Monday, March 23, 2009

Jenny Holtzer @ The Whitney

The young people in my group were unmoved by the sacred room of canonized contemporaries on the 4th floor of the Whitney. A glance at a Jasper Johns flag painting elicited a wince from one, who said he felt nothing for it. And he waved a hand at DeKooning's Woman with a Bicycle: "all DeKoonings look the same."

His friends wandered listlessly. To me, it felt like homework. These cold dead paintings here, at the stalwart Whitney, have a whiff of the classroom, accompanied as they are, with didactic wall plaques and huge titles proclaiming "Gesture" and "Concept" as the milestones that the ancient moderns were measured by. They had nothing whatever over the Jenny Holtzer show we'd just seen downstairs.

On the third floor, the rooms were lit with purple, blue and yellow lights whirling and running along the floors and across thresholds, arching around corners and flashing a decadent night glow onto the usually pure white walls. The crowd tried to inhabit the rooms, instinctively moved to sit and lean and stay a while. A beer would have been nice. Some throw pillows. But the guards were old school. Too bad.

For Jenny Holtzer's pieces, you really should stay a while. You really should share the space with them. And it helps to let the words flash into your mind --and to take in the way they change the room.

The guards should have laid off. They should have been happy to see people getting so close to the work. Wanting to walk through it and sit near it and watch it. Anyone had to feel the relief of finally seeing art live again. The oils upstairs, moving slowly downward with gravity, lined up like school girls against the pristine walls, they have something new to teach us: we can't go back there.

The thing about the Holtzer pieces is that they are experienced uniquely by each mind that processes them. With no beginning, middle, and end: the viewer presents herself to the work and lets it present itself to her. It's an exchange, a trade, and it begins when I stand here and look there and watch the well-tempered lights move into me or around me or over me or past me.

It is the new direction of popular contemporary art: installation, performance, street "interventions": they are created with not just an onlooker, in mind, but an experience -- and often one where the artist and the viewer trade roles, the artist's work becoming a medium for the creative viewer to work with.

Upstairs, the atmosphere reeks of school books and wrote learning: these were the color field artists, and these, the abstract expressionists. Downstairs the spinning lights defied study -- this crowd had no time for DeKooning with his threatening women grinning forever in thick ecru.