During his short life, Félix González-Torres created art that engaged with conceptualisations of intimacy and the lines between public and private life. His work can be read as heavily influenced by the AIDS crisis that was unfolding throughout the world during his artistic peak.Read More
Many of Félix González-Torres' artworks expose details of his personal life, including his relationship with his boyfriend, Ross Laycock, who wasted away from AIDS-related complications before the artist himself died of the virus.
From 1987 to 1991, González-Torres was a member of Group Material—a collaborative collective focused on community education and activism. Group Material's most well-known work was AIDS Timeline (1989).
AIDS Timeline was presented as a solo exhibition at University of California at Berkeley's MATRIX Gallery (November 1989–January 1990). On the gallery's walls a horizontal timeline of the AIDS crisis from the beginnings of the epidemic through to the present moment was installed. The installation diagrammed a wide range of responses to the crisis in the form of quotes, statistics, policies, and public opinion. In the installation, Group Material emphasised the relationships between the collected responses. In such works, rather than formal or commercial values, the focus was put on the facts and how they could reveal socio-political climates that would otherwise perhaps go ignored.
González-Torres 'dateline' series was produced from 1987, for which the artist created non-linear chronologies to illustrate the complexity of individual and collective memory and identity. In one self-portrait from the series, 'Red Canoe 1987' and 'Bay of Pigs 1961' sit side-by side, allowing imaginative leaps to narrate a deeply subjective history.
With the influence of Group Material's socio-political axis, González-Torres involved the viewer as a participator and activator in many of his artworks. For example, his oeuvre includes large installations of piles of wrapped candies; in these installations, including Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) (1991), the candies spill from a corner of the gallery space or are spread on the floor. Viewers are invited to take a candy—to consume the artwork. These piles can be infinitely replenished or left to diminish. From 1989 the artist also created installations consisting of tall stacks of paper printed with words or images. As with the candy, viewers could take the papers home with them. Such works can be seen aesthetically as a descendant of earlier Minimalist and Conceptualist movements. However, the artist's work places more emphasis on the everyday and modes of direct viewer activation than the stoically monumental works of his predecessors.
Some scholars have observed the artist's work through the lens of Bertolt Brecht's theory of epic theatre, which posits that art has the power to transform the spectator from a passive viewer to an active participant who can enact social change.
In both the stacks of paper and the piles of candy, González-Torres' work presents a certain level of wasting away at the hands of the constant visitors. This has sometimes been linked to the decay of the body from AIDS, especially in Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), where the name of the artist's lover—who died due to AIDS-related complications in 1991—is directly applied to the depleting pile. However, it can also be interpreted as a gesture of generosity and love, such as the artist received from Laycock in their life together. Indeed, many of the artist's works can be read in this parallel narrative of loving generosity and melancholy despair.
González-Torres Untitled (Perfect Lovers) (1991)—where two matching clocks tick side-by-side on a wall—could be interpreted as a simple but deeply touching gesture of the synchronicity in a partnership, where two hearts beat (or tick) as one. It could also be interpreted as the borrowed time of a shared life; as the clocks' batteries run out perhaps the clocks will slow, jump out of sync or one will simply stop, leaving the other alone in its rhythm. In these two clocks, the artist cuttingly encapsulates the materiality of the body and the soft humanity of objects.
During his career, González-Torres often used objects to encapsulate human intimacy. In one project in 1992, his photograph, Untitled (1991), was posted on 24 billboards in New York City. The photograph showed a bed, empty and unmade, with only traces of the weight of two heads on pillows side-by-side. The bodies are elsewhere, outside of the scene.
The installation was made during the AIDS crisis, where love and death lived and slept side by side. Such images remind the viewer of how people may be embodied in objects long after they themselves are gone. In its installation throughout the city of New York, the photograph also shows a sense that these memories are hard to let go of once they find their way into the most everyday of objects and spaces.
González-Torres has been exhibited internationally, including at such locations as the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York; Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin; Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul; Fondation Beyeler, Basel; and the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt. In 2007, he represented the USA at the 52nd Venice Biennale.
Casey Carsel | Ocula | 2019