Throughout his career, Gonzalez-Torres’s involvement in social and political causes fueled his interest in the overlap of private and public life. From 1987 to 1991, he was part of Group Material, a New York-based art collective whose members worked collaboratively to initiate community education and cultural activism. His aesthetic project was, according to some scholars, related to Bertolt Brecht’s theory of epic theater, in which creative expression transforms the spectator from an inert receiver to an active, reflective observer and motivates social action. Employing simple, everyday materials (stacks of paper, puzzles, candy, strings of lights, beads) and a reduced aesthetic vocabulary reminiscent of both Minimalism and Conceptual art to address themes such as love and loss, sickness and rejuvenation, gender and sexuality, Gonzalez-Torres asked viewers to participate in establishing meaning in his works.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres (November 26, 1957 – January 9, 1996) was a Cuban-born American visual artist. Gonzalez-Torres was known for his minimal installations and sculptures in which he used materials such as strings of light bulbs, clocks, stacks of paper, or packaged hard candies. In 1987, he joined Group Material, a New York-based group of artists whose intention was to work collaboratively, adhering to principles of cultural activism and community education. Gonzalez-Torres’s 1992 piece “Untitled” (Portrait of Marcel Brient) sold for $4.6 million at Phillips de Pury & Company in 2010, a record for the artist at auction.
Gonzalez-Torres was born in Guáimaro, Cuba. In 1957, he and his sister Gloria were sent to Madrid where they stayed in an orphanage until settling in Puerto Rico with relatives the same year. Gonzalez-Torres graduated from Colegio San Jorge in 1976 and began his art studies at the University of Puerto Rico while actively participating in the local art scene. He moved to New York City in 1979 with a study fellowship. The following year he participated in the Whitney Independent Study Program where his development as an artist was profoundly influenced by his introduction to critical theory. He attended the program a second time in 1983, the year he received a BFA in photography from the Pratt Institute of Art. In 1986, Gonzalez-Torres traveled to Europe and studied in Venice. In 1987 he was awarded the degree of Master of Fine Arts by the International Center of Photography and New York University. Subsequently, he taught at New York University and briefly at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. In 1992 Gonzalez-Torres was granted a DAAD fellowship to work in Berlin, and in 1993 a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Gonzalez-Torres died in Miami in 1996 due to AIDS.
Gonzalez-Torres was known for his quiet, minimal installations and sculptures. Using materials such as strings of light bulbs, clocks, stacks of paper, or packaged hard candies, his work is sometimes considered a reflection of his experience with AIDS. In 1987 he joined Group Material, a New York-based group of artists whose intention was to work collaboratively, adhering to principles of cultural activism and community education. Along with the other members of the group — Doug Ashford, Julie Ault, and Karen Ramspacher — Group Material was invited by the MATRIX Gallery at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in 1989 to deal with the subject of AIDS. The result was Group Material’s first “AIDS Timeline”
All of Gonzalez-Torres’ works, with few exceptions, are entitled “Untitled” in quotation marks, sometimes followed by the parenthetical title. (This was an intentional titling scheme by the artist). Of Gonzalez-Torres’s nineteen candy pieces, only six, by their parenthetical titles and ideal weights, can be readily interpreted as portraits. Of these two are double portraits of the artist and his lover, Ross Laycock; two are portraits of Ross alone; one is a portrait of Felix’s deceased father; and “Untitled” (Portrait of Marcel Brient) (1992) is a portrait of the artist’s close friend, French collector Marcel Brient.
The most pervasive reading of Gonzalez-Torres’s work takes the processes his works undergo (lightbulbs expiring, piles of candies dispersing, etc.) as a metaphor for the process of dying. However, many have seen the works also representing the continuation of life with the possibility of regeneration (replacing bulbs, replenishing stacks or candies). Other readings include the issue of public versus private, identity, and participation in contemporary art.
In his “dateline” pieces, begun in 1987, Gonzalez-Torres assembled lists of various dates in random order interspersed with the names of social and political figures and references to cultural artifacts or world events, many of which related to political and cultural history. Printed in white type on black sheets of photographic paper by the “photostat” process, these lists of seeming non-sequiturs prompted viewers to consider the relationships and gaps between the diverse references as well the construction of individual and collective identities and memories. Gonzalez-Torres also produced dateline “portraits,” consisting of similar lists of dates and events related to the subjects’ lives. In “Untitled” (Portrait of Jennifer Flay) (1992), for example, “A New Dress 1971” lies next to “Vote for Women, NZ 1893.”
