New York

Jenny Holzer

Barbara Gladstone Gallery

From their humble origins on photocopied colored paper to their latest incarnations in state-of-the-art electronic message machines, Jenny Holzer’s home-made truisms—part homily, part syllogism, all confounding—have been the most intriguing variant on and the final apotheosis of word art. This show publicized selections from the most recent of Holzer’s linguistic suites, The Living Series and The Survival Series, both 1983, in a variety of media. Quotations such as “What urge will save us now that sex won’t’?,” “Savor kindness because cruelty is always possible later,” and “It is easy to get millions of people on every continent to pledge allegiance to eating and equal opportunity” were featured on a set of small multiple-cast aluminum plaques, installed here in a cluster that pretty well demolished the notion of commemorative markers. These and other ditties were also conveyed on the screen of a Trans Lux News Jet signboard, a frontlit, telex-programmed machine which picks out green fluorescent letters from dot configurations on regularly rotated rectangular flaps.

The larger screen of a UNEX sign, composed of light-emitting diodes erased by a magnetic bar from behind, flashed illustrative imagery and congenial typefaces for such messages as “It is in your self interest to find a way to be very tender,” “Kids go bananas when they hear someone faceless controls them,” and “People smell two kinds of death: regular and nuclear.” This was the expressionist-tech piece in the show. The images that Holzer had programmed to go with the slogans ameliorated their impact, somehow neutralizing their otherwise considerable powers of disruption by sweetening the message. A similar disability plagued two large paintings, collaborations between Holzer and the graffitiste Lady Pink. For instance, Holzer’s assertion that “The breakdown comes when you stop controlling yourself and want the release of a bloodbath” had been fleshed out with a giant, colored virago triumphing over a subway inferno. The word-to-picture transformation lost something in the translation.

Another small LED (light-emitting diode) sign enlivened one side of the gallery’s darkened back room. Neatly self-contained—a physical manifestation of Holzer’s verbal solipsisms—the machine displayed a typical range of Holzerisms coursing across its face, in red letters on a black ground. It also allowed for syncopated repetitions and flashing representations which in effect showed the truisms in a variety of rhythmic and calligraphic styles. Holzer’s cheery send-ups of Orwellian newspeak serve a double purpose: their humor lets the last of the air out of the work of Joseph Kosuth and company, even while facing the future, dateline 1984, with an optimistically exploitative attitude.

That Holzer’s and Borofsky’s shows should be running concurrently across the street from one another was one of New York’s rare autumnal art treats. Language is central to both their enterprises: for Borofsky as a record of introspective revelation, for Holzer as conceptual parallel to symbolic content. That Borofsky’s universe should have so marked a hand-wrought look, and be so perpetually retrospective—always concerned as it is with the past, and usually his past, from childhood to the present—underscores its inescapable connection to emotive culture as we have always known it. His egomania is on the way to becoming one of the most elaborately documented of our time. Holzer’s distillations, often chaotically nonsensical and always impeccably nonerudite, project themselves toward some future order with seemingly great glee that the artist has finally been able to absent herself.

Richard Armstrong