Felix Gonzalez-Torres was born in Cuba and immigrated, via Puerto Rico, to the United States in 1979. He studied poetry and photography, which he employed in his art with utmost economy and subtlety to speak equally to the personal and the political with remarkable elegance and eloquence. Widely read in contemporary theoretical literature, the artist was also fiercely committed to political causes of the time—the heady years of the late 1980s and early 1990s when the so-called culture wars raged on. At the same time he worked as a member of the activist artist collective Group Material, he continued his utterly singular practice, which was anything but doctrinaire. Instead, during a lamentably short career, he turned art into a vanishing act.
In two of his best-known series, Gonzalez-Torres exhibited stacks of paper sheets to be taken home and piles of candies to be melted on tongues, both replenished magically and “endlessly.” While making clear references to the industrial, obdurate objects of Minimalism,1 his stack pieces are printed with monochromatic colors, textual snippets, reproduced newspaper clippings, or photographs of natural landscapes, often of the sky. Each sheet in the untitled stack in the Walker Art Center’s collection is printed with an image of the calm surface of water. He also placed individually wrapped candies, intended to be consumed by viewers, in piles in the corners of rooms or spread them evenly on the floor. Distributing information or oblique poetics, the series were, and are, an implicit critique of the art market, questioning the very notions of commodification and ownership. The candy piles, with their oral associations, effectively conflated fears of contagion (AIDS) and the transubstantiation of the Eucharist. On a more personal level, the works were also often about Ross Laycock, the artist’s longtime partner, who died of AIDS in 1991.
In 1992, Gonzalez-Torres started making light strands—simple extension cords on which low-wattage lightbulbs are evenly spaced—that may be installed variably according to given spaces and as the owners see fit.2 He made most of them in the next two years. Although they do not involve gifts in the way the stack pieces and candy piles do, their fluidity, openness, and formal simplicity are hallmarks of his practice. Toward the end of his life, the artist repeatedly stated that his public was, first and foremost, his lost lover. It is tempting, then, to see the sudden, almost explosive output of the light strands as an act of remembering, as if the artist were lighting candles for departed souls.
In the opening sequence of Alain Resnais’ 1959 film Hiroshima, mon amour, the female protagonist utters these words: “You are good for me because you destroy me.”3 Gonzalez-Torres, living at the end of the twentieth century and facing a cruel epidemic and institutionalized hate, saw art-making as a necessary rejoinder to love, that terrible double-edged blessing and curse. And as we take part in the artist’s generous acts of giving or behold the gentle iridescent lights, we are reminded of how socially committed he was, how his art redefined beauty itself, and more than anything else, how his art speaks volumes about love.
The most obvious Minimalist precedents for Gonzalez-Torres’ works are Donald Judd’s stacks or cubes and Carl Andre’s floor pieces. The corner pieces are art-historically reminiscent of Robert Morris’ benchmark installation at his one-person show at the Green Gallery, New York, in 1964, in which Morris installed a group of gray polyhedrons, including a corner piece. ↩
In 1991, Gonzalez-Torres made Untitled (March 5th) #2, which consists of two lightbulbs attached separately at the ends of two extension cords, but did not start using multiple bulbs until 1992. Most of the light strands have twenty-four or forty-two lightbulbs per string. The Walker’s light strand has twenty-four. See Dietmar Elger, ed., Felix Gonzalez-Torres Catalogue Raisonné, Volume II (Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Cantz Verlag, 1997). ↩
Gonzalez-Torres discusses the film, directed by Alain Resnais and based on a script by Marguerite Duras, in an interview with Tim Rollins. See William S. Bartman, ed., Felix Gonzalez-Torres (New York: A.R.T. Press, 1993), 14. ↩