Jenny Holzer’s Top Secret Papers

After seeing these epic FOIA monochromes from the Dept. of Homeland Security a few years ago, I’ve been collecting the best examples of redacted documents. I’ve never quite figured out what to do with them. Maybe a book.
I know Jenny Holzer’s been working on it for a while now. But I found her first batch of giant silkscreen on linen Redaction Paintings a little too slick. The Dust Paintings and Constructivist-inspired redaction paintings she showed this fall, though, are pretty great. Score one for the hand.
But then I just noticed this rather incredible, mysterious, and seemingly modest object in an upcoming Rago Arts auction. It’s a large (35×27 in) work titled Enhanced Techniques 3, and it’s described as a signed sheet of handmade paper. So the redaction is molded right in! I think Holzer has a winner here. But what? Where? And why is this thing only estimated to sell for $1000-1500?
A search for Holzer and handmade paper turn up other, similar pieces in the flotsam-filled auction reporting sites and secondary market print dealers. Try as they might, MutualArt couldn’t hide the fact that Rago had sold a handmade paper piece called Top Secret 24 last Spring. Rago certainly doesn’t want to hide it. I’d never thought of redaction in the same context of watermarking before.
On Caviar20 Top Secret 24 is pitched as Holzer’s “return to painting.” Hmm. At least they finally have pictures showing where this damn thing comes from. It’s ironic that people selling artworks about redaction leave out so much basic information.
griffelkunst director Dirk Dobke sitting in front of Jenny Holzer’s Top Secret portfolio. image:
Anyway, the answer is griffelkunst, a 90-year-old print association in Hamburg with 4,500 subscribers and a closed 5-year-waitlist. Members pay €132/year for four contemporary artworks, which the association, currently led by curator Dirk Dobke, commissions and produces.
I don’t quite understand how that maps to Holzer’s Top Secret project, which was a suite of six handmade paper redaction editions, available to members only for €150 apiece, or €900 for the set. I guess they made as many as people ordered?
The labor-intensive process sounds like it syncs nicely with the subject: the white pulp on the redacted areas was scooped out by hand and filled in with black as each sheet was being made. And all of this sounds like fascinating context and backstory for the work. But no one’s using it to sell these things; just the opposite, they’re keeping it quiet. Whether it’s because griffelkunst frowns on flipping, or because it’s hard to explain a 10-20x markup, I can’t say.
Holding back information is power, and the occlusion of information comes as no surprise. Strategic vagueness and decontextualization is as likely an art-selling technique as transparency and information overload. That same Rago auction also has an atypical-looking Ad Reinhardt. Well, it might look typical, but the small black monochrome square is actually an edition, silkscreened on plexiglass. It was “from NY International, 1966,” which turns out to be the title of a 10-artist Tanglewood Press print/multiples portfolio organized by Henry Geldzahler. Portfolios like these get broken up, and the slightly more marketable pieces parted out, all the time. But so many dealers and auctioneers redact the reason and context for which the artist created the work as part of their enhanced sales techniques.