Felix Gonzalez-Torres - Biography and Legacy
American Conceptual, Post-Minimalist and Relational Aesthetics Artist
Biography of Felix Gonzalez-Torres
Felix Gonzalez-Torres was born in Guaimaro, Cuba in 1957, the third of four children. He and his sister Gloria relocated that year to an orphanage in Madrid, Spain before eventually settling in Puerto Rico with their uncle. He graduated from Colegio San Jorge in 1976, and began to take art classes at the University of Puerto Rico while becoming involved in the local art scene.
In 1979, he moved to New York City to pursue a degree in photography at Pratt Institute. This was an exciting time to be in New York: artists were responding to the exhaustion of the Minimalist movement with the opposing strategies of Neo-Expressionist painting and the various approaches of Postmodernism, often emphasizing photography, appropriation, and cultural critique. During this period Gonzalez-Torres participated in the Whitney Independent Study Program twice, once in 1980 and a second time in 1983, the year he received his BFA. In 1987 he received an MFA from the International Center of Photography, but it was the Whitney program that he credited with introducing him to the theoretical framework that shaped his early artistic practice.
In a 1993 interview with artist Tim Collins, Gonzalez-Torres said that feminism and the writings of philosophers Roland Barthes, Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin, and Michel Foucault (among others) were critical to his development. "[Without them] I wouldn't have been able to make certain pieces, to arrive at certain positions. Some of their writings and ideas gave me a certain freedom to see. These ideas moved me to a place of pleasure through knowledge and some understanding of the way reality is constructed, of the way the self is formed in culture, of the way language sets traps, and of the cracks in the 'master narrative,' those cracks where power can be exercised."
One of Gonzalez-Torres's most significant inspirations was his long-term relationship with Ross Laycock. Laycock was a Canadian who moved to New York in 1980, though he later returned to Toronto to study biochemistry and English, before eventually becoming a sommelier and AIDS activist. The two met in 1983 and were "intertwined like a helix." Following a lengthy illness, Laycock died of AIDS-related complications in 1991; his life and his loss had a profound effect on Gonzalez-Torres, who wrote that his art was "First and foremost [...] about Ross."
From 1987 to 1991 Gonzalez-Torres was an active member of Group Material, a New York based collective founded in 1980 by artists including Julie Ault, Tim Rollins, and Doug Ashford. By the time he became a member, the group was small but well known for their collaborative ethos (against the authorial voice of a single artist), cultural activism, and Institutional Critique. Group Material used the exhibition as their medium, calling attention to social issues like homelessness, US intervention in Latin America, gender inequality, and sexuality. Most of all, Group Material shared his belief that aesthetics and politics are inseparable - refusing to be labeled "political" artists, their work, and Gonzalez-Torres's individual practice, insisted on the importance of the aesthetic experience and personal history. Incorporating these influences, Gonzalez-Torres took up the legacies of Minimalism and feminism in surprisingly simple but affective ways.
Many of Gonzalez-Torres's mature artworks were series or editions that iterated on similar materials or forms. The most famous of these include his "datelines" of text and dates printed on monochromatic backgrounds, begun in 1987, and which later evolved into his word-portraits; the billboards and stacks, which both originated in 1989 as public art anti-monuments; the light-strings, which first appeared in 1991 when his lover Laycock died; and the candy spills, which emerged in 1990.
Gonzalez-Torres's rise to prominence in the late 1980s was swift. Following his third solo gallery show in New York in 1988, the artist was invited to do a solo project at the New Museum. In 1989, the Berkeley Art Museum and the Pacific Film Archive asked Group Material to participate in an exhibition at the MATRIX Gallery in Berkeley, California focused on the AIDS epidemic. Also, in 1989, Gonzalez-Torres erected a billboard in Sheridan Square, New York City, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, the uprising by members of the LGBTQ community against police oppression considered a seminal event in the gay rights movement. During this year, he also began producing the "stacks" of pages printed with text and/or images that the artists intended to be depleted and replaced as gallery goers took sheets from the pile.
In 1990, Gonzalez-Torres began exhibiting with Andrea Rosen Gallery, which continues to represent the estate of the artist today. The same year, during Roni Horn's solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Gonzalez-Torres encountered her Gold Field (1980-82) sculptures, consisting of two pounds of gold compressed into a radiant rectangular mat. Later, he created his candy spills, comprised of either piles or carpets of wrapped candies, many of which were explicitly portraits or metaphors for the body. Acknowledging Horn's influence, Gonzalez-Torres created a gold cellophane candy spill inspired by her, named "Untitled" (Placebo - Landscape - for Roni). That year, he was honored with a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts for the second time (the first was in 1989).
In 1991, Gonzalez-Torres's partner of eight-years, Ross Laycock, passed away from complications related to the AIDS virus. Coinciding with this tragic loss was a time of fertile productive output, during which the artist inaugurated some of his most impactful works. In 1991, the artist also realized the first examples of his curtains of gilded beads, which suggest the possibility of a mystical portal into another dimension (or afterlife), and evoke the orbs that present in a molecular model - an oblique reference to the scientific efforts to find a cure for HIV/AIDS. Gonzalez-Torres also first debuted his light string sculptures consisting of two intertwining cords connected to an array of low-wattage lightbulbs - a poetic and stirring meditation on mortality and loss. In 1992, he was granted a DAAD fellowship to live and work in Berlin. Toward the end of his life he had several important museum exhibitions, including a retrospective at the Guggenheim (1995) and "Traveling," which went from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles to the Hirschhorn Museum, Washington, D.C. and the Renaissance Society, Chicago (1994).
The artist continued to innovate despite his own illness, repurposing materials that might otherwise be excluded from a fine art gallery, but that he found beautiful or meaningful. He created a series of curtains of plastic beads, for example, whose titles, like "Untitled" (Chemo) and "Untitled" (Blood), caused typically dissonant associations in contrast to their visual appearance, which evoke festive decorations and discos. Gonzalez-Torres died in Miami of AIDS-related illness complications in 1996. He was 38 years old.
The Legacy of Felix Gonzalez-Torres
The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation was set up in 2002 to honor and continue the artist's legacy. In 2007, Gonzalez-Torres became the second American artist, after Robert Smithson, to be posthumously chosen to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. Gonzalez-Torres's body of work continues to resonate with a new generation of artists, searching to create stirring and interactive art experiences, and to produce subtle artworks that are both politically radical and stand on their own as aesthetic objects. The combination of minimalist forms and personal history evident in the work of Alex Da Corte also reflects the conceptual influence of Gonzalez-Torres, as does the audience participation aspect of Tino Sehgal and Rikrit Tiravanijas' practices. His influence is also clearly felt in the work of artists who use performance or forms of abstraction to address urgent social and political issues, including Doris Salcedo and Santiago Sierra.