‘Jenny Holzer: Light Line’ at the Guggenheim

Writing Words in Space

John Hill
17. May 2024
Photo: John Hill/World-Architects

Jenny Holzer: Light Line is not the first time the New York artist has commandeered the atrium of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum for her text-based art. The exhibition comes 35 years after a monographic show was installed in the museum, its main piece wrapping half of the spiraling ramps with an LED sign — at 535 feet (163 m), it was the longest in the world at the time — displaying, like an arty news ticker, enigmatic and socially charged statements. It was as if Times Square was supplanted to the Guggenheim. The New York Times art critic wrote upon its opening in December 1989, “The museum has never looked, nor felt, quite like this.”

Jenny Holzer, Untitled (Selections from Truisms, Inflammatory Essays, The Living Series, The Survival Series, Under a Rock, Laments, and Child Text), 1989. Extended helical tricolor L.E.D. electronic-display signboard, site-specific dimensions. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Partial gift of the artist, 1989; Gift, Jay Chiat, 1995; and purchased with funds contributed by the International Director's Council and Executive Members, 89.3626. © 2023 Jenny Holzer. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

The installation of the earlier Jenny Holzer exhibition coincided with the Guggenheim's 30th anniversary. Right after the exhibition wrapped, in February 1990, the museum closed for two years for the construction of the controversial annex designed by Charles Gwathmey. The timing was also notable because Holzer followed the Guggenheim show by filling the US Pavilion at the 1990 Venice Art Biennale with her LED language art (she was the first woman to represent the US in Venice), winning the Golden Lion for best national representation. The one-two punch of the Guggenheim and Biennale brought her international acclaim and helped make her a household name.

Decades later, Holzer's LED ticker is considered arguably the greatest site-specific installation in the Guggenheim's rotunda, but, given that it was on display for just two months, it was seen by very few people. With Jenny Holzer: Light Line, which features a reimagining of the 1989 artwork, many more people will have a chance to see an even larger installation of the LED sign, alongside other old and recent works by the artist. World-Architects got a peek of the exhibition ahead of today's opening and offers the following visual tour accompanied by captions with our impressions.

The 1989 LED sign, as seen in the previous photo, wrapped the atrium three times, but the current installation covers all six ramps and reaches a length of approximately 900 feet (274 m). (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)
Holzer's statements start near the base of the rotunda and move in a counterclockwise direction, ascending the ramps in the same direction that many visitors will. (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)
The spacing of the words helps museum-goers grasp the individual statements, though we were less enamored with the what was being said than how the words were expressed and how the installation was incorporated into the atrium. (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)
Once on the ramp, the attachment of the LED sign over the top edge of the guardrail is evident. (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)
“The new sign was the subject of an ambitious research project,” a statement from the Guggenheim explains, in which “Guggenheim conservators reverse-engineered the 1989 LED hardware and computer program” but also incorporated technology upgrades. (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)
The upgrades include incorporating AI technology to create digital effects, in which the words shake or pulse at times or are overlaid with static, racing lines, or other effects. (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)
Photos don't do the installation justice, so be sure to click play on this video incorporating footage from yesterday's preview.
The secondary artworks that accompany the atrium installation are sparse, spaced out across the ramps, and encountered as one ascends or descends them, though the colorful Inflammatory Wall (1979–82) in the double-height atrium off the lobby almost screams for attention. (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)
One of the fairly recent pieces is Cursed (2022), comprising nearly 300 lead and copper plates stamped with statements Donald Trump tweeted during his first term as US president. (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)
Some pieces, such as this plaque from Holzer's Survival series (1984), are tucked away in hidden, mundane places, to be discovered by wandering visitors. (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)

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