The Guggenheim Museum is a tough place to show art. There is no left or right, no east or west, no stable floor or reassuring corner. Frank Lloyd Wright, in his only mildly disguised antipathy to the "secondary arts," saw to it that the building's massive spiral with its dizzying central void would not only dwarf the largest art work but would seem to undercut the very gravity that holds a work in place.
Few artists are able to compete with the Guggenheim's demanding presence. Most are happy if their works manage to find temporary refuge in one of Wright's cream-colored display niches or to simply appear more or less upright sitting on the sloping floor.
Jenny Holzer, however, is one artist who has successfully confronted Wright's wonderfully cantankerous corkscrew. Her installation of moving signs, at the museum through Feb. 11, extends and contradicts the architect's own game in stunning fashion. Holzer's solution -- 45 signs along the entire length of the ramp -- has such rapid-fire animation that it makes Wright's slow spiral seem like an ancient plant unfolding or some primitive rock drill boring into the earth.
With Holzer's electronic messages zipping around the inner parapet, Wright suddenly seems a rather quaint earth-daddy. His message is basically comforting: All is right with the world as long as we wrap ourselves in the friendly biosphere, and don't forget to pay homage to good old Mother Nature.
On the other hand Holzer's message is alarming. Technology, she seems to say, is well along in the process of destroying this happy biosphere and Mother Nature with it. Meanwhile, we are all forced to live in some electronic village populated by people in a TV-induced trance. Culture is Holzer's main theater of activity, but in her eyes it is a culture that is about to do us in. As one of Holzer's "Truisms" says, "It is man's fate to outsmart himself."
Holzer is of special interest to Buffalonians because she is the artist selected by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's chief curator, Michael Auping, to represent the United States in the prestigious Venice Biennale opening this May. The Biennale runs through early fall.
All agree the Holzer nomination was a daring move. The Biennale has had more than its share of conservative moments. The last U.S. representative was Jasper Johns, a revered painter but one whose greatest accomplishments may be behind him. And before Johns there was the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, another artist chosen late in his career.
"In a certain sense I had nothing to lose by choosing Holzer," Auping explains in a recent interview. "If they said no, I would have been no worse off. It seemed to me since Johns was the last selection, and prior to him Noguchi, that what was needed was someone peaking at the time of the Venice showing rather than an artist who had already flowered. The time had come to not merely acknowledge an artist whose effect was felt long before but to present someone whose effect is just coming into being."
To Auping, Holzer was the ideal candidate. At 40, she had reached a very mature artistic level, and her work was becoming stronger and more encompassing each year.
"She is someone who is very particular to this time," says Auping. "She confronts a lot of the issues that have haunted us -- gender, sex, the authoritarian voice, the tricky relationship of language to image. Holzer offers no solutions to these issues; she brings them to a flash point. She may have found a truly expressionistic voice even at this late date in the 20th century."
Auping acknowledges that Holzer may stir controversy. She can be detached, ironic, authoritarian, mocking or highly personal at turns. Then, as the Guggenheim show so vividly demonstrates, she can create a great mixture of voices making them all seem to come from one secure and slightly ominous source.
Perhaps her favorite medium of the past few years -- LED signs -- will be as controversial as her language. These computer-activated signs are the kind found in front of convention centers, in barrooms and banks and at other public spots. They normally present mundane advertisements, news and weather spots and short announcements.
What is interesting from an artistic viewpoint is that the LED (light-emitting diode) lamps allow displays of traveling texts in a variety of colors, letter styles and designs. The configurations are limited only by the grid of lights that generates them. Early on, Holzer knew she had in her command a medium that was a mere message board -- accessible and commonplace -- yet an artistic tool that could, in the right setting, be varied for new formal effects.
In the Guggenheim installation Holzer uses the LED sign to spectacular effect. At times her messages seem to be rolling directly out of some secret chamber deep within the darkened building. Then, when the flow of letters is reversed, the messages are pulled inward, seeming obliterated by the very architecture that gives birth to them.
Color also plays a much more important role than one might expect. Sometimes brilliant reds are set against harsh yellow-greens in forceful blocklike formations that march across the space in near-military cadence. Other times the grid breaks off into a frantically animated checkerboard that reassembles itself into nervous, fast-moving messages. Or suddenly white letters on black appear, giving the messages a calm, stately air, as though all were the product of studied reason.
In the more baroque passages of the installation, messages are set in opposing directions, overlapping one another in conflicting patterns. The contrasts of both form and message can be un-settling here. For instance, the startling line, "You are trapped on earth so you will explode," may run counter to the gentle imperative, "Go to where people sleep and see if they're safe."
In marked contrast to the spectacle of the signs, Holzer presents two series of benches on the lower levels of the museum. A group in red granite is inscribed in "tombstone Roman" with lines from her "The Survival Series." The other, in white stone, presents statements gleaned from "The Living Series." In the context of the flamboyant signs we are invited into what is almost an elegiac mood, even while the texts continually jolt us back to the often harrowing conditions of the social present.
Holzer has a phrase for all of this -- "careful seduction." Auping's description of Holzer's upcoming "Venice installations" suggests that the phrase will be appropriate for these new works as well. The mood there will be both contemplative and seductive, but in Venice the emotional contrasts will be even more forcibly pushed to an extreme.
Auping describes the Venice setting and the installations: "There are four large rooms in the U.S. pavilion, a building in Jeffersonian style. I can only say that the pieces, set in darkened chambers, will sometimes be intensely contemplative. One room will be extremely energetic, almost explosive, and another will be like being inside and immense oven."
In Venice, Holzer will use LED signs in concert with spotlighted and inscribed stonework. The artist, always on the lookout for a wider audience, will also set up additional pieces -- benches and signs -- in various parts of the city itself.
In October the installations will make a stop at the Staadtische Kunsthalle in Dusseldorf, move on to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, and then appear at the Albright-Knox from July 15 to Sept. 1, 1991, before heading to a final showing at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.