Jenny Holzer returns to painting; discusses Russian Suprematism, women and the Arab Spring, secret military documents

Jenny Holzer (Dan Rosenblum)
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As an artist known for exploring the meaning of words and language, Jenny Holzer's new exhibition is based on the selective absence of text produced in declassified government documents.

In the series of 17 paintings that make up "Endgame," Holzer painted reproductions of several documents and replaced the black redaction boxes with colorful shapes. Some of them are only lightly covered up, giving, for example, clear guidelines on the use of waterboarding as an interrogation procedure. Others are less clear, horizontal bars of color fully obscuring military secrets.

Holzer dealt differently with the obstructions in each painting but the most unifying aspect among the paintings are the words "Top Secret," which are unredacted in every document Holzer painted. In the titular piece, the word "Endgame" is ominously left uncensored between paragraphs.

During last night's gallery opening, artists and collectors mingled at the Skarstedt Gallery on the Upper East Side. The well-to-do crowd befit a gallery across the street from Mayor Michael Bloomberg's townhouse. Three men walked up to Holzer and pulled out a small stack of her books from a crisp International Center of Photography bag. They asked her to sign the books and she happily obliged, then sat on a set of stairs to talk.

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Holzer said the series, which will be on view until April 7, was inspired by Russian Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich, whose geometrical fields can be seen influencing Holzer's paintings.

She said the work began with her "obsessing about Malevich and Suprematist art for, I don't know, 40 years and then deciding to emulate," before she decided "emulate" was too strong a word. "Try to come anywhere close after just admiring him," was her adjusted description.

It’s also Holzer’s first work of paintings in almost 40 years. She’s better known for short bursts of text projected onto buildings, scrolling LED lights or installations. Some of her most famous work involved truisms displayed in short bursts; her most recent exhibition, “Protect Protect” included Enter the Void-style flashing lights and L.E.D.s. PATH commuters may recognize her work on the scrolling collection of poems that glare through the lobby of 7 World Trade Center.

“I haven’t painted since I left grad school at RISD, so, a long time away,” she said. “I always wanted to be a painter, but it took a while to ramp up the courage.”

She said sad times brought on the series, which merged the optimism of revolution and the sense of disappointment that can follow.

“Thinking about the hopes attendant with the Russian revolution and, you know, what was going on with Russia in art and poetry, for example. With how sad things have been recently in the Middle East and for any number of people who live in the Middle East or who fought there or who returned from fighting there. The arrows of happiness are moving in a very different direction,” she said. “It’s not a kind time, now.”

She said she had “sober hopes” about the Arab Spring and said it was hard to predict the outcome of the revolutions there.

“I’m worried about what’s going to happen to the women, for example,” she said. “That much is clear, that much I’m sure about. It’s not looking so good for the ladies, ‘spring’ or no. It never looks as good as it should for the ladies.” (At that last bit, she let out a laugh.)

Other anxieties informed the series of paintings, which she began in 2005, as she dug through archives of documents released in freedom of information requests. She said that at the time she was looking for information that wasn’t appearing in newspapers, particularly about techniques used by the military in the Middle East; more recently she’s been transfixed with fully redacted information or “cruciform-like” selections of documents.

“So I’ve been looking at black shapes recently,” Holzer said.

Because her process involved reproducing redacted documents rather than effecting the redaction with her brush, Holzer is as much in the dark about what messages her paintings are secreting as the viewer is.

“When the paintings are the ones that have more information sometimes the content is addressed,” she said. “With these, it’s more like, ‘I wonder what was behind there’ and I say ‘I do too.’”

When she was finished with her presnetation, she got up and spoke with some of the people in the gallery. The crowd tightened and hung around the table offering champagne and sparkling water. One viewer said he was thinking about a painting from a document about interrogation techniques that referred to "mental pain."

“That was interesting, the fact that they went to such lengths to distinguish mental pain from physical pain,” said Arthur Nguyen, 30.

Sothebys Institute student Christy Humer, 38, said art was a way to bring issues out of the news and into a different context.

"It shoves it into your face in a totally different context and setting, and so it kind brings it back,” she said.

Another viewer, Matt Ruby, a video producer from Brooklyn in his 30s, said he found the pieces interesting, but was less of a fan of the conceptual art on display and more into soulful, escapist pieces.

"I already think too much," he said. "I want things that help me not think."