Felix Gonzalez-Torres Artworks
American Conceptual, Post-Minimalist and Relational Aesthetics Artist
Progression of Art
"Untitled" (Loverboy) consists of two sets of gauzy light blue curtains hanging in front of open (or closed) windows. The work showcases Gonzalez-Torres's ability to move the viewer with simple but evocative materials that reference the rich history of modern art, while leaving the final meaning of the work open to interpretation. French windows and curtains may be commonplace fixtures, but they assume new meaning when encountered in a fine art installation. Here, the windowpane's grids immediately recalls similar forms in early-20th-century paintings like those by Piet Mondrian and masterworks of Minimalism by artists including Donald Judd and Sol Lewitt.
And yet the delicate and diaphanous curtains are closer in tone to the Post-minimalist works of Eva Hesse, whose Continent series had a strong impact on the young Gonzalez-Torres. As they quiver in the wind, the sheer curtains serve as reminders of human habitation in a space that is otherwise left empty. The fabric records the slightest outside breeze or movement within the gallery, becoming a fragile visual representation of unseen, absent forces. The open windows further suggest a sudden or unplanned exit, foreshadowing the loss of the artist's longtime partner, Ross Laycock, who was living with AIDS.
Objects in Gonzalez-Torres's oeuvre often come in twos: curtains, clocks, pillows, and other pairs are allegories for romantic unions (particularly his relationship with Laycock). Following Laycock's death in 1991, Gonzalez-Torres produced a public billboard, "Untitled", an image of two pillows, each with a central depression, signifying the absence of the corresponding bodies. Like the present work, the billboard images evoked themes of intimacy, loss, and mortality.
Blue fabric and hanging device
"Untitled" (Perfect Lovers)
"Untitled" (Perfect Lovers) is an installation of two identical, battery-operated clocks, synchronized and hanging side-by-side. As ordinary objects elevated to the level of fine art, the clocks undoubtedly reference the Duchampian readymade, and, with their austere forms and serial repetition, Minimalist sculpture. Like all of Gonzalez-Torres's works, however, mundane materials are springboards for subtle personal and political meanings that vary with their context. The viewer's response to the clocks shifts dramatically knowing that the artist created the installation while his partner Ross Laycock was dying from AIDS. Gonzalez-Torres acknowledged that clocks would fall out of synch, one eventually stopping first. "Time is something that scares me . . . or used to. This piece I made with the two clocks was the scariest thing I have ever done. I wanted to face it. I wanted those two clocks right in front of me, ticking."
On the other hand, the clocks exemplify his desire to create works with multiple possible meanings. Although it obviously reflects his own homosexual relationship, the abstract nature of the clocks' substitution for bodies allows it to be read generally, as a metaphor for love. Gonzalez-Torres explained how he resisted the label of "gay art" during a period of increased censorship and furor over the NEA funding for Robert Mapplethorpe: "Two clocks side by side are much more threatening to the powers that be than an image of two guys sucking each other's dicks, because they cannot use me as a rallying point in their battle to erase meaning. It is going to be very difficult for members of Congress to tell their constituents that money is being expended for the promotion of homosexual art when all they have to show are two plugs side by side, or two mirrors side by side..."
Gonzalez-Torres often produced multiple versions of his installations, and his detailed instructions for their display became an important element of the piece itself. For "Untitled" (Perfect Lovers), the instructions require the commercial clocks to be of exact dimensions and design and that they touch; before the exhibition opens the hands are set to the same time; an essential part of the work is that the clocks can be perpetually reset and, therefore, the work is infinite. A rule around the work is that the clocks can fall out of sync but if one of the clocks stop, they are fixed or replaced, as the case may be. With such directions, Gonzalez-Torres created the basic boundaries of the work, while still allowing for certain flexibility in any given exhibition or installation.
Dallas Museum of Art
"Untitled" (Death by Gun)
The stack of posters, "Untitled" (Death by Gun), reproduces a composite image of 460 individuals killed by gunshots in a single week in the United States. Each copy includes the name, age, and circumstances surrounding the individual's death. Gonzalez-Torres encouraged museumgoers to take one of the photolithographs from the stack, allowing for exhibitors to renew the stack as it was depleted. Again, the artist played with the conventions of the boxy, Minimalist sculptures of Donald Judd and Carl Andre - reworking their solid forms as a constantly changing cube.
Although it may seem that by calling attention to gun violence Gonzalez-Torres was suggesting the Minimalists had avoided politics, in fact he was consciously updating their phenomenological strategy, which insisted on the viewer as the point of interpretation and activation of the work.
Gonzalez-Torres, along with other artists associated with relational aesthetics and the Pictures Generation, furthered the concept of participation as a political act. Instead of simply walking across a sculpture, as with Andre's floor sculptures, the audience takes a piece of it home with them. "Untitled" (Death by Gun) also relates to the political legacy of printmaking as a cheap and easy way to distribute information, raise awareness, and galvanize the public.
