Books

From the Era of AIDS, The "Disappearing" but Important Works of Artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres

'Stone’s Throw' describes the sociopolitical and personal context framing the emergence of a critically acclaimed artist.

Photo Credit: Flickr

Art historian, critic and curator David Deitcher’s Stone’s Throw offers a scholarly yet intimate look at the life and work of the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose art remains among the most important produced at the end of the 20th century. Often repurposing common objects in ways that evoke wanting, grief, love, longing, caprice, melancholy and joy—though not only those things—many of Gonzalez-Torres’ pieces were constructed to slowly disappear over time (often because museumgoers were invited to take a piece with them), only to be replenished before the next exhibit. The artist’s works, which call on minimalist aesthetics, are a personal and public reflection on the social and political conditions of the AIDS era.

Gonzalez-Torres died of AIDS-related complications in 1996 at age 38. He left behind a rich and important body of work that continues to be shown around the world.

Via email, I conversed with Deitcher about his friend Gonzalez-Torres, the artist’s enduring legacy, the emotional resonance of his art and the questions his work raises about authenticity. A chapter from Stone’s Throwfollows the interview.

Kali Holloway: Early on in the book, you talk about Gonzalez-Torres’ preference for what he called 'tough art.' That idea was so intriguing to me, especially as I read more about not just the materials used, but the un-tough feelings they often evoked.

Can you talk a little about tough art for those who, like me, are new to the idea?

David Deitcher: Gonzalez-Torres’ predilection for “tough art” was not—or not only—a matter of personal taste. It reflected the social construction of modernist cultural values, criteria that proceeded from and reinforced social and cultural divisions and hierarchies. Works of art which are associated with domestic space and/or domestic scale; with intimate and/or craft-based materials and/or methods of production are encoded as “feminine.” As such, they have been devalued in relation to other works, which are encoded as “masculine,” whether because of that art’s monumental scale, its makers’ triumphalist ambition, its deployment of public (as opposed to domestic) space and/or public modes of address, with risk-taking and transgression. The preference for such masculine-encoded art dates back to the birth of modernism.

Consider, for example, Gustave Flaubert’s early modernist novel, Madame Bovary, in which the doomed Emma is described—and judged—for, among other proclivities, her taste for romance novels. The crystallization of such essentially patriarchal aesthetic values helps to explain how “sentimental” became perhaps the ultimate term of cultural derision.

The kitschy complement to “tough art” finds ways to dictate what viewers are supposed to think and feel, where tough art confronts viewers with the need to do the active work of decoding, of constructing meaning.

KH: The question of authenticity is perennially brought up around art. Not just in terms of reassurances that a work is by the artist it is said to be by, though that’s part of it, but also the idea of “realness,” that a work may be more or less “pure” or “true” in a certain sense.

A piece like 1991’s Untitled (Placebo), which consists of approximately 1,000 pounds of individually wrapped candies, seems to toy with that idea in both ways. Gonzalez-Torres acknowledged that it's “indestructible because [it] can be endlessly duplicated” and “there is no original, only one original certificate of authenticity.” But I wonder if the ephemeral quality of the work, the use of materials like candy (versus, say, metal bricks or concrete slabs), the “lite” objects in works that often are infused with heavy themes, is a way of toying with authenticity in the second way I mention?

DD: Tough question, Kali. Gonzalez-Torres delighted in making mischief with art’s much vaunted and much debated claims to authenticity and originality. Both of which are key terms in the discourse on modern art and singled out for critical analysis within the early theorization of postmodernist art in the early 1980s. How else is one to grasp the notion that Gonzalez-Torres’ ephemeral works consisting of mass-produced elements undermine the modernist hierarchy that privileges to the point of mystification originality and authenticity?

I like your point that such works, which address “heavy themes,” do so with such an insistently light touch. The tension established by the play of “lite” and “heavy” adds to the challenge such works pose to viewers. It is easy to remove parts from such artworks, and some will taste sweet, but their toughness prevails.

I’m thinking in this context of friends and family members who may be art lovers but who have responded with bewilderment to the sight of a work like Untitled (Placebo) that consists, as you know, of a mass of silver cellophane-wrapped candies, designed to be depleted over time.

