Jenny Holzer, "Protect Protect"

Jenny Holzer's optical shock and awe takes on the Iraq War.

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5
<em />Monument

Photograph: Vassilij Gureev, 2009 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, Collection of the artist, courtesy Monika Sprth Philomene Magers, Berlin and London and Diehl + Gallery One, Moscow

Asylum, or rather, the impossibility of finding it from the daily deluge of late capitalism, has always been a recurring theme for Holzer. After all, the most famous of her "Truisms" is "protect me from what I want." In her darkly ironic view, culture becomes a continuous loop of creating and sating desires that we barely know we have—or want to admit to. While her LED creations capture this process in miniature, her paintings reveal some its real-world consequences.

The Whitney, in its introductory panel, compares Holzer to Goya, and the artist herself has expressed affinities with the Spanish master. Nevertheless, putting the two on the same level as political artists seems misplaced. Goya may have painted unflattering likenesses of King Charles IV and family, but his most famous polemical exercise, The Disasters of War, was created in private and wasn't made public until long after his death. The luxury of officially sanctioned dissent simply didn't exist in his time, but it does for Holzer: From early on, her work has been embraced by the establishment. Perhaps like Goya, Holzer has fooled her patrons, or perhaps she's fooling herself. I suspect she understands that her good fortune is probably due to a little of both.

Holzer makes a number of shrewd allusions to art history's accommodations with history at large. The scribbles used to censor some of Holzer's source material recall the work of Cy Twombley; a pair of entirely blacked-out documents evoke Malevich or Ellsworth Kelly. Handprints of so-called enemy combatants remind one of Jasper Johns. In the sardonically titled Monument (2008), LED signboards bent into semicircles are stacked in a towering mash-up of the NASDAQ sign in Times Square and the work of Donald Judd. In all of these examples, Holzer seems to strip movements like Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism to their essence as imperial styles.

But Holzer's work likewise serves as court art for corporate statism. That she's aware of this is what permits her oeuvre to transcend the contradictions of its making. For her, anyway, submission is the royal road to artistic freedom.

Jenny Holzer's paper trail
In this TONY exclusive, the artist shows declassified and other sensitive documents about the US presence in the Middle East—along with the paintings she's made from those pages.

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The Whitney Museum of American Art, through May 31