Bureaucratic Revisions & Big-Bang Visions
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Since Monday, Jenny Holzer’s latest site-specific LED installation has hovered above the reception desk at the newly reopened 7 World Trade Center. The work consists of 36 hours of scrolling text by nearly 30 authors – luminaries such as Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and E.B. White, each testifying to New York’s spirit and courage.
Those familiar with Ms. Holzer’s career will not be surprised by this latest creation. Her work, whether provocative truisms affixed to posters or largescale light projections of poetry onto architectural landmarks, has always been public and ephemeral, using words as its medium and architecture as its support. Two concurrent gallery exhibitions, however, present a less familiar side of her oeuvre. These paintings and photographs seem to arise from a documentary impulse, and they possess unusually strong visual and conceptual qualities.
The approximately 30 black-and-white photographs at the Yvon Lambert Gallery document Ms. Holzer’s light projections from the past 10 years, all of which occur at night. When shown together, these images have the unfortunate effect of making the artist’s work seem less varied and compelling than it actually is. But they also allow the viewer to see beyond the dramatic scale and spectacle of her projections to concentrate on subtle aspects easily missed when seen live.
In particular, one notices Ms. Holzer’s extreme sensitivity to the sites of her work. The photographs display exquisite details captured by her projected lights: the lush texture of pine needles on the slopes of Austria’s Kanisfluh Mountain, which served as a screen for “Xenon for Bregenz” (2004), or the bends and folds of the upper reaches of Berlin’s St. Matthews Church, the setting for “Xenon for Berlin” (2001).
At Cheim & Read Gallery, Ms. Holzer presents new paintings and an LED display that are sure to get people talking. Using the Freedom of Information Act, the artist acquired declassified government documents and silk screened them onto canvases.
These texts – which range from dry Department of Defense directives to harrowing testimonials of violence in Iraq and Afghanistan – will undoubtedly stoke political passions. But the true discovery of this exhibition is not the documents themselves (all of which are part of the public record), but their surprising aesthetic qualities.
In almost every painting, blackedout, redacted passages are a striking visual feature, often becoming a welcome human gesture amid deadened bureaucratic language or inhumanly matter-offact descriptions of gruesome violence. The redactor’s deletions may lack the artistry of a painterly brushstroke, but they are strong assertions of presence and can be just as emotive.
The four-panel painting “BIG HANDS Yellow White” (2006) displays two standard identification forms that are entirely redacted. The first relates basic information like name, address, birth date, and Social Security number; the second contains several fingerprints. Two other pages from the same file are similarly full of scribbled black patches, but here the redactor’s marks take the form of cartoonish renderings of a left and right hand. It is uncertain if information is contained beneath these hands, or if they are merely doodles. Either way, they convey personality as no name, Social Security number, or fingerprints ever could.
“COLIN POWELL Green White” (2006) presents a four-page document that is entirely redacted except for its opening sentence and the bullet points that begin each paragraph. The result is several pages of solid black rectangles with tiny indentations. These strangely evocative forms look like the gaping mouths of a totem pole viewed in profile.
The brilliance of these works lies is the way they turn the straightforward nature of intragovernment communication on its head.The redactions were meant to hide certain information, but here they complicate the texts, turning bland bureaucratic communiques into fascinating conceptual puzzles and inadvertently disclosing traces of the inner life of the government.
Ms. Holzer posits a chain of collaboration – from original writer to redactor to herself – in which one does not need an author’s explicit invitation to transform his work into something new and completely one’s own.The viewer is the next link in the chain, and these documents describing the limited autonomies of captivity, bureaucracy, and chain of command are once again reborn as opportunities for creative freedom.
Josiah McElheny’s stunning sculpture “An End to Modernity” (2005) is the most serene explosion you are ever likely to see.
A chrome-plated sphere hangs from the ceiling of the Andrea Rosen Gallery with hundreds of aluminum rods projecting out from its center.The ambitious work, 16 feet in diameter, is no less than a rendering of the big bang. But rather than depict a frozen moment humming with cataclysmic energy, Mr. McElheny’s sculpture calmly describes time itself: the 14 billion-year history of the universe.
The big bang is commonly understood as an explosion during which all matter radiated from a central point, but according to the cosmologist David Weinberg, whom the artist consulted for the project, it was in fact “the origin of time and space itself, initiating an expansion that occurs everywhere and has no center.”
Mr. McElheny’s sculpture uses the form of this popular misconception to represent the more complex reality. Each of the 230 radiating rods is distinct, differing from its peers in terms of length and the arrangement of objects at its tip, which can be either a single lightbulb or a cluster of glass discs and blown-glass globes. Each rod’s length represents a specific amount of time, and the objects at its tip stand in for the quasars or galaxies that eventually took shape.
In two other works at Andrea Rosen – “Architectural Model for a Totally Reflective Landscape (Park)” and “Architectural Model for a Totally Reflective Landscape (Playgound)” (both 2006) – Mr. McElheny expresses profound ambivalence about the utopian modernism of Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi. He is torn between his attraction to their compelling ideals and lustrous, mirrored surfaces and his criticism that the resulting forms are monotonous and superficial, free of depth or substance.
“An End to Modernity” offers a way out of this impasse.Rather than the centerless chaos usually associated with postmodernism, it presents an image that is no less ordered, peaceful, or seemingly symmetrical than Fuller’s geodesic dome or Noguchi’s seductive biomorphic shapes. And yet, with its hundred of radiating rods, each one unique, the sculpture rejects smooth surfaces and conformist repetition in favor of formal diversity and complexity.
Mr. McElheny also borrows Fuller’s and Noguchi’s mirrors, but uses them to a new effect. The central sphere of his sculpture is surrounded with chrome plating that casts the viewer’s reflection into the very heart of the work – restoring an almost pre-Copernican vision of human centrality in the universe. In this final gesture, the artist offers the flashy doubling of a mirror, with its intimations of industrial perfection, but expresses his clear prefer ence for the inward focus of curious, inspirited man. Only through contemplation and meditation, this humane artist suggests, does one discover a true reflection of the splendor of the cosmos.
Holzer at Cheim & Read until June 17 (547 W. 25th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-242-7727). Prices: $35,000-$400,000. Holzer at Yvon Lambert until June 17 (564 W. 25th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-242-3611). Prices: $25,000-$35,000. McElheny at Andrea Rosen Gallery until June 3 (525 W. 24th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-627-6000). Prices: $85,000- $300,000.