Process art pieces
Gonzalez-Torres was considered within his time to be a process artist due to the nature of his ‘removable’ installations by which the process is a key feature to the installation. Many of his installations invite the viewer to take a piece of the work with them: a series of works allow viewers to take packaged candies from a pile in the corner of an exhibition space and, in so doing, contribute to the slow disappearance of the sculpture over the course of the exhibition. “Untitled” (Placebo) (1991), in one installation, consisted of a six-by-twelve-foot carpet of shiny silver wrapped candies. In 2011, the work “Untitled” (Placebo) (1991), was installed at the Museum of Modern Art in two large rectangles divided by a walkway for visitors. Like other candy pieces in his oeuvre, the works have “ideal weights” which may fluctuate during the course of an exhibition. A borrower may choose to install the work at a weight different than the “ideal weight”. The candy pieces may also be installed in any formation the borrower desires. Ideally, the candy would be the “Fruit Flashers” brand manufactured by Peerless Confection Company in Chicago and wrapped in multicolored cellophane. However, Peerless Confection Company went out of business in 2006. In 1990 during Roni Horn’s solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Gonzalez-Torres encountered her sculpture Forms from the Gold Field (1980–82), two pounds of pure gold compressed into a luminous rectangular mat. When he met Horn in 1993, he created “Untitled” (Placebo – Landscape – for Roni) (1993), an endlessly replaceable candy spill of gold cellophane–wrapped sweets.
In 1989 Gonzalez-Torres presented “Untitled” (Memorial Day Weekend) and “Untitled” (Veterans Day Sale), exhibited together as “Untitled” (Monuments): block-like stacks of paper printed with content related to his private life, from which the viewer is invited to take a sheet. Rather than constituting a solid, immovable monument, the stacks can be dispersed, depleted, and renewed over time. “Untitled” (1991), however, is a unique stack of 161 signed and numbered silkscreens that remain together. Similar to the 1989 billboard commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, its iteration as a stack of prints was meant, as the artist noted at the time, as a “more private and personal object”—one that is not disseminated physically but instead through the experience of remembering. The stark black page and white typeface on each sheet trace a nonlinear chronology of significant events in the history of the gay-rights movement.
In 1991 Gonzalez-Torres began producing sculptures consisting of strands of plastic beads strung on metal rods, which often reference the organic and inorganic substances associated with battling AIDS. Around the same time, he made his first light string piece — two intertwined low-watt lightbulbs on cords dangling from a nail on the wall. Twenty-four nearly identical light strings exist, differentiated only by their parenthetical titles and the display chosen by each work’s owner. Each sculpture can be arranged in any way a particular installer wishes, and thus holds the potential for unlimited variations. Over the course of any given installation, some of the bulbs are sure to burn out.
One of his most recognizable works, “Untitled” (1991), was a billboard installed in twenty-four locations throughout New York City of a monochrome photograph of an unoccupied bed, made after the death of his long-time partner, Ross Laycock, from AIDS. In one interview, he said “When people ask me, ‘Who is your public?’ I say honestly, without skipping a beat, ‘Ross.’ The public was Ross. The rest of the people just come to the work.” “Untitled” (It’s Just a Matter of Time) is a billboard originally exhibited in 1992 in Hamburg in conjunction with an exhibition organized by the Kunstverein in Hamburg titled “Gegendarstellung – Ethics/Aesthetics in Times of AIDS”. It consists of a black background with white German text in the Gothic typeface. In 1993, Gonzalez-Torres mounted two simultaneous gallery exhibitions in Paris entitled Travel #1 and Travel #2: Travel #1 contained two billboards both installed inside the gallery, one featuring a view of a turbulent and brooding sky, the other an image of lone bird, photographed from below, floating effortlessly beneath an overcast sky; one of the several works in “Travel #2” was “Untitled” (Passport #11), a stack of passport sized booklets featuring the same imagery as the billboards in Travel #1. Like his other stack pieces, viewers were invited to help themselves.
Gonzalez-Torres had a one-man exhibition of his early text pieces in 1988 at the Rastovski Gallery (560 Broadway) in Soho. In the same year, he also had solo exhibitions at the New Museum of Contemporary Art and INTAR Gallery in New York. In 1989, he exhibited a billboard in Sheridan Square, New York City, on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion.
