As an artist, a gay man, an AIDS victim, and a Cuban American, Felix Gonzalez-Torres roamed the periphery of our culture. But who put him there? Whose agenda draws the lines between marginal and mainstream? And once those lines are drawn,... [more]
As an artist, a gay man, an AIDS victim, and a Cuban American, Felix Gonzalez-Torres roamed the periphery of our culture. But who put him there? Whose agenda draws the lines between marginal and mainstream? And once those lines are drawn, how does one lodge protest? In his poignant, political Installation art, Felix Gonzalez-Torres had an answer: Resist the boundaries.
In their own quiet way, his Minimalist installations subverted every boundary, every dichotomy that contemporary American culture posits. Sometimes the personal became public, as it did in his monumental billboards depicting a wrinkled bed with the contours of its sleepers still imprinted. Every aspect of his art insisted on subversion and resistance.
He even subverted the notion of political art, creating pieces that were quiet, enigmatic, and often intensely intimate. "Untitled (America)" consisted of suspended strands of lights that were as beautiful as they were eloquent. Created just after the AIDS-related death of his lover, it seemed to speak to the luminous life force of both departed and survivor. It was also a kind of beacon, bearing witness to a life cut short by a disease affecting populations that are largely ignored.
None of Gonzalez-Torres' pieces are titled, although they often have parenthetical subtitles. Again, he calls attention to the boundary; he refuses to name his objects, because to name something is to reify it, to destroy its potential for multiple and various meanings. He subverted boundaries because he knew that boundaries, like meanings, always shift.
Gonzalez-Torres called this instinct to challenge boundaries his "perversion." One of his most famous perverted acts was his "Placebos," a series of homemade candies that he offered to museum patrons. With this piece, the danger lay in the seemingly friendly and lighthearted. For art lovers, the realm of the aesthetic is often an escape from mass culture, a realm in which freedom and imagination run free. "Placebos" called attention to these escapist desires with this subtle, sweetly posed bitter pill: art, rather than offering a cure for society's ills, is just another means of self-gratification.
His perversion also influenced his methods of displaying his art. Rather than follow the model of most gallery shows, in which an artist displays the same work over the life of the show, Gonzalez-Torres constantly changed his pieces. He made the gallery a field of flux, of mutability and uncertain duration. In essence, he made the gallery a metaphor for life in all its mysterious and incomplete narratives.
He explained his intent: "There's no rule that I have to leave something in the gallery for the entire month. I'll change it, create some kind of narrative...put it out and take it back, create something and then destroy it, create a tension that nothing is stable. You can't even depend on a one-month show."