In 2008, Jenny Holzer recast the iconic façade of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City with new light. Every Friday night from September 26 – December 31, Holzer’s text-based light project filled the face of the building with bits of borrowed poetry. Words scrolled upward in white, bold, all capital letters – the words came from the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska. The project occurred at the end of a years-long restoration of the Guggenheim: the Museum had been fenced in by scaffolding so architects, structural engineers, and conservators could prepare for its 50th anniversary in 2009 (Guggenheim Museum Website).
This paper will explore how Holzer’s project, which is aptly named “For the Guggenheim,” was successful in three fronts: 1) in its relationship to the Guggenheim building, or the physical structure 2) in its self-reflexive commentary on the nature of text and the potential for text-based visual art projects 3) in its context of Holzer’s larger body of work.
From 2005- July 2008, the Guggenheim removed eleven coats of paint from its exterior walls that stands over Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. After the many years of repair, which required new concrete and steel, the museum commissioned Holzer to use the new, curving, white walls as a blank canvas. While the building itself needed little decoration after the repairs – it stands as one of the most iconic structures in the world, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright – Holzer’s project would bring attention to the changes and act as a precursor to the museum’s 50th anniversary. Holzer’s project, which centered on the play of light and the reappropriation of a previously static text (which I will explain below), symbolically suggested that the museum itself had entered a new age, a new light and had transformed the environs and surroundings of its busy Manhattan corner. Conceptually, the project was a simple reminder that the structure was, alongside the collections inside, a piece of art and should be viewed as such. What is most important about the relationship between the project and the building is that we understand Holzer used text to draw attention to the building as a piece of art. Holzer used text as color, as light, as movement and as language – she did not intend the audience to only read the text, but to look at the text as it scrolled on the building. She intended the text as a form of visual art, evident in its use of the building as both a blank canvas and a table rasa.
For the text that appears on the front of the Guggenheim, Holzer used selections from the following Szymborska poems: “The End and the Beginning,” “Could Have,” “Children of Our Age,” “In Praise of Feeling Bad about Yourself,” “The Joy of Writing,” “Tortures,” “Parting with a View” and “Some People.” Perhaps the most effective text used in the project comes from the piece “The Joy of Writing.” The poem creates an extended metaphor for the act of writing, for the nature of creating a text. The piece starts with a doe – a fragile female deer – that bounds through the “written woods.” The animal is only an image, a character, created by the author, we realize; the reader also realizes that the character is subject to the author’s pen and must obey dictates of the creator: “Lying in wait/ set to pounce on the blank page/ are letters up to no good,/clutches of/ clauses so subordinate/ they’ll never let her get away.” Then, the hunter, a creation of the author, comes with his rifle. This is the section of the poem Holzer chose to project in white light on the face of the Guggenheim: “Each drop of ink contains a fair supply
of hunters/ equipped with squinting eyes behind their sights/ prepared to swarm the sloping pen at any moment,/surround the doe, and slowly aim their guns.”
The poem ends by commenting on the nature of the author and how writing acts as a tool of preservation: “The joy of writing./ The power of preserving./ Revenge of a mortal hand.” In an act of self-reflexivity, or meta-commentary, Holzer has used as a piece of visual art, a text that is about the act of writing and the power of preservation through the written word. Holzer is not endorsing the message embedded in the poem, however; she is not projecting to the public that written text is the ultimate act of creation and the best form of preservation. She is, rather, recontextualizing, reappropriating the poem as a piece of visual art. By only using a section of the poem and scrolling the text alongside selections of other texts, Holzer is denying us the ability to understand words as narrative; she is denying the formation of a cohesive, logical whole. The audience, the viewer/reader, cannot understand the text within its traditional framework. This effect could have been accomplished by using any text, but Holzer smartly uses a text that is about the nature of text to deepen the aesthetic conceit.
The Guggenheim project is also successful as a continuation of Holzer’s overall body of work that has for three decades examined the role of the written word in relation to visual art. The 2008 project at the Guggeheim was not her first show at the museum. In 1989, she showed a retrospective installation; the Guggenheim described it as such:
In Holzer’s 1989 retrospective installation at the Guggenheim Museum, blinking messages from her various series, programmed to an insistent but silent beat, raced the length of an L.E.D. display board installed along the winding inner wall of Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral ramp. The museum’s rotunda was transformed into a dazzling electronic arcade. In bringing her art from the street to the museum, Holzer focused on an audience that differed markedly from the unsuspecting passerby. The Guggenheim visitors who stood beneath the revolving ribbons of red, green, and yellow texts were more likely to be aware that this installation brought up such issues as the viability of public art, the commodification and consumption of art, and the conflation of the personal and the political—in short, some of the pressing issues of American art in the 1980s.
(Guggenheim Museum Website)
Regardless of the content of her “blinking messages,” simply to have the text-based project inside the museum, and to be treated as installation or sculpture, as visual art, is validation of Holzer’s mission to transform the nature of text. As noted, much of her work previously appeared outside on streets or in random public locations: Her invitation inside the gallery and eventual 2008 project, would not have been possible without modern technology and digital mediums that have intrinsically transformed the nature of text from static to dynamic and flexible. These art projects would not have been possible if Holzer had not intentionally exploited this aspect of the digital to creatively showcase the new nature of text.
Recontextualization of text