Jenny Holzer researches U.S. government documents, many released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and often heavily redacted, using them as source material for works that expose the fault lines and sometimes transparency of American political power.
Her redaction paintings meticulously reproduce the documents unearthed—originally concerning the global “War on Terror” and U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more recently related to the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the Trump administration, as with Thank you (2021). The documents are traced onto linen and then covered in paint and swaths of metal leaf. By reproducing elements of these reports so carefully, Holzer can highlight the government’s revelations as well as the deliberate erasure and concealment of information. Thank you, with its gilded surfaces, zones of text and rectangular redactions, extends this body of work with its blend of historical reference and contemporary relevance.
Below, Nick Morgan examines Jenny Holzer’s Thank You, in the context of her redacted paintings and silkscreens. Morgan teaches art history at Columbia University. His essays and criticism have appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Artforum, Garage, Hyperallergic and the Financial Times Sunday Magazine, as well as scholarly journals such as ArtMargins and TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly.
Looking at Thank you—a 2021 painting by Jenny Holzer, which reproduces a page from a government transcript of the first deposition in the 2019 impeachment of Donald Trump—it is hard not to think of the disgraced politician’s own aesthetic predilections. The work is lavish: Holzer has crafted the image out of gold, platinum and a palimpsest of oil paints. Trump’s brand, meanwhile, is indelibly linked with gold: recall the gilded furnishings of his Fifth Avenue penthouse, or the glinting lettering of his name outside that and other Trump towers. Accounts of the Trump aesthetic, and how this aesthetic might reveal something about his politics, proliferated during his term in office.
If Trumpland endlessly dallied with the meretricious, Holzer looks to that glitter and tells a different story, one that has to do with the resonances and histories of materials as much as the hypnotizing if repulsive pull of the present moment. Put simply, the artist trades fool’s gold for real ore. I mean this literally: like Byzantine icon-makers, medieval manuscript illuminators and early Renaissance painters, Holzer here has turned to the precious material in leaf form. Within such earlier, religious paintings, gold introduced an experience of the divine as luminous, immaterial and intangible. A magpie instinct would have drawn viewers into the fold, something Holzer accomplishes here to different ends: the painting’s alluring aesthetic qualities capture attention and encourage the spectator to consider the content (or pointed lack thereof) in the bureaucratic source material.
Renaissance art theorist Leon Battista Alberti worried over the use of gold by artists such as the Heiligenkreuz Master, stating that “when done in gold on a flat panel, many surfaces that should have been presented as light and gleaming, appear dark to the viewer, while others that should be darker, probably look brighter.” For Holzer, this destabilization is an advantage. With its large scale, Thank you encourages an embodied mode of viewing that unleashes the capacities of Alberti’s oscillation. As the viewer approaches and retreats, different facets of the canvas come into and out of perceptibility. Gold leaf is manufactured in small squares, and from certain vantages the resulting grid of cubes knitting the overall composition of Thank you together becomes apparent. Agnes Martin mobilized a similar dynamic in the 1963 work Friendship. Holzer, like Martin (whose work she admires), reciprocates the viewer’s close looking with a meditative sense of underlying structure. Multiple layers of oil paint in yellows, oranges and burnt sienna resting underneath the leaf also sometimes shine through. Gentle abrasion of the leaf hint at murky depths below, like small interruptions of truth piercing an alluring veil. Seemingly oxidized patches of red ground at the margins and on the sides of the canvas recall Martin’s sgraffito in Friendship, suggesting hidden depths and submerged subtexts—and are just beautiful. This palimpsestic quality produces a sense of concealing and revealing, or rather of getting as much as you can from what is concealed and is going to stay that way. It’s a lesson in dealing with withholding and truculence (like that betrayed by some of the belligerent politicians recorded elsewhere in the transcript).
Unlike many of Holzer’s earlier paintings, Thank you is not drawn from a declassified document. Rather, impeachment managers chose to release it to the general public about a month after the interview took place, with only minor redactions. The transcript was never classified, and indeed various officials throughout the deposition are at pains to clarify that none of what Volker shares—and that thus shows up in the transcript—is classified. This is important: that even a non-classified document bears the marks of redaction speaks to the opacity that characterizes governmental discourse in the very moment it declares itself at the apex of its own openness. The painting materializes a battle for control over information, optics, access and visibility. In this way it is similar to the full transcript, in which staffers and senators have it out over who has access to the record of this speech and what of that speech counts as real, as true. Top impeachment investigator Daniel Goldman, figuring in the transcript like a white knight for transparency, cites Obama’s Executive Order 13526, which replaced the Bush administration’s restrictive declassification policy (which had led to many of the redacted documents used in earlier phases of Holzer’s painting). Among the stipulations in EO13526, Goldman notes for the record, is that “In no case shall information be classified, continue to be maintained as classified, or fail to be declassified in order to conceal violations of law.”
Jenny Holzer (*1950, Gallipolis, OH) lives and works in New York. Selected solo shows include Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao (2019), and Tate Modern, London (2019), Massachusetts Museum of Modern Art, North Adams (2017–present), Blenheim Art Foundation, Woodstock (2017), Lune Rouge and Art Projects Ibiza (2016), Museo Correr, Venice (2015), Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin (2011, 2001), DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art, Montreal and The Baltic, Gateshead (both 2010), Foundation Beyeler, Basel and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (both 2009), The Barbican Centre, London (2006), Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (1991), Hamburger Kunsthalle (2000), ICA, London (1988), as well as Dia Art Foundation, New York and Guggenheim Museum, New York (both 1989). Group shows include Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and The Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (both 2020), MoMA PS1, New York (2019), Whitney Museum, New York (2015, 1996, 1989, 1988, 1983), Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2014), Hayward Gallery, London (2013, 1992), Malba, Buenos Aires (2012), Victoria and Albert Museum, London (2011), The Barbican Centre, London (2008), MoMA, New York (2008, 2005, 1997, 1996, 1992, 1988), Venice Biennale, Venice (2005), Centre Pompidou, Paris (2005, 2000, 1995, 1990, 1988), and documenta 8, Kassel (1987).