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Jenny Holzer: What Speaks Louder Than Words… Are Color and Light

Exhibition Review of The Guggenheim Museum's Light Line (May 17, 2024- Sep 29, 2024)

June 1, 2024 

In high school, my favorite senior English teacher spoke Baldwin: she urged us to read The Creative Process, an outline of a series of manifestos that urge the audience to ponder about the role of an artist. Baldwin notes that a precise role of an artist is “to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.” In Jenny Holzer’s “Light Line,” a career-spanning exhibition currently at the Guggenheim (2024), Jenny Holzer accomplishes just that. Quite literally. The Guggenheim’s rotunda ablaze with a zingy electronic text racing along its iconic spiral ramp, raggedy metals with Trump’s tweets engraved onto them, and in the exhibition’s final ramp, seven gold-leafed canvases reveal the apprehensive dialogues that rocketed around Trump’s inner circle during the Jan 6, 2021 storming into the U.S. Capitol. 

Walking in the rotunda, silence from the outside is immediately disturbed with flashes of light and words: the museum lobby exhibits one more shining gold canvas with the words “They are ready for you when you are,” handwritten in silver marker, a replication of a note to Trump before he addressed the Jan 6 rally. The exhibition officially opens with “Inflammatory Essays,” a montage of 300 colorful honest principles, observations, and the slogans based off of commonly accepted truths and cliches adjoining the base of the Guggenheim’s ramp. Obstructing the collages are handwritten personal testimonies from conflict zones, tagged in black marker by the painter, ex-graffitist and longtime Holzer friend Lee Quiñones. 

In the exhibition, wall texts are minimal—those who do not care to notice the small writing placed in the wall across or prior to the actual piece merely skim the glistening surfaces of work, allowing the audience to blaze through that vast forest. So much of the attention is brought upon the gold and silver metal surfaces: questions emerge as to why such materials were chosen and why there are so many empty walls in the pass by. The golf-leaf surfaces are inevitably associated with the Byzantine and Medieval religious icons, engrossing the audience to amaze themselves over the large, immaculately radiating artworks that take up an entire wall on its own. Viewers pass by multitude of broken stone tomb pieces mesmerized by how a place so empty could feel so full. 

We walk up Guggenheim ramp, white walls usually filled with large, colorful canvases of artists. The majority of the walls are blank white. Our attention is diverted to the other; we turn our heads to the other side of the ramp: the electronic letters spiraling through the ramps have changed color and font. The once clear sans-serif letters that had a smooth, moderately paced, disembodied flow now have fire rains running through the letters, soon followed by a liquid mix of bright color pools behind another. The evident dichotomy exists between the fire blasting fonts on the ramp and the display of historical materials enlisted by Holzer: the artist Alice Neel’s partially redacted FBI file, US government documents about AI, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s dialogues on wartime strategy in Vietnam, most files that did not become public until well after all the surveillance occurred. Holzer has repainted these papers, mocking them up at a scale just larger than standard paper size to ensure that their words remain visible to the general populace.

It was 1962 when Baldwin published The Creative Process: as a Queer Black man, Baldwin penned this essay a year before the March of Washington, at which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Echoing throughout his manifesto for artists is Baldwin’s clarion call for acceptance of all who appear dissonant with society’s forces, for granting equal dignity to the human experience in all of its manifestations. Not much has changed in our current generation, unfortunately. Political art can no longer presume solidarity in its audience; activists join forces mainly, it seems, in circular firing squads. Freedom of speech is a virtue hijacked by its enemies. Most unforeseeably in 1989, the government and spy agencies she scrutinizes are now being assailed as much by the right as by the left. It is not Holzer’s job to offer guidance or even hope. But she can be relied on to “illuminate the dark” road’s we’ve been traveling, with high beams and colorful texts. 

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