Continuing through October 21, 2023
Perhaps more than any other artist working today, Jenny Holzer has demonstrated time and time again that words matter. Since the late 1970s, the New York-based artist has employed a variety of mediums to insert provocative phrases, either written by her or appropriated from other sources, into the public sphere. Notable examples of her language-based interventions have included electronic messaging using the Spectacolor board in Times Square, projections on buildings, printed sayings on billboards, posters, and tee-shirts, and pithy food for thought engraved on the seats of stone benches.
Musing on philosophical or political topics, Holzer usually presents her texts in capital letters, stressing the urgency of what is being articulated. In the current exhibition, the temperature of that urgency seems to have risen several degrees, as Holzer examines the unsettling language associated with Trumpism, QAnon conspiracy theory, and artificial intelligence.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is “WTF “(2022), an imposing, physically threatening kinetic LED sculpture that swings back and forth jarringly, like a hybrid by Jean Tinguely and Mark di Suvero. The messages that stream across it electronically are actual tweets by Donald Trump and posts by Q, the leader of QAnon, written during the Trump presidency. According to Holzer’s calculated strategy that links one work to another, “WTF” is aligned directly above the floor-to-wall scatter piece “CURSED” (2022), composed of 296 metal plates that were crumpled, folded, pierced, and bathed in chemicals so as to resemble aged and damaged “curse tablets,” which in Greco-Roman times were inscribed with citizen’s wishes for vengeance and curses aimed at their enemies.
Positioned behind these two sculptures is a painting that viewers will likely never see up close, unless they dare to risk stepping on the curse tablets or being hit by the moving LED beam. Entitled “RUSSIA” (2022), this oil and metal leaf painting from Holzer’s “Redaction” series (ongoing since 2005) is structured much like a Mark Rothko abstraction, yet its composition is actually a literal enlargement of a completely redacted declassified document — a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) communication about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election — that was made available through the Freedom of Information Act. In turning to declassified government papers as a source for art, Holzer shares an affinity with Arnold Mesches (1923-2016), who obtained the actual documents that the F.B.I. kept on him during the McCarthy Era and then transformed them into collages and paintings that he called “The F.B.I. Files” (2000-03).
Among the declassified documents replicated in Holzer’s paintings, the earliest appears in “COMPELLENCE” (2023), which shows the text of a graphic insert from a 1997 publication issued by the National Security Agency (NSA) that warns of threats posed by cyber warfare, a new area of concern at the time.
In being faithful to the original source, Holzer has put aside her preference for capital letters and positioned phrases such as “weapons of mass destruction” and “Connect At Your Own Risk!” exactly as they appear in the source, appearing to float and spin randomly on the page. As in all of the “Redaction Paintings,” the text is immersed within and somewhat obfuscated by a reflective metal leaf surface that seduces us into paying attention.
In “COPY” and ”WORKING COPY” (both 2023), Holzer examines fully redacted pages from F.B.I. documents pertaining to the 2001 Patriot Act, a Congressional response to the events of 9/11 that increased governmental reach in the areas of surveillance, counter-terrorism communications, and penalties for terrorist crimes. Like “RUSSIA,” these paintings are sumptuous abstractions based on information that was too sensitive to disclose once declassified. Within this context, the gilded patinas suggest that power and wealth go hand in hand with secrecy, while reminding us that an adversary might be willing to pay an enormous price for access to the redacted information.
Holzer directs our attention to defining moments of Trump’s presidency in two paintings where some or all of the original text is exposed. “ACCESS HOLLYWOOD” (2021) replicates a redacted page from “The Mueller Report” entitled “WikiLeaks’s October 7, 2016 Release of Stolen Podesta Emails.” To emphasize the historical significance of the source document, the painting is installed under a skylight on a tilted platform on the floor, like a didactic plaque that might identify a national monument.
By contrast, the wall-mounted painting “READY FOR YOU” (2022) is based on an unofficial document, a handwritten note from an aide that was handed to Trump just before his January 6, 2021 pep talk at the Ellipse. It reads “THEY ARE READY FOR YOU WHEN YOU ARE.”
A new subject in Holzer’s oeuvre is artificial intelligence (AI), which is examined in the paintings “ACCELERATED” and “TACKLE HUMANITY’S BIGGEST CHALLENGES” (both 2023). The infographic charts in these works are from a report by the US National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) about both the threats and benefits of AI. Controversies surrounding the new genre have dominated the news lately, and are symptomatic of the larger dichotomy that runs through today’s national politics, dividing those who favor democracy from those who lean towards authoritarianism.
Viewing this split as an example of coexistent parallel universes, Holzer dramatically captures the essential spirit of each in her LED columns “GOOD” and “BAD” (both 2023), the texts of which were actually created using AI. The former streams words associated with pleasantries and utopian ideals; they were produced by an AI generator prompted with written material on related topics. The latter was fed excerpts from extremist literature and asked to produce statements and cryptic poems in the rhetorical style of the political alt- and far-right. Both columns are motorized, with words streaming upwards, yet there are important distinctions that reveal differing temperaments. Although it rotates clockwise and counterclockwise, “GOOD” is more stable and lyrical, as it doesn’t tilt or swing, and its text appears in pastel colors. “BAD,” on the other hand, spins erratically at an angle, with its words mostly grayscale save for occasional flashes of red. Once again, Holzer brilliantly uses the latest technology to confront us with disturbing truths about our present moment.