One funny thing about the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Jenny Holzer exhibition, titled "Protect Protect," Mar. 12-May 31, 2009, is that it’s sponsored by Bloomberg, the current king of the zipper news feed. The show features several large-scale installations made using Holzer’s signature LED light panels, or whatever they’re called. Holzer and Bloomberg, made for each other. It reminds me of the time back in the 1980s when Metro Pictures sold my painting of a bottle of Johnson & Johnson baby oil to Johnson & Johnson’s corporate art collection.
Another funny thing about the Holzer show is the degree to which everyone, the artist included, is into the pretty lights, glowing yellow and green and blue, washing up the walls and such. Move over Dan Flavin! But why not, they are all in the esthetics business. In this sense, Holzer is like Peter Halley, reviving Minimalist formalism via political content.
More interesting to me is the way the words speed across the LED strip and then seem to disappear into the wall or around a corner, a bit of technological wizardry that has become so common that it’s easy to forget Holzer’s role as the Marcel Duchamp of the electronic ready-made. Technology truly is a source of the marvelous.
But funny is hardly the point of "Protect Protect," which is distinctly post-Abu Ghraib, featuring texts from declassified memos and other paperwork involving U.S. torture and "secret rendition" activities. Despite her high-tech hijinks, Holzer has always been about the text, and with this show it’s easy to imagine a movement in her work from ideology to practice, as her "Maxims" and "Truisms," those annoying clichés in the master’s voice, give way to real-world documents that reflect actual acts of power and domination.
At the press preview, Whitney curator Donna De Salvo tagged Holzer as an artist who moves back and forth between the sinister and the beautiful, the miserable and the poetic, but truth be told, it’s a more determined viewer than I who can get much content from her flashing phrases. "Money Determines Taste," this I understand, but the ideas in her LED zipper signs move almost faster than thought, as if no one really wanted to face their truth.
Not so the show’s back galleries, where a wealth of actual documents with first-hand testimony about U.S. torture in Iraq -- damning, humanizing, revelatory, specific -- have been silkscreened onto canvases and panels, in which form they are much more in-your-face. No narrative subversion here; these texts you can actually read. "I didn’t want this information to fade away," Holzer said, or words to that effect. "I thought I could make people revere the documents like they do paintings."
Is Iraq a subject that you’re really interested in? Then you’ve already been to the New Museum, home to "It Is What It Is," Feb. 11-Mar. 22, 2009, an installation by Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller, who previously has done things like have an old-fashioned British brass band play psychedelic music. For this show, he’s revived a Conceptual Art idea from the early 1970s -- conversation as art -- and given it a topical focus: "Conversations about Iraq." Every afternoon, journalists, authors, scholars, G.I.s and artists, including many who are Iraqi, have come into the museum, settled into a lounge-like arrangement of furniture on the second floor, and talked about their personal experiences in Iraq.
The exhibition is about to leave on a cross-country tour, making a dozen stops along the way and ending up at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, Apr. 21-May 17, 2009. More details can be found on the exhibition website, here.
At the press preview, Deller seemed utterly relaxed about his undertaking, as if it weren’t among the most contentious subjects going. Perhaps he has truly internalized the Zen-like notion of "it is what it is," which he said was new to him, though he had heard it used repeatedly by veterans of life in Iraq. As for the other item in the exhibition, a rusted hulk of an automobile that had been used for a car bomb, that is not art, said Deller. At the opening, people were joking that his dealer, Gavin Brown, was frustrated that his artist made nothing he could sell.
The show hasn’t gotten much buzz, perhaps because it’s so much in the League of Women Voters mold, neither ideological argument nor political action. One of the days that I actually made it by the show, I was surprised to run into Steve Mumford, a contributor to this magazine [see "The Road to Tal Afar," Sept. 2, 2008] as well as a Maine-based artist and U.S. Army reservist named Peter Buotte.