KH: To be an artist who allows the viewer to walk away with parts of his work—candies, prints—strikes me as stunningly generous (and as your book mentions, against the art-marketing system), and not just because something is given away. There seems to me a deep generosity in inviting people to engage so intimately with works that they literally take some with them, or perhaps even literally consume the art. The artist cedes control of his creation for real engagement. I wonder about your thoughts on this.

DD: I do not like to reduce the relationship between the interactive aspects of Gonzalez-Torres’ art to generosity, per se. That is why in Stone’s Throw I prefer the artist’s own qualifying formulation: his desire to be “generous to a certain extent.” The development of interactivity throughout contemporary art took root before the 1960s neo-avant-garde, back in the days of the early-20th-century historical avant-garde.

One example is the deployment of montage aesthetics by artists associated with Dada and Surrealism. Their strategic juxtapositions of images and objects prompt viewers to complete the creative act through decoding sometimes richly elucidating meanings from elements that seem merely incompatible. This tendency to envision the creative act as a social circuit in which the viewer’s engagement completes the creative act by constructing meaning, resonated socially throughout the 1960s as a symbolic method for leveling the cultural playing field. Accordingly, viewers could no longer be dismissed so easily as passive cultural consumers, just as artists could no longer be singled out for their putatively unique, divinely bestowed creative gifts.

KH: Gonzalez-Torres once said, “I want to make art for people who watch 'The Golden Girls' and sit in a big, brown, Lazy-boy chair. They’re part of my public too, I hope.” I love that sentiment. It seems to dovetail so nicely with his understanding that audiences’ interpretation of works is informed by “socioeconomic status, race, sexual orientation,” of his recognition of being labeled “other,” of his insistence that art in general, and minimalism and "formal issues" in particular, are not a "white-men-only terrain.” 

Can you talk a bit about his desire to make art for non-traditional art consumers, in whom I think he saw himself reflected in some ways?

DD: Gonzalez-Torres was himself a great fan of "The Golden Girls" (as have I been, and many of our friends [are]). Your sentence linking fans of "The Golden Girls" and the “big, brown, Lazy-boy chair” reads like a satirical reprise of Matisse’s famous statement about his own aesthetic goals in which he aspires to create  

“an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art that could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair that provides relaxation from fatigue.”

Gonzalez-Torres was hardly opposed to making art that, unlike Matisse’s creed, could be troubling, and was definitely not pure. His work was as rigorously stripped down as many of its minimalist precedents, and addressed potentially depressing life-and-death issues. But clearly Gonzalez-Torres also wanted his art to give pleasure—especially for the non-traditional viewers whom he wanted to constitute part of the public for his art. He did not hesitate to emphasize the complex character of his own (or the viewer’s) position as a social subject, and of the importance of that subject position in determining the meanings that viewers construct from their encounters with works of art. His desire to create art for “non-traditional art consumers” was entirely consistent with the revolutionary (or anyway, resistant) cultural spirit that animated the alternative arts scene in the USA, at the dawn of the Reagan era.

Gonzalez-Torres’ decision in 1987 to join the artists collective Group Material was intriguing in this respect. It was consistent with the then 11-member collective’s own determination to question “those assumptions that dictate what art is, who art is for, and what an art exhibition can be.” Late in December 1980, several months after renting a storefront space at 244 East 13th Street, a working-class, largely Hispanic block in the East Village, Group Material distributed a letter to “Dear Friends and Neighbors of 13th Street.” The letter was an invitation to participate in the exhibition The People’s Choice (Arroz con Mango)by submitting “things that might not usually find their way into an art gallery: the things that you personally find beautiful, the objects that you keep for your own pleasure, the objects that have meaning for you, your family and your friends.”

This project must have been a revelation for Gonzalez-Torres, as it was for so many of us at the time because of its concise upending of galleries’ and institutions’ conventional ways of working. In place of the vagaries of connoisseurship that have determined and controlled the value system of the art market, Group Material employed altogether different criteria, by which the collective’s working-class neighbors chose what to submit on the basis of what they personally considered “beautiful,” “meaningful.” In short, they challenged what is worth saving and honoring as fine art. Gonzalez-Torres’ desire to make art for non-traditional art consumers attests to the long-term effects of the resistant cultural work that Group Material and other early-'80s artist collectives and individual, politically oriented artists introduced.

