Jenny Holzer: Protect Protect at the Whitney Museum for American Art
March 12 to May 31, 2009
45 Madison Avenue at 75th Street
New York City, 212 570 3600
Jenny Holzer Green Purple Cross 2008 and Blue Cross 2008. Three double-sided electronic LED signs (two with blue and green diodes on front and blue and red diodes on back and one with blue and red diodes on front and blue and green diodes on back); and seven double-sided electronic LED signs with blue diodes on front and blue and red diodes on back, 59 x 122 5/8 x 100 11/16 inches and 85 13/16 x 109 x 100 11/16 inches © 2009 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY Photo: Lili Holzer-Glier
Although Jenny Holzer’s writing has often been the main focus of critics describing her art, her new and literally brilliant show makes it clear that she is as much a colorist as she is a provider of weighty aphorisms. Perhaps a reading closest to the truth would see her as an inspirational maker of active intellectual environments, whose effectiveness is far greater than the sum of their parts. At this point in time, there is a tradition of political resistance among artists—a legacy Holzer herself is partly responsible for—in the face of our government’s excessive force and anachronistically imperial ambitions. Taking our involvement in Iraq as her cue, Holzer has produced a truly political show, in which blacked-out secret document paintings and darkened handprints of persons suspected of torture add up to a bleak disregard for our military excursion. At the same time, her use of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) show her to be aware of the medium’s remarkably beautiful color, which according to both artist and curators stem from such high-brow sources as Matisse and Rothko.
It seems to me somewhat exaggerated to tie modernist painting to so demotic an idiom as the LED, which after all is a technology more than a material. But maybe that is not really Holzer’s point—she wants the diodes to reach as many people as possible, and, equally important, she wants to communicate as much as possible with her writings. Her desires are best credited as fashioning an art for the people, albeit one whose elliptical resonance and actual radiance transcends by far any simplistic propaganda. “Protect Protect,” the name of Holzer’s retrospective, offers little in the way of solace—the artist even has a small desk with human bones on it to emphasize Iraqi deaths at the hands of American interrogators—but instead brilliantly dwells on the way language is debased, nearly made abstract, in military papers that objectively describe the torture of Iraqi detainees.
Her aphorisms are generalizations with political intent; as writing they clearly are limited—a view to which Holzer herself admits. But in the long trays of LEDs that Yellow Floor (2004) is composed of, a simple saying such as “Truth before Power,” repeated in amber lights, suddenly becomes visually mesmerizing as the texts make their way, slightly off sync, across the floor. The phrases come from sources as disparate as the artist’s Truisms (1977) or from a 1968 issue of Studies in Intelligence. Clearly we are meant to meditate on language’s power to compel or discourage truth in a public context. Yet as curator Elizabeth A. T. Smith points out in her catalogue essay, we do Holzer a disservice if we address her politics alone. Her always-inventive use of the LEDs has become, in the recent works on view, a tour de force. The lights possess an uncanny beauty—a beauty that sits in stark contrast to the often-grim written materials displayed.
The real achievement of Holzer is her ongoing melding of inspired imagination and hard fact; the two attitudes both contradict and build upon each in more and more sophisticated syntheses, which are meant to dazzle our eye and prod our ethics. The damage that has been done in Iraq is accurately noted in Holzer’s art, but there is also the sheer joy of the lights as they blaze their way across their supports. It is not that one is more affecting than the other, although for more than three decades now Holzer has been documenting the social ills of our time. She is angry with what the American government and military has done, but she never looses sight of the seductions of her art. Even her covered-up palm print paintings exude a strange attractiveness. It is both ironic and compelling that such images engulf our aesthetic sensitivities even as we struggle to stay focused and politically aware.