I got to talk to Buotte a little and hear his story -- he enlisted at 17, served eight years, then went into the reserves, which requires one weekend a month, until you’re mobilized. He’s served tours in Haiti and Bosnia as well as in Iraq, as an officer in the Army’s civil affairs branch (as opposed to its fighting corps). At the same time, he’s pursued his art career, become fluent in French, and no doubt done much that I didn’t have time to hear about. I saw some works of his in a show at the School of Visual Arts last fall, including a pile of refrigerator magnets that married a bull’s eye and the American flag. Another, larger work vaguely qualifies as a Washington Color School-style stain painting, except the pigment drips from IV bags onto the olive canvas of military stretchers.
Buotte tells me that now he has been offered a full scholarship to study at SVA, where he plans to pursue a masters in art therapy and work on a project to make classical figurative sculptures using wounded soldiers as models. In the end, the show was more about people than propaganda.
The last time I asked a cabbie to take me to the Jewish Museum, he dropped me at the corner of 89th Street and Fifth Avenue, next to the Guggenheim Museum. Solomon Guggenheim’s religious practices or family background don’t typically come into play when attending his namesake museum, but this little anecdote came to mind as I approached the Gugg’s compact exhibition by the Palestinian-American artist Emily Jacir, an outspoken advocate for the Palestinian cause.
"The Hugo Boss Prize: Emily Jacir," Feb. 6-Apr. 15, 2009, is a diaristic assemblage of historical and contemporary photos, postcards, written text, wall-mounted videos, and two large installational set pieces that focus on the story of Wael Zuaiter, a cousin of Yasser Arafat who lived in Rome, loved Mahler, hoped to translate The Thousand and One Nights into Italian, and may or may not have been a PLO liaison in Italy. In 1972, at age 28, he was killed by Israeli agents, who had concluded that he had taken part in the notorious "Black September" massacre -- Jacir simply refers to it as a "deadly kidnapping" -- of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the Munich Olympics. A capsule report of the event can be found on Wikipedia, which notes that Zuaiter’s role in the Munich event has never been proven (his assassination is also depicted in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film Munich).
The exhibition has already been tagged as propaganda and dismissed as bad art by a review in the New York Times. The show is fascinating all the same, not least because its sub-rosa message -- that Israel carelessly and brutally murders innocent Palestinians -- is so familiar.
Zuaiter comes alive in Jacir’s hands. She presents grainy black-and-white pictures of him, and her own photos of the streets where he lived and worked, interspersed with narrative panels relating her researches. She contacted his sister, and even presents a snippet from a movie in which he appears as an extra. Jacir seems quite smitten. It’s the artist as acolyte.
With its fragmentary portrait of Zuaiter, the show reminded me of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, in which the main character is generally thought of as both a naive idealist and a ruthless undercover agent. Ominously, one of the diary entries in Jacir’s installation notes that Zuaiter "destroyed his poems and everything he had ever written shortly before his death," as if he had in fact been radicalized and was preparing for revolutionary action. That tipping point, at which a sympathizer leaves the sidelines and becomes a violent actor, is especially ominous in Jacir’s room-sized installation titled Material for a Film (Performance), whose walls are lined with white books, each shot with a .22 by the artist, an act of barely suppressed rage.
New Yorker critic Arlene Croce famously complained that she couldn’t properly review a performance piece (Bill T. Jones’ Still/Here) involving players who were dying of AIDS. Similarly, I can only say good things about a show by an artist who is packing heat. And is it relevant to mention that the German clothing company Hugo Boss, which awarded Jacir $100,000 for her artistic accomplishments in connection with this show, made uniforms for the Nazis from 1932 to 1945?
I also liked the paintings by Josh Smith at Luhring Augustine for their youthful painterly energy, and because, in a row of identical canvases, some of them are painted like an ordinary abstraction and some have a painterly image that is formed by a grid of xeroxes of a painting, and it’s difficult to tell the difference. They all have the same price, which is $24,000 each, so it would be good to buy a few. Smith was Chris Wool’s studio assistant.
And I liked the billboard-sized, smooth-skinned paintings by Richard Phillips at Gagosian Gallery uptown, especially the jokes at the New Museum and the Kitchen's expense, which include a work depicting two winos from years ago, drinking on the sidewalk in a spot where the New Museum is now, and the painting of the naked blonde stripper who seems to be dancing against a "The Kitchen" photo backdrop. Could that be the director?
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.