His work continues to be exhibited internationally at galleries and museums. Retrospectives of his work have been organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York (1995), which traveled to the Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea, Santiago de Compostela, and Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; the Sprengel Museum in Hannover, Germany (1997); the Serpentine Gallery in London (2000); the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City (2010); Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art in Middlesbrough; the Museum of Modern Art in New York; The Whitney Museum of American Art; the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC; the FLAG Art Foundation in New York (2009); WIELS; Fondation Beyeler; and the Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt in 2010-2011. In 2010, ArtPace in San Antonio organized a year-long retrospective of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s billboards. The Istanbul Biennial in 2011, instead of choosing a theory or theme as a unifying rubric, mounted five group shows around the main themes that inspired Gonzalez-Torres’s work — love, death, abstraction, contested histories, and territories.
U.S. Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale
In 2007, Gonzalez-Torres was selected as the United States’ official representative at the Venice Biennale, curated by Nancy Spector. The artist’s previously controversial status influenced the 1995 decision to reject him for the Venice pavilion in favor of Bill Viola. His posthumous show (the only other posthumous representative from the United States was Robert Smithson in 1982) at the U.S. Pavilion featured, among others, “Untitled”, 1992–95, a never-before-realized sculpture in the courtyard of the pavilion: two adjoining, circular reflecting pools, the sides of which touch just enough at a single point to share an almost undetectable flow of water. Between 1992 and 1995 Gonzalez-Torres sketched at least five variations of these pools, expanding upon his motif of paired rings. The first known sketch for the twin pools represents Gonzalez-Torres’ submission to an outdoor sculpture competition sponsored by Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington in 1992. The drawing indicates that each pool should be twelve feet in diameter, a detail that would remain constant in each subsequent drawing and description. Gonzalez-Torres returned to the motif in 1994 when planning a one-person exhibition for the Musée d’Art Contemporain in Bordeaux, which he postponed because of its proximity in time to his Guggenheim retrospective; he died before the show could be realized. For the Bordeaux installation, he envisioned a pair of indoor pools flush with the floor. When outlining his ideas for the exhibition, Gonzalez-Torres also created a sketch of an outdoor version of the pools, and this is the one realized on the occasion of the Venice Biennale. Untitled and open-ended in terms of their possible materials, the pools presented here were carved from white Carrara marble.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Specific Objects without Specific Form
Between 2010 and 2011, a traveling retrospective, “Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Specific Objects without Specific Form”, was shown at WIELS Contemporary Art Centre in Brussels, the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, and the MMK in Frankfurt. At each of the stages of the exhibition tour, the show was initially installed by the exhibition’s curator Elena Filipovic and, halfway through its duration, is completely reinstalled by a different selected artist whose own practice has been influenced by Gonzalez-Torres. Artists Carol Bove, Danh Vo, and Tino Sehgal were chosen to curate the show’s second half.
In May 2002, the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation was created. The Foundation hopes “to foster an appreciation for the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres among the general public, scholars, and art historians.” Since 1990, Gonzalez-Torres’ work is represented by Andrea Rosen Gallery, which heavily exhibited his work both before and after his death. The Foundation assisted the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University in the organization of the Felix González-Torres Community Art Project, a three-year initiative that sponsors visits of internationally renowned contemporary artists to the campus of the school.
Gonzalez-Torres’s 1992 piece “Untitled” (Portrait of Marcel Brient) sold for $4.6 million at Phillips de Pury & Company in 2010, a record for the artist at auction. In 2011, “Untitled” (Aparición), 1991, a stack of endlessly replenishable paper, each sheet printed with a black-and-white image of clouds, was sold well over the estimate for $1.6 million at Sotheby’s, New York. One of the artist’s plastic beads pieces, “Untitled” (Blood), was sold for $1.65 million at Christie’s, New York, in 2000. Gonzalez-Torres was represented by Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York, and Jennifer Flay, Paris.
• Ad Reinhardt, Joseph Kosuth, F. Gonzalez-Torres, Symptoms of Interference, Conditions of Possibility, Academy Publishing, 1994
• Susan Cahan, Jan Avgikos, Tim Rollins, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, artpress, 1994
• David Deitcher, Felix Gonzalez-Torres (Stockholm, Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall, 1992)
• David Deitcher, “Stones Throw” (Secretary Press, 2016).
• Amada Cruz et alii, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1994
• Nancy Spector, Pour Felix, Paris Musée, 1996
• Anthony Calnek, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, catalogue d’exposition, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1996
• Julie Ault (ed.), Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Steidl Publishing, 2006
• Francesco Bonami et al.: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Rudolf Stingel, Neue Galerie, Graz 1994
• America, Hatje-Cantz, Ostfildern 2007 ISBN 978-3-7757-2060-1