Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a Master of Mutability
My old friend Shepherd Raimi, who had some 30 years on me, used to say over and over, mantra-like — I can still hear his voice — “Everything changes. All the time.” He wasn’t offering an observation. He was delivering a life lesson, to me, to himself, to anyone listening.
Covid has recently pounded that lesson home hard, but some of us were learning it long before, back in the 1980s and early 90s, as H.I.V./AIDS scythed through our L.G.B.T.Q. community.
The New York artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres was learning it then too, from intimate experience. In 1991, he watched the man who was the love of his life waste away and die of AIDS. Five years later, the artist himself succumbed to complications from the disease.
He was 38. His career as an exhibiting artist was barely a decade old. And it was already an astonishment, as is instantly apparent in a lambent survey at David Zwirner, a show that restages some of his work, gives material form to two major pieces he left unrealized, and demonstrates how, in art, as in memory, preservation and change can coexist.
The love of material form and the awareness of loss were the closely synced engines of Gonzalez-Torres’s art. By his own account, loss in his life started early. Born in 1957 in pre-revolutionary Cuba, he was shipped off by his family to live with unwelcoming relatives in Spain, then sent to Puerto Rico, and then to the United States, landing in New York in 1979.
All this movement meant a constant destabilizing loss of people and places, but it brought gains too. For a gay man, post-Stonewall New York was a socially and politically stimulating place to be. In 1983 he met his life-partner, Ross Laycock, here. And for an ambitious artist, the city was a natural resource, with a local history of Minimalism and Conceptualism still warm, and the push to initiate a history of art-world inclusion, by gender, sexual identity and ethnicity, just kicking in.
From Minimalism, Gonzalez-Torres borrowed specific forms: Donald Judd’s blank wood or steel boxes; Carl Andre’s horizontal wood or stone floor pieces; Richard Serra’s wall-hugging splashes of congealed molten lead. And from Conceptualism, he adopted a material ideal that Minimalism seemed designed to resist: ephemerality. His version of Judd boxes were stacks of hundreds, sometimes thousands of loose sheets of paper. His Andre-esque floor pieces, and his version of Serra’s lead piles, were spreads and spills of cellophane-wrapped hard candies, often chosen for their specific color or shape, with quantity measured by specified, sometimes symbolic pound weight.
To some of this work he added a political content, overt or implied. In a 1990 stacked paper piece called “Untitled” (Death by Gun), all the individual sheets were printed with the names, and some photographs, of 460 people killed by guns in the United States in a single week. A 1991 candy piece called “Untitled” (Public Opinion), which has been recreated in two different formats at Zwirner, the licorice-flavored sweets used — lozenge-shaped and gunmetal gray in color — resemble bullet cartridges.
The crucial conceptual feature of such work, though, is that it’s designed for disappearance. Visitors are invited to take printed sheets of paper from the stacks, roll them up and carry them home. Candy is free for the grabbing. Pick up a piece, put it in your pocket, pop it in your mouth, maybe take another.
Mutability is built into most of this artist’s work. This is true of the text-based installations generically called portraits, three examples of which are here. Each takes the form of a run-on list of cultural references — “Jaws 1975 Black Monday 1987 Grace 2021 Thelma 1989 Lockdown 2020” — presumably pertinent to the portrait’s “sitter,” with the list painted in horizontal sequence high on the wall of a room or gallery.
The three versions at Zwirner, all variations on a 1993 piece called “Untitled” (Portrait of the Magoons), have been edited and thereby altered for the occasion, through deletions and additions of words, by three different people: the collector Nancy Magoon, who with her husband, Robert, commissioned the original piece, and by two invited contemporary artists, Coco Fusco and Glenn Ligon, who have a deep interest in Gonzalez-Torres.
Indeed, part of the point of the Zwirner show seems to be to demonstrate various ways that mutability operates in Gonzalez-Torres’s art. The artist himself gave guidelines for keeping it active. When the candy ran low in the spills, he said, it should be replenished. His formal specifications call for sweets in “endless supply.”
“I need the public interaction,” he said. “Without the public these works are nothing. I need the public to complete the work.”
The Zwirner exhibition also coincides with the release by the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation of a formidable list of contractual rules — “core tenets” they’re called — for exhibiting the artist’s work. The value of controlling strictures for preservation and marketing are obvious. But it is also easy to see how they could stiffen an art that was meant to be experientially fluid.
Two large pieces, both created from plans left by the artist at his death, feel uncharacteristically monumental. One, “Untitled” (Sagitario), dated 1994-1995, is, in format, a counterpart, on installation-scale, to one of the artist’s best-known early works, “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers). In that piece, two battery-run wall clocks, initially set for the same time, gradually fall out of sync as they lose power. The new piece projects a simpler, happier story: here a pair of large, shallow circular reflecting pools filled with clear water touch rims in such a way that their waters can mingle.
For the second “new” piece, two billboard-size photographs of clouds and soaring birds stand in a shadowy gallery. The installation’s only other component is an audio element: a periodic burst of harsh noise, like a roaring wind or an explosion. (In fact, it’s a recording of frenzied applause that greeted a 1990 concert by Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman at Carnegie Hall.)
Both realizations are pristinely beautiful. But both feel museum-style static. (The bird images had greater impact when, mysteriously, they showed up on public billboards around the city some years ago.) For me, the emphasis on fixity as a measure of authenticity, as implied by the Foundation’s “core tenets,” deflects attention from the emotional probing that makes Gonzalez-Torres’s art so moving.
It also suggests an attempt to mainstream his art, an impulse that may explain a recent, much-criticized curatorial treatment of his work by the Art Institute of Chicago. Some viewers noted that the museum displayed the 1991 candy spill called “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), a tribute by Gonzalez-Torres to his deceased lover, without acknowledging in the wall text either Laycock or his relationship to the artist. The initial effect was to scrub from the record entire life-and-death histories of change, personal and political. (After visitor feedback, the museum later revised its wall text. )
Earlier, in 1989, Gonzalez-Torres laid out one of those histories when he was commissioned by the Public Art Fund to create a billboard celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion. He left the billboard all but empty, a big black field with just a few lines of printed text. I remember standing on a West Village sidewalk with my friend Shepherd — a lawyer and founding board member of Lambda Legal, he had helped change L.G.B.T.Q. history — looking up and reading the words.
“People with AIDS Coalition 1985 Police Harassment 1969 Oscar Wilde 1895 Supreme Court 1986 Harvey Milk 1977 March on Washington 1987 Stonewall Rebellion 1969”
And I remember later reading a statement the artist made about the piece. He was trying to make work, he said, “that would disappear completely. It was also about trying to be a threat to the art-marketing system, and also it was about being generous. Freud said that we rehearse our fears in order to lessen them. In a way this ‘letting go’ of the work — this refusal to make a static form, a monolithic sculpture, in favor of a changing, unstable, and fragile form — was an attempt on my part to rehearse my fears of having Ross disappear day by day right in front of my eyes.’’
I don’t fully see, or feel, the artist who wrote those words in the cool, ultra-polished Zwirner show. But he’s an artist I love, and that doesn’t change.
Through Feb. 25, David Zwirner Gallery, 519, 525 & 533 West 19th Street, Chelsea, (212) 727-2070; davidzwirner.com.