Maybe it was just coincidence that Jenny Holzer’s recent exhibition, “Dust Paintings,” at Cheim & Read in New York City, opened on September 11. That date fell on a Thursday this year, and Thursday nights are always big ones for Chelsea openings. I remember seeing Stephen Shore’s photographs from Israel, the West Bank and Ukraine at 303 Gallery; Matthew Ritchie’s new paintings—wrapped up in a heady, encompassing installation with sculpture, video and a wall drawing—at Andrea Rosen Gallery; and the reconstruction of a 2002 installation by Jason Rhoades at David Zwirner, to name a few. None of them put me in mind of the events that had taken place just three miles south of the gallery district thirteen years ago. Holzer’s new paintings did, dwelling as they do on the new world we suddenly found ourselves in as a result of what happened that day—or rather, as a result of the Bush administration’s use of the attacks as justification for war, surveillance and “enhanced interrogation,” better known as torture.
Those who haven’t seen Holzer’s work lately may be surprised to learn that she has taken up painting. She first came to public attention in the late 1970s with her ”Truisms”—apothegms plucked from the ether of common sense and printed on posters that, at first, were anonymously wheat-pasted on the walls of punk-era Manhattan. It’s hard to remember now, but their apparent authorlessness was part of their effectiveness and allure; as a student who knew nothing of conceptual art, I remember how striking these compendia of statements could be. Somehow, the purportedly reassuring ones were even more intimidating than those that were overtly threatening. Here, “Solitude is enriching” started to sound like something you’d be told on being sentenced to solitary confinement, while “Remember you always have freedom of choice” seemed to imply that you could never plausibly claim to be innocent of wrongdoing—whatever it was, you knew it was wrong and still chose to do it. And how could there be any way out when “You are a victim of the rules you live by” and “Abuse of power comes as no surprise”?
Fame found Holzer soon enough and swept away her anonymity. As she began presenting texts on bronze plaques, LED boards, T-shirts and stone benches throughout the world, the work lost some of its sting, even though the writing became more elaborate and, often, more overtly emotional, even lyrical (one series was called “Laments”). Along with her own writing, she began to use poetry and other literary texts—but also, around ten years ago, declassified government documents. It’s the latter that have become the focus of her efforts in painting. The shift took many by surprise, but it probably shouldn’t have. Holzer told an interviewer that as a young artist, she had intended to be a painter but got spooked: “I was looking at Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. I couldn’t measure up.” But writing, she eventually learned, was something that she could do without being paralyzed by self-consciousness; because she didn’t consider herself to be a writer, she thought she could do something with texts that writers wouldn’t, like paste them on a wall.
At Cheim & Read, Holzer revealed that she has figured out how to paint without having to inhabit the role of “painter.” This should not be surprising, because finding liberty in this paradox has been a recurrent artistic ploy at least since the 1950s—think of the workmanlike deadpan of the young Jasper Johns, which led his elder colleague, Willem de Kooning, to tell him: “I’m a house painter and you’re a sign painter.” House painter, sign painter—anything to avoid being what the French call an artiste peintre, an artist painter. Like Johns, Holzer seems to want to make paintings that are always discernible as paintings—a painterly touch is never dissembled in them—yet in which the subject is presented directly and objectively. For Johns, the subject was numbers or the alphabet, the American flag or a map of the United States; for Holzer, it’s heavily redacted documents about what has been done in America’s name in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.