Print on paper, endless copies - Museum of Modern Art, New York
"Untitled" (Go-Go Dancing Platform)
"Untitled" (Go-Go Dancing Platform) is just that: an austere box, painted white, with bare incandescent bulbs tracing the perimeter. For the vast majority of the time, it is an unused stage, activated only by the presence of an actual Go-Go dancer. Gonzalez-Torres did not specify the gender of the Go-Go Dancer, but he did insist that he or she wear silver lame bottoms.
The artwork offers a host of art historical and social meanings. Like many of the artist's hard-edged, modular works, it recalls Minimalist sculpture, but the addition of a living human invests the formal movement with what SFMOMA curator Gary Garrels has described as a "kind of poetic, romantic, social, and cultural dimension." Furthermore, a barely clad Go-Go dancer in the middle of a museum can only be described as somewhat out of the ordinary - a dreamlike or absurd situation that represents a postmodern continuation of Surrealist strategies, as well as a kind of "happening" in the spirit of the impromptu events first realized by avant-garde artists such as Alan Kaprow in the 1960s.
Lastly, the "Untitled" (Go-Go Dancing Platform) introduces a blatantly homoerotic moment to the space of the museum, where scenes of heterosexual desire are typically dominant. For centuries gay artists and gay subjects were suppressed, marginalized, or white-washed, and Gonzalez-Torres was determined to reverse this process.
Wood, light bulbs, acrylic paints and Go-Go Dancer in silver lame bikini (when installed publicly) - Private Collection
"Untitled" (It's Just a Matter of Time)
"Untitled" (It's Just a Matter of Time) was originally exhibited in conjunction with the exhibition "Gegendarstellung: Ethics/Aesthetics in Times of AIDS" at the Kunstverein in Hamburg, Germany. The phrase "It's Just a Matter of Time" was set in a classic blackletter, or Fraktur typeface, prompting immediate associations with Nazi Germany, during which it was used heavily as the "true" German script. During the Hamburg exhibition, billboards with the same phrase were erected in many cities across the world; the sign was translated to the official language of each country, including examples in Japan, India, Colombia, Canada, and a number of European cities.
Gonzalez-Torres appropriated the billboard format, which is inextricably linked with commerce, to promote a less tangible product: awareness. The billboard exhorts the public to consider how often similar spaces advertise worthless, interchangeable products in the face of urgent social issues, such as the fight against AIDS. And yet, like most of his work, despite how direct the billboard message is, Gonzalez-Torres leaves room for contradictory conclusions and interpretations, imploring the viewer to supply its meaning.
The phrase "It's Just a Matter of Time" is a dependent clause without an accompanying one to complete it, emphasizing both vagueness, and serving as a metaphor for isolation, and the many who lost loved ones to the disease, including the artist himself. It is only a matter of time, until what? The public is forced to answer the question for themselves, placing themselves within (rather than outside) the evolving conversation about AIDS, sexuality, and public health that was taking place in the early 1990s.
"Untitled" (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)
This is one of Gonzalez-Torres's most recognizable works, consisting of an endlessly renewable pile of individually wrapped candies with an "ideal" total weight of 175 lbs., a number that corresponds to his partner Ross's healthy weight (before he contracted HIV). Known colloquially as a "candy spill," the artist produced a number of similar works, in different sizes, colors, and shapes. They diminish as visitors take candy from the pile, and are then replenished, in a cycle reminiscent of life and death. Many of the spills were considered portraits, their forms suggested by some aspect of a person; weight, color, or to other personal associations the artist made.
Gonzalez Torres once remarked that "the most successful of all political moves are ones that don't appear to be 'political.'" Although many visitors to a "candy spill" experience it as an illicit, pleasurable moment in the highly regulated environment of a museum gallery, the artist may have also intended a darker meaning. As the viewer unwraps and eats the candy, he or she becomes complicit in the disappearing process - akin to the years-long public health crisis of HIV/AIDS, during which many stigmatized the disease as "gay cancer," leading to the failure to adequately support research or treatments, and ultimately, to thousands of early deaths.
Candies, individually wrapped in multicolored cellophane
"Untitled" (Petit Palais)
The two intertwining strands of blubs that comprise "Untitled" (Petit Palais) cascade from the ceiling, forming a pool of light on the ground. The artist created twenty-four different "light-strings" and though they are similar, they have different titles, number of bulbs, and number of strings.
When asked how the piece should be displayed, Gonzalez-Torres responded: "I don't necessarily know how these pieces are best displayed. I don't have all of the answers - you [the owner] decide how you want it done. Whatever you want to do, try it. This is not some Minimalist artwork that has to be exactly two inches to the left and six inches down. Play with it, please. Have fun. Give yourself that freedom. Put my creativity into question..." This desire for an infinite number of open-ended possibilities relates to the artist's belief in leaving the final meaning of his work to the audience (and the local institution that presents it). His insistence on mutability may have helped extend the relevance of his work for new generations, as they are reinterpreted in new contexts.
Like so much of his work, the light-strings transform the familiar into the disquieting, in a beautiful meditation on love (the embrace of the strings), and life and death (light and dark). These associations are further emphasized by the lights' ephemeral nature, which burn out and must be replaced.
Light bulbs, porcelain light sockets and extension cords - Philadelphia Museum of Art