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By Lukas Amacher

BASEL, SWITZERLAND, 15 JANUARY 2010 — Although form is often not in complete harmony with substance in contemporary art, the two should at least coexist in a cordial détente that accentuates both. The lingering effect of the current show of Jenny Holzer at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, Switzerland, is the sensation that form and substance regard each other with a cool ambivalence.

The retrospective commences with the first of a series of silkscreen prints that appear throughout the exhibition, each time offering different subjects. We see hands — shown as if fingerprints worked over by the black marker of a censor — belonging to U.S. soldiers accused of war crimes. Others feature maps of Iraq that were used in a PowerPoint presentation by the U.S. military. On viewing the first of these prints at the entrance, you get a clear signal of what is ahead: politics.

Jenny Holzer: Redaction Painting
black-and-white silkscreen
Text: U.S. government document
Photo courtesy of Fondation Beyeler

The actual first room of the show contains a surprise: Holzer was asked to curate a small show of works from the Beyeler Collection. Two Picassos and two oversized Giacomettis, all of women, are on view. Dominating the room, however ironically, is Supremacist Composition, a small painting by Krazimir Malevich from 1915 that is stuck high on the wall. It is one of the artist’s supremacist series of abstractions, characterized by strong geometric shapes. You can feel perplexed and amused by the addition of this masterpiece positioned as if purposely out of reach. An explanation of a kind comes in the adjoining room, where Holzer shows another of her silkscreen prints: the censored text of a document that, as reworked by Holzer into a single black block, the words rendered illegible, rather resembles the Malevich work. It’s quite amusing to have a contemporary artist put herself in the same league, if only by implication, with a lion of twentieth-century art — particularly when the two paintings have only a black rectangle in common. 

Jenny Holzer:Thorax, 2008
Twelve double-sided, curved electronic LED signs
with white diodes on front and red and blue diodes on back
104 1/4 x 58 5/16 x 37 1/8 in. (264.8 x 148.1 x 94.2 cm)
Photo courtesy of Fondation Beyeler

Eagerly awaiting to see text-based works of the kind for which Holzer became famous, I stepped into the next room and was visually assaulted by the breathtaking Purple, a recent installation of thirty-three curved LED signs. Words and fragments of text of U.S. government documents relating to the Iraq war seem to shoot over the installation, resembling a wave of words when viewed from below. The color composition was fascinating, and the LED lights seemed to obstruct all vision of anything else. There could be no doubt what Holzer aims to say about the war in Iraq. 

Jenny Holzer: Green Purple Cross; Blue Cross, 2008
Five double-sided electronic LED signs
Seven double-sided electronic LED signs
Photo courtesy of Fondation Beyeler

Once more follow silkscreen prints — these are the maps of Iraq — but they appear to have no formal relationship with the LED work that precedes them. I couldn’t avoid asking myself how Holzer would pull off such a tour de force of form with her LED work and then follow up with the silkscreens. The latter reduce all form to a kind of common minimum; they only seek to emphasize the intellectual substance of the body of the displayed work: a banal tirade against war. The work that follows, entitled For Chicago, includes sentences such as, „Wenn man gerade feststellt, dass man jemanden nicht mag ist es abscheulich wenn er lächelt und seine Zähne makellos und falsch aussehen." (When you immediately realize that you don’t like someone, it is disgusting when he smiles and his teeth appear flawless and false.)

Jenny Holzer: For Chicago, 2008
Eleven electronic LED signs with amber diodes
 2 3/8 x 334 7/8 x 576 in. (6 x 850.6 x 1463 cm) 
Photo courtesy of Fondation Beyeler

The sloppy thinking and writing seen in sentences such as that one do not fit the image of a politically motivated, challenging artist. They make people laugh, and there is nothing comic in messages built on themes of hatred, death and destruction.

Jenny Holzer: Lustmord Tables, 1994
(multiple bones, some with engraved silver bands, drop-leaf wooden tables)
Photo courtesy of Fondation Beyeler

Toward the end of the show, form gets along a bit better with substance. In the LED work Monument, Holzer’s great accomplishment is in her play of color, speed (the words are always in motion) and text fonts in overlaying and synchronizing forms (what are letters of the alphabet but forms that have accepted meanings?) that are composed into words. It combines a powerful visual complexity with an equally enormous simplicity of content. The evocation of tragedy, however, is diminished by the relative triviality of the displayed headline and by its speed. A headline gives little information without a story that follows. Substance of a kind that reaches the level of art can rarely be achieved in just a few words that flash by in colored lights or stand written on a wall.

Jenny Holzer
Through 24 January 2010
Fondation Beyeler
Baselstrasse 77
CH-4125 Riehen/Basel
Tel: (41) 61 645 97 00 

Headline photo: Portrait of Jenny Holzer
Photo: Nanda Lanfranco

A native of Zurich, Lukas Amacher is a young collector, art critic and founder of the pictorial art blog He last wrote Giacometti in Basel: Too Rich, Not Thin Enough for 

External Related Videos

Biography, interviews and video clips from PBS series Art:21 Art in the Twenty-First Century

Jenny Holzer: Projections
San Diego 2007 · Milan 2007 · Rome 2007 · Toronto 2007 · Washington 2007 · North Adams 2007 · New York 2008 · Chicago 2008

Related Culturekiosque Archives

Jenny Holzer: Archive

Babylon: A Tale of Two Cities

Jeremy Deller: It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq

War in Iraq: The Coordinates of Conflict-Photographs by VII

Twittering from the Ancient World: The Master Strokes of Hassan Massoudy

Iraq: Would It Be So Wrong to Get Out?

I Am As You Will Be: The Skeleton in Art

Contemporary Arab Representations: The Iraqi Equation

Brzezinski Spells it Out to Joe Scarborough

Copyright Law vs. Art and the Papal Censor of the Kissing Nun

Belly's Ache: Palestinian Rapper's Video 'History of Violence' Takes on Iraq War

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