NEW YORK — IT'S quite uncanny. Looking up inside a darkened Guggenheim Museum, one sees an upward-circling stream of electronic messages snaking along the outer edge of the museum's first three tiers and then abruptly disappearing from view. The messages - ``A relaxed man is not necessarily a better man,'' ``A name means a lot just by itself,'' and more - constitute the major portion of the largest and most extensive museum installation of Jenny Holzer's work to date.
Ms. Holzer first began using words in paintings back in her graduate school days at the Rhode Island School of Design in the late 1970s. From there she went on to make language itself her primary medium. Her first major series, ``Truisms'' of 1977-79, consisted of one-line ``mock-clich'es,'' in which she simplified theoretical statements on modern culture, for example: ``Abuse of power comes as no surprise''; ``Chasing the new is dangerous to society.'' Subsequent series, including ``Inflammatory Essays,'' ``The Living Series,'' and ``The Survival Series,'' have become more personal and more pointed.
Although Holzer's work has been shown throughout the world (railway cars in Hamburg, Germany, for instance, were painted with her ``Truisms'' in October, 1987), she has never had anything quite like the Guggenheim Museum to work with before. From top to bottom, it is hers for the length of the exhibition, and she has taken full advantage of the opportunity to create an environment entirely conducive to her vision.
The visitor enters her darkened world, moves around in it (viewing the electronic installation from various heights and angles along the ramp is highly recommended), and either reads her messages in their entirety or dips into them.
Also on view are 17 red granite benches arranged in a large circle on the ground floor and 27 white granite benches placed in tight formation in the small circular gallery just off the ramp's first tier. The benches of both groups have been carved with messages that also appear on the moving electronic sign that snakes up the first three tiers.
The sign itself, which measures almost a foot in height and 535 feet in length, allows for shifts in color, speed, typeface, and occasionally direction. Different messages follow one another without interruption. Seen from any of the tiers (all of which have been stripped of other art), the words and sentences assume a powerful life of their own. Their rapidly movement, color, and subtly provocative contents demand the viewer's total attention. One gives it - not unwillingly - and becomes caught up both by the electronic effects and by what the artist wants to communicate.
To follow the messages to the end is to participate in a kind of mini-retrospective of Holzer's work to date. Most of them have already appeared in different forms - some on posters, stickers, metal plaques, T-shirts, and airport baggage carrousels; others on the 800-square-foot Spectacolor Board in New York's Times Square, the video scoreboard in San Francisco's Candlestick Park, and the cable music-video channel MTV.
All clearly reflect Holzer's vision and purpose. Using direct, unadorned language, she comments on the human condition. Her more intriguing messages include: ``Protect me from what I want''; ``The breakdown comes when you stop controlling yourself and want the release of a bloodbath''; and ``It takes a while before you can step over inert bodies and go ahead with what you were trying to do.''
Read on a printed page, these messages are arresting enough. Seen on a monumental electronic sign high above Times Square or snaking along the Guggenheim's ramp, they command extraordinary attention.
The open-minded visitor cannot help but be affected, at least to some degree, by Holzer's attitude and efforts. Some may claim that what she produces isn't art - and perhaps, by traditional standards, it's not. But it would be wise for these critics to suspend judgment until they've seen either this exhibition or the installation Holzer is planning for the American Pavilion at the 1990 Venice Biennale. These may not change their minds, but then again they might.
At the Guggenheim Museum through Feb. 11.