Apr 03, 2008 Nancy Keefe Rhodes Uncategorized
Jenny Holzer’s “Memorandum for Condoleezza Rice Green” on view at the Everson Museum, 401 Harrison St., from April 4, coinciding with the sixth annual Fine Arts & Flowers Weekend. Gallery and Museum Shop open Tuesday-Friday & Sunday: noon to 5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. everson.org or 474.6064. Lunchtime gallery talk on Jenny Holzer with senior curator Debora Ryan on Tuesday, April 22 at noon.
Jenny Holzer’s ‘Memorandum’ on view from April 4:
The first thing you notice about Jenny Holzer’s “Memorandum for Condoleezza Rice Green” is that its picture doesn’t do it justice. Since the 1970s Holzer has been producing distinctive and very public art based on text that has employed photographic documentation — often striking in itself — because of where she’s placed it and its often passing nature: stickers, T-shirts, billboards, the Times Square Jumbutron and Las Vegas Caesar’s Palace, 42nd Street movie theater marquees, nighttime light projections on buildings, the sides of ships and even bodies of water, and scrolling electronic light LED installations. But this new work — one of a series of 32 oil-on-linen silk screen paintings first exhibited in New York and published as “Redaction Paintings” in 2006 — is something you want to see in person. When you do, you might have to go back two, even three times, it is that commanding.
For one thing, its green — like sunlight through leaves — is far more vivid, more sheerly pleasurable, in person. Then the experience of reading this enormously enlarged, once secret text sinks in — a declassified and censored letter from the National Security Council’s Richard A. Clarke, dated some eight months before Sept. 11, 2001 in which he outlines the serious threat of “al Qida.” It is at once “exacting and lovely”- one part of what Holzer said, during the PBS “Art 21” interview that broadcast last November, that she aims for — the other part being a hoped-for “recoil” among viewers.
The Redaction Paintings are large-scale replicas of official US documents declassified through FOIA requests (Freedom of Information Act, 1966), which focus particularly on the war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq and controversial management of the detainees at Guantanamo. As a prelude to this series of paintings, in 2004 Holzer included some projections of declassified government documents with heavily blacked out — “redacted” — chunks of censored text in “Truth Before Power,” a multi-media installation in Austria. Speaking by phone recently from her home in Hoosick Falls, east of Albany, she said she had come to these FOIA documents “in the least likely of ways.”
“I was asked,” she recalled, “by, I think it was ‘Wired’ Magazine, to think of a new design for Google’s start page. I wondered what I should put there. I thought, oh I should feature really juicy secrets so that anytime people would log on they would read something that they never knew. I went looking for secrets and found many documents released courtesy of the Freedom of Information Act. Once I started reading I couldn’t stop because, as many are, I am curious about what we are doing in the Middle East.”
Leaf through “Redacted Paintings” in book form — the Everson has its own copy and director Sandra Trop was not certain last week if the museum’s shop will carry the volume for sale — and you might miss some of the shock of the enormous paintings in person, but not the deepening saturation of what Robert Storr in his introduction writes about as the “ostensibly unscripted but consistently patterned mayhem [that is] part of the cost of doing business in support of America’s fight for democracy.”
Besides the Condoleezza Rice “Memorandum,” these include “Phoenix” (an FBI agent notices, two months pre-Sept. 11, 2001 an unusual number of Middle Eastern men in Arizona flight schools); George Bush on the Geneva Conventions in the era of a “new paradigm” of terrorism; a lengthy string of e-mails among Guantanamo officers debating a “wish list” of interrogation techniques to which one answers, “We need to take a deep breath and remember who we are” (absurdly, the text of Psalm 24:3-8, which he quotes, is blacked out, though the citation enabling you to look it up remains); Colin Powell’s entirely redacted response to one policy proposal; a father’s letter to a commanding officer insisting that his son, under court-martial proceedings, is not a criminal; an 11-panel series called “Herder” on microfiche-like dark background with white letters — the copying technology that fades when exposed to light – that assembles various witness depositions about the death of a farmer shot running from US troops; four dispassionate, graphic autopsy reports labeling detainee deaths “homicides”; some blacked-out finger-print charts.
Beyond this particular series, Holzer has done similar silk screen paintings that replicate declassified military maps that, for example, divide Iraq into zones designated as “protect,” “exploit,” or “suppress” — recalling Redhouse’s recent “Atlas of Radical Cartography” exhibit — and a haunting pair of left and right full palm prints taken from one dead detainee — reminding us with a shiver of recognition that perhaps the original “text,” the first human “signature,” was the palm print left by that prehistoric painter on those cave walls at Lascaux.
