Recently, Jenny Holzer’s work has been seen right here in Utah, both at the BYU Museum of Art and the Salt Lake Art Center. But those works were small compared to Holzer’s current exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art. The show was a reason to continue this trip’s theme, losing my museum virginity. With the Jewish Heritage Museum and the New Museum, this was the third museum on the agenda at which I was a first time visitor.
Before I get to Holzer’s work, a few words about the Whitney. Is it just me or is this the most unhappy museum ever? It’s protected by more gallery attendants than any museum I’ve been to. And none of them wears a jaunty tracksuit. Plus, they’re almost military in their policing of the galleries. I got within five feet of Holster Lustmord Table and was soundly chastised for getting too close. And that happened several times. It might not have felt so angry if the attendants had been more pleasant. But they were just downright grumpy.
However, I didn’t go to the Whitney to see the gallery attendants, thank goodness. I went to see the art. And Holzer’s show, Protect Protect, managed to rise well above the bitter gallery attendants.
Holzer uses words as an artistic medium. Her chosen texts are presented through a variety of means—some monumental like stone benches and lighted signs; some fleeting like t-shirts and billboards.
The exhibit features a variety of works including a large selection of Holzer’s “redaction” paintings. (a small grouping of these paintings was on view recently at the Salt Lake Art Center.) These paintings are large renditions of documents taken from the National Security Archive and the American Civil Liberties Union—collected through the Freedom of Information Act. Many of these documents relate to the Iraq war and although they include blacked-out information deemed too sensitive, they still tell compelling stories. I found these paintings tedious, somewhat like the Iraq war itself. I wonder how these will hold up over time.
The stars of the show are the spectacular electronic signs. As you enter the exhibit you’re confronted with the massive For Chicago (2008), composed of ten electronic LED signs with amber diodes. The signs scroll Holzer texts from 1997 through 2007. Their mesmerizing patterns fill the gallery with a warming glow and I found the work strangely calming.
Other works in the show are not so soothing, to the point that patrons prone to seizures are warned of the intense flashing and blinking. Take Monument (2008). I imagine this is what would happen if Dan Flavin and Donald Judd hooked up and had a talkative love child. The work consists of twenty double-sided, semi-circular electronic LED signs: eleven with red and white diodes on front and back; nine with red and blue diodes on front and white diodes on back. The signs scroll and flash two of Holzer’s text works, Truisms and Inflammatory Essays. I can see how it could induce seizures.
I was also captivated by Purple (2008), which consists of thirty-three, double-sided electronic LED signs: twelve with red and blue diodes on front and back; twenty-one with red and blue diodes on front and green and white diodes on back. This sign scrolled text from U.S. government documents, a favorite source for Holzer. This installation is psychedelic with words that melt into emotion.
In total, there were seven large electronic sign installations, making the Whitney feel like a minimalist’s dream of Times Square. Strangely satisfying since Times Square is just a few blocks away.