Jenny Holzer’s new exhibition at Hauser and Wirth West Hollywood, Ready For You When You Are, her first in LA since 2012, features new work that takes advantage of recent advances in LED technology, Robotics and Artificial Intelligence.
Holzer’s work has long been text based and has always had as its imperative to make us consider the power of words to give meaning, obfuscate or reveal the truth that comes from the contradictory juxtaposition of certain words and phrases.
Over the years, Holzer’s work has evolved from broadsheets wheatpasted on New York City building walls and fences, to aluminum and bronze plaques, computer generated installations on large Spectacolor screens, to LEDs in their primitive and now more sophisticated forms, and stone benches with sayings engraved on them (you can find a set in the courtyard of Wilshire Boulevard and in USC’s Fisher Museum outdoor garden).
“Abuse Of Power Comes As No Surprise” in lights over Times Square was one of Holzer’s famous early “Truisms.”
It’s no coincidence that in the late 1970s and early 1980s in New York, a number of artists, including Holzer, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat chose to make their art on City Streets, as a way to make their mark on the world, literally and figuratively, and as a protest or wake up call to majority culture and the then art establishment. It may be a reductive simplification to say so, but I’m struck by how each was a standard bearer for a different segment of society not getting its due – be it Women (Holzer), LBGTQ+ (Haring), and Black Americans (Basquiat). Each was a trailblazer and many, many artists found their voice in their wake.
Also like another of her contemporaries, Robert Longo, whose career began in New York in the same era, there has always been a political dimension to Holzer’s work. Holzer has made extensive use of research in Government archives and public communications some received as a result of Freedom of Information requests, from the wars in Kuwait and Iraq, including the redacted transcripts of interrogations of American soldiers accused of committing human rights violations and war crimes at the Abu Ghraib prison.
Holzer has compared the surprising visual beauty of government redacted pages as reminding her of the work of Russian Constructivists such as Kazimir Malevich. And there is no little irony that much of those artworks were eventually suppressed by Stalin. Malevich himself was banned from making Art.
In her work, Holzer has crafted text, appropriated text from study materials, used the work of poets including Wislawa Szymborska , Yehuda Amichai and Mahmoud Darwish, and text from government documents, and even public tweets. With the present series, Holzer has now turned to AI to craft some of her word groupings.
The new works exhibited in “Ready When You Are” consist of Paintings and LED columns. Holzer’s new paintings, Redactions, present on a gold surface which changes its opacity as you move across it. In certain light, at certain angles you can read the text more completely and better than others. Although Holzer reproduces the documents with no alterations, there is nonetheless a visual beauty, abstract yet geometric to the works which even have a sense of depth which cannot be accidental.
The paintings include quotations from FBI records concerning the Patriot Act, Trump-era briefs, and a 2021 report from the US National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence that analyzes the rapid advancement of AI technology.
Then there are the stunning LED columns that twirl from the ceiling on robotic arms. The words appear to emerge from the floor itself. It’s worth noting that Holzer’s attention to detail is such that all her LEDs are custom made for her, the colors it emits are ones she has chosen or created, even the fonts the LEDs use are Holzer’s own.
“I’m delighted not to be writing,” Holzer said at the press preview, laughing and adding, “I’m retired.” But this is disingenuous because the words scrolling by may be generated by AI but they are animated by Holzer.
The two twirling word batons are named Good and Bad – for reasons that will become obvious. Holzer and her team gave prompts to the AI to generate text.
For the “Good”, according to Holzer, the AI scoured texts from American Utopian communities and other prompts to produce positive “good” text.
For the “Bad,” they scoured text about the end of days, and chatter from QAnon, Proud Boys and other malevolent groups. As the text is more aggressive, the robotic arm for “Bad” moves in a way that seems like it may spin out of control.
There is another work. WTF, that is a horizontal LED beam that moves across the room while it swings over a floor that is littered with stones that are modeled after ancient curses stones. Here they are engraved on lead stones, lead being a toxic metal, and the curses – in this case, are tweets from Donald Trump.
Finally, the show’s title Ready For You When You Are, is one of the paintings that you can see from Santa Monica Boulevard (go at dusk or at night), and the text derives from a message sent to President Trump on January 6th concerning his speech on the mall, with the crowd awaiting him. A moment before the storm.
At the press preview, Holzer was dressed in black, wearing a black mask. She has the fierceness and cool of a Patti Smith, and a certain bashfulness, modesty and humbleness that was disarming. Despite Holzer deferring to the expertise of her team, there is no question that Holzer’s ongoing curiosity, her persistence, and her ability to find the nuggets that entice, seduce, and shock and the work dazzles.
At the opening press preview I spoke with a colleague who told me that he was nonplussed by the work because he felt the work should stand on its own with no need for explanation and subtext. In that I agree – but I disagree that Holzer’s work doesn’t stand on its own. The work at Hauser and Wirth is exhilarating, as beautiful as it is provocative.
I find it incredibly inspiring that 40+ years into her artistic practice, Holzer has embraced these new technologies that reinvigorate her work, making them all the more fresh, relevant, and important; and that speak to ongoing creativity and intelligence of Holzer and her work.
Holzer is Ready For You.