In relating the Everson’s acquisition process, senior curator Debora Ryan shared photos of the “Protect” map and the detainee palm prints — works considered before she, director Sandra Trop and curator of education and public programs Pam McLaughlin, after a series of trips to New York City, agreed on proposing the “Memorandum for Condoleezza Rice Green” to a committee of staff, community and board members and then the Everson Board itself for final approval. (The Holzer was purchased with funds from the Director’s Discretionary Acquisition Fund, gifted by Robert B. Fagenson of New York City. Because of security issues the museum’s policy is not to diclose the price of aquisitions.)
“Our purchases are few and far between,” Ryan said. “Jenny Holzer has been on our wish list. Some of her LEDs and the carved benches such she installed at the Venice Biennale are beyond our means. But the paintings are so new that they’re not in museums yet, and it’s a real new departure in her work, clearly not a whim.”
Ryan said the Holzer met criteria for purchases at this level — the first since the Everson acquired a Robert Motherwell in 2004-05.
“It’s not actually based on ‘liking’ the art in the usual way. First, it has to meet the Everson’s mission for concentrating on American art. Then it has to fill a gap in our permanent collection. This is probably one of three pieces we have that’s from the 21st century — since 2000.
Third, it has to be in such a condition that it doesn’t require conservation, which can be quite expensive. We can more than justify the cost as a good investment. The gallery gave us above the usual 20 percent discount in December 2007 and Jenny Holzer’s prices actually doubled in January. So it was timely too.”
Director Sandra Trop reflected last week, “The Everson has specialized in ceramics but also has a decent contemporary collection. The Motherwell is almost what I’d call historic because of the length of his career. But this is hot! She’s been at the Venice Biennale twice. There’s a major retrospective of her work coming up in Chicago. The Everson hasn’t gotten something like this in years. Young people will see it, it’ll create conversation. And I’m gonna get notes! Some people will say, ‘How could you?’ Others will ask, ‘What took you so long?'”
The Holzer painting goes on view tomorrow as part of the Everson’s sixth annual Fine Arts and Flowers Weekend, the museum’s major gala spring fund-raiser. Ryan says she knows that some viewers will ask whether the Holzer painting is “art.” She has a model of the upstairs galleries in her office where she’s developed the exhibit in which the Holzer will hang in the context of other work from the museum’s permanent collection that uses text and appropriated images of social protest. These include work by Barbara Kruger (her text reads, “We will no longer be seen and not heard.”), Hans Haake, Robert Indiana’s “Liberty,” Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Kara Walker, and Gary Winogrand photos of Women’s Liberation marches from the 70s. Ryan will also conduct lunchtime gallery talks — the first on April 22 but she says as often as need be — to introduce Holzer’s painting, discuss how her work has evolved, its place as public art and the company it keeps among its new gallery mates.
There are several ways to start to see this work. Pam McLaughlin is especially excited about the Holzer’s presence as an opportunity to talk in this community about the boundaries and means of today’s art, especially text-based work as it flowed from early Feminist art in the 1970s. Holzer’s work has featured both her own original texts and, after 2001, the “found” texts of others.
Moreover, she points out, Holzer’s new work — the fact that it’s specifically a painting on a museum wall — makes it possible to talk with particular clarity about the “shock” such work provokes by joining traditional materials — for example, the use of a three-paneled triptych — with other themes and creating new contexts for both. This is heightened when an artist such as Holzer chooses what appears to be such a departure from past work.
During our phone conversation, I also asked Holzer if the subject matter she addresses in the Redacted Paintings is perhaps itself so extreme that it requires the full weight of “Art” to contain what the documents express, not only the redaction of text but the frequent horror of what’s left.
“People tend to take care of paintings and documents can languish in archives,” Holzer said. “I thought it would be a good thing to have these documents tended and certainly on display. I like the idea of making these documents precious objects. Not my normal territory! I’ve always experimented with ways to have people stay with content, and finally came around to painting when it seemed appropriate again. I always wanted to be a painter! Finally I could justify it when I started reading these documents.”
Last fall Holzer also remarked during her “Art 21” interview on PBS that the Redaction Paintings for her had come from Goya’s “Black Paintings,” 14 large paintings by the Spanish artist of viscerally dark and graphic war-time subjects, some quite similar to what Syracusans saw if they attended last fall’s exhibit of Goya’s “Disasters of War” series at SUArt Galleries or saw the Milos Forman film, “Goya’s Ghosts,” which screened locally at the same time.
By phone Holzer elaborated on this connection, “It’s a little presumptuous of me to claim that they’re close relatives of the Goya ‘Black Paintings’ but they have something to do with an artist’s attempt to represent awful times. Formally my paintings don’t look anything like the Goyas — sadly! — but I want to think that the intention is the same. They’re to do with war and power and fear and also with what happens after one lets loose the dogs of war.”
In fact, a career of such adamantly public art now turned to traditional means has the reciprocal effect of revitalizing the museum itself as public space. With typical understatement, Holzer says, “I think I know a good word when I see one.”