For the last decade, Jenny Holzer has used declassified U.S. government documents related to the “war on terror” as the basis for her work—appropriating language of surveillance for her hyperactive LED installations and initially reproducing the pages themselves as large-scale silkscreens. With solid bars and rectangles redacting sensitive information across the text, these documents suggest readymade Russian Suprematist compositions. In this exhibition of hand-painted canvases, “Dust Paintings,” Holzer pushed the dialogue between these morally ambiguous artifacts and abstract painting much further, in ways both visually exhilarating and subtle.
The show opened in familiar Holzer territory, with a large four-sided LED sign, titled HANGING (2014), suspended from the ceiling in the front gallery. Glowing letters race up the sides vertically, with only snippets legible—”WAS STATIONED AT THE US EMBASSY,” “ASKED IF HE KNEW ABOUT THE DEATH OF A VILLAGER,” “AND HIS EXACT LOCATION”—before a flashing strobe effect, wavy lines or strips of XXXX’s confounded the viewer’s ability to read.
Behind this attention-grabbing spectacle, Holzer’s black-and-white canvas CONCLUSION (2014) hung defiantly mute, providing a counterbalance. Below the phrases “SECRET/NOFORN” (meaning no foreign dissemination) and “CONCLUSION” is a solid black rectangle—a blank void—hovering in a field of slashing white brushstrokes. Holzer, who made abstract paintings in art school before beginning her language-based works in the late 1970s, is here revisiting the realm of Abstract Expressionism. She co-opts the hard-edge forms of Reinhardt and the brushwork of de Kooning or Kline but in the service of concealment rather than expression. In the main gallery, a canvas with a similar format and the phrase “Terrorist Group” (also the title of the work) is almost entirely whitewashed around the dark rectangle. One little island of white breaches the black shape and more dark patches infiltrate the white ground, a poetic visualization of ideas of invasion and contamination.
For a group of more explicit paintings, Holzer carefully traced and painted pages of handwritten testimony from the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command’s Gardez Report, which investigated the death of an Afghan prisoner in U.S. custody. The ethereal surfaces, painted light over dark, from a distance bring to mind familiar abstract works, from the textured white-on-white canvases of Ryman to the calligraphic gray fields of Twombly to the geometric black-on-white compositions of Malevich. Yet these beautiful paintings betray horrible things. The viewer strains to read statements by prisoners who were repeatedly beaten and doused with snow and water, the words often becoming hard to decipher. The mottled ground appears slippery and shifting, both visually and ethically.
In paintings displayed in the back galleries, Holzer boiled down the censored documents to pristine rectangles of luminous color—lavender, yellow, red, orange—with only the ghost of the heading “SECRET” or page numbers visible on the white backgrounds. These works suggest that all abstraction is loaded with redacted content. The show ended with a canvas bearing vertical gradated bands of color-shifting blue to white to red in a way reminiscent of Malevich’s early figurative work—that are mirrored from the center. Visible at the top is the typed sentence, “A group presently in the United States plans to conduct a terrorist operation involving the use of high explosives,” and at the bottom the date “24 May 2001.” Pointed, yet never didactic, the exhibition memorialized the tragedy of a world composed of us and them.