The lights of Times Square seem to have made their way into a museum. Bring your sunglasses and head to Madison Avenue and East 75th Street. Now through May 31, 2009 at the Whitney Museum of American Art is an exhibition of Jenny Holzer’s work entitled, Protect Protect. Known for incorporating text into her artwork, Holzer uses language in a variety of ways in this exhibition in her benches, paintings and electronic displays. Included in the exhibition are a number of electronic sign pieces (LED works) comprised of text scrolling across horizontal screens grouped in particular arrangements. This use of flowing text in lights recollects newsreels or advertisements yet they are manipulated into works of art or projects with multiple reels and personalized in their color, font, word placement and other spatial and visual concerns.
The first and largest work in the show, For Chicago, 2008 includes 10 rows of text playing on large, flat screens laid out across the floor in the center of the exhibition. The text comes from Holzer’s earlier writing, including Truisms, 1977-79, Inflammatory Essays, 1979-82, and other text works done between 1997 and 2001. Truisms, Holzer’s term for short, catchy groups of words are sometimes just random phrases and other times are well known sayings. The artist has displayed them in various ways over time, on benches and in paintings as well as in her LED pieces. In For Chicago, Holzer then transforms the words and phrases into a super-highway of information as the yellow words (the color of the center divider on a roadway) fly across their black pathways, often running in both directions. They seem to be telling us about traffic and the urgent need to be somewhere faster than is possible. “I am losing ground.” “I am losing time.”
The other LED pieces in the exhibition physically incorporate themselves into the structure of the space in different ways. Green Purple Cross & Blue Cross occupy the corner of the next room with crisscrossing display panels forming a cobweb-like maze at the intersection of the two walls. Across the room, Monument encompasses twenty semicircular electronic LED screens stacked, one atop the other like a silo beginning a foot and a half off the ground, to the ceiling with each projecting its text in red or blue.
In sharp visual contrast to the bright lights and flash of the LED displays, Holzer has done a series of paintings called the Redaction Paintings, 2005-09. The text reproduced and presented in these paintings comes from a source Holzer has been using since 2004: declassified pages from United States government documents. My first look at one of the paintings this afternoon was arresting. The text seemed to perfectly mimic the front page of today’s paper with the story of the Obama administration’s release of CIA torture memos of prisoners during the Bush era. Talk of forced grooming, sleep deprivation, removal of clothing and using prisoners’ phobias (such as the fear of dogs or bugs) to induce stress appear in the news today and on the walls of the Whitney in Holzer’s prescient Redaction Paintings as if they were done just today with current events in mind. The works are executed in black and white and incorporate typed and handwritten memos, palm prints and emails with the names of the parties and other high confidential details blocked out for security purposes prior to declassification. Some of the pieces include identifiers such as “Secret” or “Unclassified.”
In the next three LED display pieces Holzer incorporated the text of the U.S. government documents, rather than her own writing, in Thorax, 2008, Red Yellow Looming, 2008 and Purple, 2008. The pieces serve as vibrant yet silent protests of the tragedies uncovered in the government files. Interspersed throughout the room of paintings are Holzer’s signature benches with text phrases carved into the seats.
Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York City.