KH: You touch on so many stunning works from the 1980s, a period of “art and AIDS,” and what you also call “our plague years.” What can we take from these pieces as they age, and how do they continue to inform our understanding of so many issues, from gay marriage to homophobia to activism, both historically and contemporarily, particularly in an age when those issues are of such critical importance?

DD: Those artworks are now over 30 years old, so let's admit that they’ve already aged a good deal. Writing Stone’s Throw was my way of coming to terms with the kinds of concerns your question raises; my way of remembering difficult times and understanding the artists’ response to the AIDS crisis, if not quite the many social fractures that crisis revealed, which have since become the most pressing social problems this country now confronts, whether relating to flagrantly unjust economic disparities or a racist justice system geared toward mass incarceration that puts prison inmates to work for slave wages.

I also wrote Stone’s Throw in the hopes of helping younger people who never lived through our "plague years” to get more of a sense of what those times were like, and to grasp the benefits and the human costs of joining the coalition to do for our communities what the government so miserably failed to do.

KH: You talk about viewers needing to be ready to genuinely see the art that they are looking at. That “readers need to be ready to grasp the significance of the words they read.” That’s arguably true of writing as well. You didn’t start doing reviews until the loss, from AIDS, of a dear friend, and you talk very briefly about how you found your 'writer’s voice' after that. Can you tell me how that process affected your writing, and your career overall of writing about art?

DD: Actually, I had been writing about art, but neither particularly well nor often, before the late 1980s. At that time, the combined social, political and personal pressures relating to the AIDS crisis in New York imbued writing with a much greater sense of urgency. Dealing with sadness and anger made it possible, even necessary, for me to learn to write better, which is to say more cogently, more forcefully, and with a greater disregard for what other people think.

KH: You’ve written a book that is part art history, part biography, part sociological look back, part art criticism. That seems like a tremendous undertaking. Was it difficult? And what do you most hope people take from it?

DD: When I committed myself to writing Stone’s Throw for Secretary Press, everything came together without much difficulty. I had written an earlier draft of what became the book’s two-part text, but it felt too split and the parts that related to Gonzalez-Torres and Bill Olander lacked an appropriate sense of proportion. I worked with a projects editor who helped me to find the right balance, and then, working with my publishers Michi Jigarjian and Libby Pratt and our design team (Leigh Mignogna and Liz Seibert), soon arrived at the kind of layered text that I hope provides readers with an unusually sensual experience of reading; one that includes touch and smell as well as sight.

The following is an excerpt from the new bookStone’s Throwby David Deitcher (Secretary Press, 2016):

Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Untitled (Placebo), 1991. Candies individually wrapped in silver cellophane, endless supply.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres had a yen for what he called “tough art.” His preference for aesthetic rigor hardly precluded signs of tenderness. This was evident, for example, in his regular practice of posting snapshots to friends —“posting,” as in slipping a 4" x 6" print with a personal message written on the back into an envelope and mailing it to a friend. One such snapshot, of which I was the lucky recipient, shows a pale pink sky over gossamer clouds, and on the back Felix inscribed a toast to new years in general, and to 1993 in particular. To read his exuberant, heterogeneous good wishes over two decades later is to rouse the memory of Felix’s voice, and to be reminded of what could still give him pleasure, even after having lost his lover, Ross Laycock, to AIDS little more than one year before:

To years of new shoes, sweet dogs, George Nelson’s furniture, tough art objects, Democratic government, queer culture, cowboys & cops, Paris streets full of light strings, small restaurants, leaving, intense living, arriving, reading, writing, hoping, laughing, new & old friends, out of control flowers, unexpected kisses, suckable hands, possible dreams, and of course: more of that love. (Italics added)

I first became acquainted with the meaning of what Felix meant by “tough art” late in 1990, shortly after accepting his invitation to write the introduction for the catalogue that accompanied his 1992 project for Stockholm’s Magasin 3 Konsthall. Artists who are particular – and Felix was one very particular artist—often provide writers in situations like mine with hints pertaining to their working methods, and/or to the thinking that informs their creative process. On this occasion, Felix brought to my attention a single sentence by Carl Andre—a suitably brick-like condensation of Andre’s own Minimalist sculptural practice: "My sculptures are masses and their subject is matter."

