Felix Gonzalez-Torres was an artist who, during all too brief a life, managed to create a body of work that remains both poetic and provocative to this day. Gonzalez-Torres had an almost unique ability to walk the tightrope between the theoretical and the lyrical: his works were in keeping with the conceptual backdrop of the 1980s and 1990s, when he was working, yet managed to eke out a territory there which permitted him to explore moving subjects such as, but not limited to, hope, love, fear and loss. In addition, Gonzalez-Torres’ works had a political dimension, often exploring issues surrounding gay rights as well as the devastation caused by AIDS. Gonzalez-Torres himself died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1996.
During his lifetime, Gonzalez-Torres was recognised in a large number of international exhibitions, not least in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in 1994 (an exhibition which then travelled to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC, and the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, IL.) and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York in 1995. The latter exhibition travelled to the Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea, Santiago de Compostela and finally the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, taking place there the following year. In 2007, Gonzalez-Torres became only the second posthumous artist to represent the United States at their pavilion at the Venice Biennale (the other being Robert Smithson).
Gonzalez-Torres was an American artist, born in Cuba in 1957, and was largely raised in Puerto Rico, where he also went to university, moving to New York in the late 1970s. There, he studied at the Pratt Institute and at the International Center of Photography; he also participated in the Whitney Independent Study Program which provided much of the theoretical groundwork that underpinned his later development. Gonzalez-Torres was a member of ‘Group Material’ from 1987-1991. This was a group of artists who attempted to work together to address social issues while also engaging with society. This was embodied in his collaboration in their 1989 exhibition at Berkeley Art Museum and Film Archive on the subject of AIDS.
During this period, Gonzalez-Torres had created a number of works commonly referenced as Photostats or Dateworks, which involved snippets of news, history and dates, often in seemingly randomised groupings. He also created portraits using this technique, with words and dates placed around the upper edge of a wall containing references to their own lives, whether historical incidents and private moments, followed by the year of their occurrence.
During the late 1980s, Gonzalez-Torres began developing his ‘stacks’. These were piles of paper, often with either an image, text or graphics printed on them, from which the viewer was allowed to take a sheet. The stacks deliberately invoked the Minimalist aesthetic, yet they allow participation from the viewer and thus existed in a clear state of flux. A complex interplay between the private and the public lay at the heart of much of Gonzalez-Torres’s work, which ranged from the intimacy of his boxes for collectors, filled with objects sent by the artist and never intended for display, to the billboard shown in 24 New York City locations showing a bed with the discernible imprint of two bodies, exhibited in 1991.
This reveals his ability to meld the formal, the conceptual, the universal and the personal: as well as creating a moving memento mori, he was also commenting on his own experiences. Similarly, his strings of lightbulbs could be arranged as the owner desired, yet inevitably had a sense of the precariousness of life as, if chosen to exhibit the work with all the bulbs illuminated, the filaments could blow. Crucially, in these works, there remains the constant notion of replenishment, of sheets or bulbs being replaced.
Similarly, Gonzalez-Torres’ series of amalgamations of sweets, which the viewers can choose to take. The shiny wrappers appear to promise so much, yet deliver only a fleeting sugary lift. For this reason, several candy pieces include the word ‘Placebo’ in their title. One of these, with sweets in gold packaging, was created in response to Roni Horn’s Gold Field of 1980-82. In a reciprocal act, Horn created a moving tribute to Gonzalez-Torres in her Gold Mats, Paired (For Ross and Felix) of 1995, now in the Art Institute of Chicago, featuring two sheets of gold leaf, one placed on the other, allowing glimpses of the warm glow of the light reflected between them.