Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work deals with issues relating to life, gender, sexuality and death. All these things happen to the body but no bodies as such appear in his work. In Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) 1990, the artist uses the body of his lover Ross as a metaphor, which is signified in the “ideal” weight of candy used for the work. Untitled (Bed) 1991-92, appeared in several locations on billboards in the New York area. The body is absent yet alluded to in the unmade bed. Audience participation is an integral element to Gonzalez-Torres’ work. The artist’s choice of displaying such intimate imagery in a public form relates to his resistance of separating private and public domains. The Word Portraits further establish Gonzalez-Torres’ ability to create the historical meaning of an individual beyond representation of the body.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres avoids representation. Candy in this case becomes “saturated with personal association, memories and emotions.” (1) The body of Ross, his lover, is the subject of the work. Ross’s body is represented in the “ideal” weight of the candy, this is 175 pounds, which is stipulated in the certificate of authenticity. The candy is either piled in a corner or spread out in “carpet like landscapes.” (2) “The spills appear as parodies of abstract, geometric sculpture.” Gonzalez-Torres described them as subverting the neutrality of minimal sculpture by annexing issues that derive from his biography.” (3)
As a metaphor the candy is consumed, the viewer sucks on someone else’s body. Felix Gonzalez-Torres said, “my work becomes part of so many other people’s bodies…” (4) It is at this point, when the candy is consumed, that the work is complete. Charles Merewether writes that the candy represents, “not only an eating away of the body, but a sign of regeneration, as in the symbolic eating of Christ’s body and the miraculous giving of life.” (5)
Apart from addressing consumption and challenging galleries, the political ramifications of this work are more pertinent because Ross was a homosexual man dying of AIDS. Thus the work, “… confronts visitors with the issue of homophobia and their fear of contact with HIV carriers.” (6)
Felix Gonzalez-Torres said, “in a way, this letting go of the work, this refusal to make a static form, a monolithic sculpture, in favour of a disappearing, 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…” (7) Freud wrote that we rehearse our fears in order to lessen them. By relinquishing his control over the work and allowing audiences to touch, eat and possess his work, Gonzalez-Torres rehearsed the imminent loss of Ross. “Memory offers a path back to the other side of the line between life and death: it is all that remains after the disappearance of the body.” (8) The replenishment of the candy memorializes the subject.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ billboard, Untitled (Bed) 1991, is a black and white image in soft focus of the artist’s unmade bed. The impressions of bodies are left behind in the indented pillows and rumpled sheets. The absence of any accompanying text offers no explanation for the image by the artist. Yet, this vacant space openly invites the viewer to enter the work based on their own memories of loss, absence, leaving and grief. (9)
For Gonzalez-Torres, “it is a wrenching, intimate depiction of his loss.” (10) The unmade bed becomes a metaphor for the love and loss of his lover Ross to AIDS. Most viewers were unaware of the artist’s biographical information and would therefore construct meaning based on what was personally relevant to them. The unmade bed a place of pleasure and intimacy, or of absence and loss. “Inviting audiences to remember moments of closeness and separation, this image is a passage linking the particular losses we experience with a culture of collective grief… Although the bodies are gone, memories sustain the experience, allow the feelings these bodies generated- the warmth and passion- to be revealed, recalled, recorded.” (11)
The audience participates to in the meaning of the work. (12) Gonzalez-Torres measured his work against the same questions, “I need the viewer, I need the public interaction. Without a public these works are nothing, nothing… I need the public to complete the work…” (13) Gonzalez-Torres felt that collaboration with the viewer was the force behind the work giving it meaning and emotion. Hence, Duchamp’s 1957 speech on the creative act is fully embraced by Gonzalez-Torres. Duchamp claimed that there were two poles in the creation of a work of art: the artist and the spectator. (14) Another repercussion to the artist’s method is Roland Barthes’ notion of the death of the author “… and [the] fundamentally emancipatory idea of the birth of the reader into the structure.” (15) Although Gonzalez-Torres adapts devices from the Minimalist vocabulary, his work is distinguished from it because his personal experience is transcended to become universally valid. (16)
Gonzalez-Torres said, “my work is all my personal history… I can’t separate my art from my life.” (17) The work was first displayed simultaneously at the Museum of Modern Art and twenty-four billboards around New York. By displaying such intimate and private experiences in a public form that typically promotes consumer products, Gonzalez-Torres dissolved the boundaries between public and private space.
