Eleven yellow electronic led signs lie horizontally at the entrance of the Whitney Museum’s fourth floor, running 13 different mesmerizing texts across the space.Titled “For Chicago,” the piece is part of PROTECT PROTECT, a traveling survey of Jenny Holzer’s work over the last 20 years. It is breathtaking from every angle.
In a nearby room, black and white redacted text paintings and pale stone benches fill the gallery, while in another, her hand paintings and curved light structures hang on opposing walls. Here in particular, the paint, light and movement of these works humanizes text from public documents, their emotional weight otherwise obscured by their index within a databases or search engine.
Shortly before the show opened, I spoke with Holzer about her exhibition and way of working over the years. Our conversation illuminated her thoughts on the technical and aesthetic challenges of putting together the show, larger art making principles and concerns, and the life and history of text.
New York Press: What has been the most challenging aspect of mounting your exhibition at the Whitney?
Jenny Holzer: The Whitney has been hospitable.The only tricky thing so far, beyond the constant threat of my making bad art, has been to fit what was in two galleries in Chicago into one floor at the Whitney. I hope that the new exhibition plan is logical, and trust the installation won’t be too busy and disturbing with the pulsing LEDs and difficult texts.
There will be pauses and quiet stretches in the play of the electronics, plus soothing blue, purple, green and white. And we changed a number of paintings for New York because I wanted to have something special for my hometown.
To what extent are you involved in the development of technology used to make your work?
Because I don’t have a tech background, I imagine how I want a LED piece to look, the hardware and the programming, and then work with electronic engineers and others to see what’s possible. I’m lucky to know people who can translate, then realize my ideas, and who are tolerant of and even engaged by much back and forth, often past the point of reason.
Can you name a piece in which trouble shooting changed the look of a particular work, or shifted the way you conceived pieces?
At Dia in the ’80s I’d finished the advance programming by myself only to realize that I had to start from scratch, this time with my engineer friend, to link the LED signs so the texts could rise together.This was aesthetic troubleshooting plus engineering, and appropriate for that installation about unnecessary death; there had to be darkness then synchronized ascending light.
More recently at 7 World Trade Center there were constraints and requirements such as making the electronic wall blast proof, and this slowed me—constructively. I could think more about how the piece should look and about what content it should offer for this tragic but optimistically restored site.The newest complicated sculptural LED arrays require that I try to marry form, function, information, beauty, time, transcendence, realism, legibility, phantoms and more—and then make sure the stuff works. It’s routine for function or lack thereof to affect the look, for the look to demand better function, for the shape to change content, for the content to require different colors, for the programming to need more speed, and around we go. But I attend to what has failed in the course of development of the electronics and then use
what has come to be right. Sometimes it’s a relief these days to make
the silk-screened paintings that are relatively simple to produce.
talked about how you like your work to be socially useful. In your
opinion, what are the more useful capacities art can serve today?
translation is that I want to be useful somehow to justify my
existence. I don’t think that art has to be useful, at least not in any
straightforward way. I don’t want art in service. But good art can be
responsive, alive to and so truthful about what’s around, and that’s
potentially helpful. Being awestruck, dumbstruck and transfixed by art
can be dandy. And being aroused, stunned, terrified, lulled, intrigued,
confounded, freed, schooled and euphoric is a lot, and art can do that
text on the Internet has created both the desire and need for textual
curation. Has this influenced your practice in any way?
I stopped writing, I’m always pulling text off the web and trying to
put it in order so that I can give collections to people.The Redaction, Hand and Map paintings at the Whitney are a result of this activity. I searched for declassified and other sensitive material on the war in Iraq
and the treatment of detainees in hopes of understanding more about
what happened, then I silk-screened the pages that seemed most
representative and telling. Often I chose first-person accounts because
the “I” stays alive and helps me understand and reply to the history.
And to my surprise, I’ve been picking images sometimes rather than
text, so that the stories can be glimpsed rather than read. I’m working
on the installation of these paintings for the Whitney and am finding
that the hanging can reflect the original searches at times and that’s
you’re frequently described as a very precise individual, I also get
the sense that your practice involves a fair amount of intuitive
decision making, with regards to color choices, textual movement, etc.
thank you. I don’t have one way of making decisions, but I tend to
begin in an embarrassing foggy rapture or a dumb rush, and then focus
to recognize and develop what was started. I need to be as precise as
possible when refining, completing and siting works, while thinking
about subject matter, audience, the times, timing, equal time,
complimentary color, politics, ethics, mood, materials, touch, the
dearth of hope or manic positivism—and then there’s weather… There’s
always guessing of necessity because the artwork isn’t there until I
make it, because others with specialized knowledge build my work, and
because I routinely can’t install works and tweak them in advance.
the spiral LED at the Guggenheim is an example of a half-blind
intuitive move, as is my ceiling installation at van der Rohe’s Neue
Nationalgalerie, as are the outdoor projections that I can’t rehearse
because I don’t have an ocean or Hadrian’s Tomb at home.
> Jenny Holzer’s PROTECT PROTECT
Opens Mar. 12, The Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Ave. (at E. 75th St.), 212-570-3600, www.whitney.org
Visit Paddy Johnson at www.artfagcity.com.