I don’t remember exactly how I physically received Andre’s sentence. It may well have arrived on thermal fax paper, that era’s version of a technological marvel, which friends enjoyed using no matter how serious or frivolous the pretext. Andre’s statement made a profound impression, and has resonated ever since, generating the psychic equivalent of ripples in a body of water into which someone has tossed a stone.

Jim Hodges: what’s left, 1992. White brass chain with clothing.

So compelling did Felix find Andre’s statement that he recited it, verbatim, during the interview that Tim Rollins conducted with him in 1993. Knowing that Felix had reasons for bringing Andre’s sentence to my attention combined with the sheer density of Andre’s prose to make a forceful and suggestive impression. Andre’s statement goes beyond description to concisely embody the Minimalist approach to art that served as a rigorous precedent for the younger generation of artists who were confronting new and different cultural, personal, and political challenges. After all, their art emerged during the mid-to-late 1980s at the tumultuous nexus of art and AIDS; of demanding third-wave feminist and identity-based art; and the pitched political battles that marked the “Culture Wars.” Unlike Andre’s insistence that the subject of his sculpture is “matter,” tout court, Gonzalez-Torres adapted Minimalist and Conceptualist procedures to produce works that elicit private and public associations: more or less free associations in response to works that, like Felix’s anti-monumental Untitled (Placebo), 1991, generate poignant emotional effects on susceptible viewers.

The emotional impact of experiencing works like Untitled (Placebo) is in no way mitigated by its floor-hugging repudiation of monolithic verticality that—inherently phallic—characterizes more conventionally monumental sculptures. Gonzalez-Torres’ conception of such works gave poetic shape to the fact that organisms in general, and human bodies in particular, inevitably lose their integrity, eventually die and disappear. Owners of such works permit viewers to remove constituent parts from the sculpture (its ideal weight: 1000 to 1200 pounds of silver cellophane-wrapped hard candies) until only discarded wrappers—or nothing at all —remains. Unlike their organic counterparts, however, this art can be restored, whether to its ideal weight—or in the case of the stacks of offset prints or other papers, to their ideal height—or for that matter, to whatever weight or height the owners of such works prefer, at which point another cycle of diminution and potential regeneration can begin.

Nayland Blake, Magic, 1990-1991. Mixed media with puppet and armature.

Such large-scale carpets or spills of individually wrapped candies share their implicit critique of more conventional monuments not only with Andre’s own floor-bound metal plate sculptures but also with other equally non-expressionistic, alternately modest or ambitious, frequently memorializing works of art that also date from the same tumultuous years. For example, Jim Hodges’ What’s Left(1992) consists of men’s clothes (black lace-up shoes, Levi’s 501 jeans, white jockey shorts, and a T-shirt) that appear dropped to the floor as if in the heat of passion. To this visceral still life Hodges added a delicate chain-link spider web to symbolize the past-ness of the carefree gay male sexual encounters the work evokes. Tony Feher’s Portable Memorial(1993) consists of a cardboard box, its top flaps removed, its interior spray painted silver, and its upper edges adorned with an array of colorful plastic flowers. For Nayland Blake’s poignant Magic(1990-1991), the artist found, bought and redeployed the late comedian Wayland Flowers’ potty-mouthed puppet, “Madame,” which in its new circumstances viewers encounter propped up inside the puppet’s hard, black carrying case, from which spills a mass of dried flowers. Wayland Flowers died of AIDS-related cancer in 1988.

Gonzalez-Torres did not associate the objects he incorporated in his own tough—and tender—art with particular “sentiments.” He understood that, as things the mind already knows, the familiar, industrially manufactured elements that comprise the vast majority of his works already have the capacity to evoke meanings, and that those meanings are contingent on the individual viewer’s position as a social subject. “I don’t attach sentiment to mass-produced materials or objects,” he maintained, “they already have it. I just make them obvious.”

Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.

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