George Chauncey states that, “there’s no queer space; there are only spaces used by queers or put to queer use. Space has no natural character… no intrinsic status as public or private.” (18) For a homosexual man, the ramifications of whether there can be a separation between private and public space are enormous in light of restrictive and repressive legislation ruled by the U.S Supreme Court in 1986, “which denies same-sex couples rights to a private sphere.” (19) By displaying such a deeply personal and emotional image on billboards around New York, Gonzales-Torres perpetuated what George Chauncey argues is a tactic used by gay men, “… to claim space for themselves in the face of a battery of laws… designed to exclude them from urban space altogether.” (20) This reciprocal relationship quantifies Gonzalez-Torres choices. The artist said his choice for the billboard was an easy one. He wanted to distance himself from his bed. With Ross’s death, his bed has become a source of pain and grief, especially at night.
Ann Goldstein clearly states:
(…) the nature of his work in general (…) subtly yet emphatically intensifies one’s own self awareness, subjectivity, and sense of personal history. In effect, his work insists upon the inclusion of the complexities of those areas most preciously protected or deeply repressed – it sets up a conflation of public and private, and the personal with the professional. (21)
The artist insisted that an individual could not be isolated from the socio-political structure that governs our world. Conversely, politics has always had ramification upon every individual. As a homosexual man, Gonzalez-Torres was directly effected by public policy as it impacted on his private life. His choice to present his unmade bed in public domains affirms his works ability to provocatively comment on socio-political issues.
Gonzales-Torres’ amalgamation of public and private life is evident in his Word Portraits. They are also examples of the use of text as a metaphor for more than just the body, but for a life lived. Gonzalez-Torres would collaborate on commissions with the prospective owner asking them for their formative experiences and the concurrent dates. (22) Gonzalez-Torres intercepted this information with important public events that he believed undoubtedly contributed to their personal history. Thus, the portraits positioned the owner within a personal and a collective history. Gonzalez-Torres changed the order of the events, which coincides with the nature of memory as fragmented. He also included events before birth and places never visited by the owner. He felt that the portraits were more than a life, they were a history, “to sense our connectedness with the rest of the world.” (23)
The following Word Portrait is Gonzalez-Torres’ from the Brooklyn Museum commission of 1989. The intention of the museum’s curator was to blur the line between public and exhibition space. This Word (Self) Portrait was installed in a small annex near the elevators. It was painted in light blue and ran along the top of the wall in a single line. (24)
Red Canoe 1987 Paris 1985 Blue Flowers 1984 Harry the Dog 1983 Blue Lake 1986 Interferon 1989 Ross 1983
In Untitled (Ross in L.A) 1990, Gonzales-Torres uses candy to signify the loss of his lover Ross to AIDS. By avoiding representation in Untitled (Bed) 1991-92, the artist adopts devices from Minimalism. Yet, he subverts them and imbues them with personal significance. The universality of the signs invites the viewer to participate, to complete the work of art. Gonzales-Torres transfers the private into the public domain in a calculated response to the restrictive legislation imposed upon the homosexual body. In his Word Portraits, Gonzalez-Torres’ combines the personal and collective history of an individual based not on physical characteristics but on lived experiences.
1. D. Elger, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Cantz Verlag, 1997, p. 107.
2. ibid., p. 44.
3. L. Weintraub, Art on the Edge and Over, Art Insights, In., 1996, p. 115.
4. Elger, op. cit., p. 92.
5. C. Merewether, ‘The Spirit of the Gift’ in Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Russell Ferguson ed., 1994, p. 70.
6. Weintraub, op. cit., p. 115.
8. R. Ferguson, ‘The Past Recaptured’ in Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Russell Ferguson ed., 1994, p. 32.
9. B. Hooks, ‘Subversive Beauty: New Modes of Contestation’ in Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Russell Ferguson ed., 1994, p. 47.
10. Weintraub, op. cit., p. 116.
11. Hooks, op. cit., p. 47-48.
12. Merewether, op. cit., p. 61.
13. Elger, op. cit., p. 44.
14. ibid., p. 106.
16. ibid., p. 81.
17. Weintraub, op. cit., p. 110.
18. G. Chauncey, ‘Privacy Could Only Be Had in Public: Gay Uses of the Streets,’ in Stud; Architecture of Masculinity, Joel Sanders ed., Princeton Architectural Press, 1996, p. 224.
19. Elger, op. cit., p. 18.
21. Chauncey, op. cit., p. 224.
21. Elger, op. cit., p. 18.
22. Elger, op. cit., p. 51.
24. ibid., p. 50.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Ross in L.A.) 1990 http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/152961
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Bed) 1991-92 http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2012/04/04/printout-felix-gonzalez-torres
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Word Portrait http://edu.moca.org/education/teachers/curric/themes/artandtext/looking/discussion-7