters’ feet, as well as to bring a piece of Iceland into Switzerland. Library of Water (2007) was born out of Horn’s desire to renew the communal beaconlike quality of the dynamically situated and newly vacant library on the coastal edge of Akureyri, Iceland; the installation features a field of words in a rubber floor, an archive of Icelandic weather reports, and a series of columns containing water collected from the rapidly receding glaciers.
Horn’s numerous solo exhibitions include shows organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (1990), Kunstmuseum Winterthur in Switzerland (1993), Kunsthalle Basel and Kestnergesellschaft in Hannover (1995), Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (1999), Dia Center for the Arts (2001), Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (2003), and Art Institute of Chicago (2004). A major retrospective titled Roni Horn aka Roni Horn was organized by the Tate Modern and traveled to the Collection Lambert in Avignon and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 2009. Her work has been exhibited in several Reykjavik venues, as well as in group exhibitions including the Whitney Biennial (1991 and 2004), Documenta 9 (1992), Venice Biennale (1997 and 2003), Biennale of Sydney (1998), Moving Pictures at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (2002), and True North at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin (2008). Horn has received various awards, among them a Ford Foundation grant (1978) and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1984, 1986, and 1990) and John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (1990). In 2004 she was a visiting critic at Columbia University in New York, the city in which, along with Reykjavik, Horn continues to live and work.