My work cannot be destroyed,” artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres told curator Nancy Spector in 1995. “I destroy the work before I make it.” Between permanence and impermanence, the fleeting now and the heavy forever, where does art reside, and how does a work survive? This isn’t only a question propelling Gonzalez-Torres, but one that hangs over an elegant and contemplative exhibition at David Zwirner, transforming the cold majesty of the Chelsea gallery space into an airy cathedral charged with the work and spirit of an artist who, since his death in 1996, has achieved a near-mythical status.
Gonzalez-Torres was born in Cuba in 1957 and moved to New York in 1979, graduating from both the Pratt Institute and the Whitney Museum’s ISP program a few years later. Although trained as a photographer, he became known for installations that infused the stolid machismo of Minimalism with something it always seemed to lack: life force, generosity, humor. Rather than molten lead or bricks or polished steel, Gonzalez-Torres used candy, beads, and posters to create certain of his sculptures, and he invited his audience to take part by taking them. “Untitled” (Placebo-Landscape for Roni), from 1993, is composed of a long stream of gold-foil-wrapped hard candies lining the seam between the gallery’s floor and wall; two stacks of paper (“Untitled,” 1989/90) — one printed with the words “Somewhere better than this place,” the other “Nowhere better than this place” — lie side by side on the floor. This is all there for the taking; as mandated by Gonzalez-Torres, the gallery restocks the art as needed. It’s a beautiful performance: art slowly atomizing into the world, disappearing and then regenerating, unable ever to be lost or destroyed.
Gonzalez-Torres’s work was unabashedly, if coolly, queer, dealing in desire and time. In “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers) (1987–90), he hangs two round wall clocks next to each other so that they touch — they “kiss” — echoing the shape of an infinity sign. They’re synced together, though over time they fall out with each other — one was a second behind the other when I visited — eventually succumbing to the timing of their own movements and the inevitable battery drain, until they’re replaced and the clocks are put back in sync. One of his most notorious works, “Untitled” (Go-Go Dancing Platform), from 1991, is a pedestal-cum-stage ringed with lightbulbs on which a go-go boy dances in tight silver shorts and round mirrored glasses, listening via headphones to music only he can hear. The afternoon I visited, the boy was bleached-blond, buff, tattooed, glinting with perspiration, his shoes squeaking loudly as he bopped around on then hopped off the stage, leaving it empty — his exit marking the shifting temperatures of desire and presence, and desire and absence.
The most bizarre absence in the exhibition: the word AIDS. It is mentioned nowhere in the press release that Gonzalez-Torres died of the virus at the age of 38, or that his activism as a part of the artist/curator collective Group Material was aimed in part at the crisis. (Their iconic exhibition, “AIDS Timeline” (1989), chronicled the epidemic via art, collected newsmedia accounts, and other artifacts of the era.) Why expunge this simple, terrible fact from the artist’s record? One possible answer may come from Andrea Rosen, who began showing Gonzalez-Torres in 1990 and recently announced that she and David Zwirner will co-represent the artist’s estate. In a recent interview with the New York Times’ T magazine, she said: “You look at art history, any artist, people are put into these boxes….And the more famous the artist, the more people think they can be boiled down into a single line. And the fiber of Felix’s work is about how you can make a work that is not limiting the possibility of being constantly reinterpreted. He negated his biography — he never wanted his photo taken. I think he had no idea that the fact of his death would so strongly influence his work for so long.”
But the fact of his death did influence his work. How could it not? It’s always there, sometimes subtly, in the recurring subjects of love and disappearance, as in “Untitled” (Ross), from 1991, an endless supply of candy piled into a corner in an upstairs gallery, named for his partner Ross Laycock, who also died of AIDS. “I am feeling the effects of this disease on my soul,” he wrote a year before his death in a letter to artist/curator Julie Ault, his friend and Group Material collaborator. “That it is so hard for me to write, to do new work, to take a ‘leap,’ to imagine possible futures. It’s not there.” To willfully pretend that AIDS is not a part of his story, or a part of his art: This is not an act of revision. This is an act of sterilization. It doesn’t free the work up to mean more and more and more. It shuts it down, places under quarantine what might now strike some as unseemly or unpleasant or inconvenient. (I can’t help but wonder if his posthumous leap to blue-chip status has something, everything, to do with the noxious, preposterous downsizing of his work.) To behold grief, loss, illness, pain inside sparkle, sweetness, sweat, light is to experience Gonzalez-Torres’s unbearable, redoubtable joie de mourir — an essential part, if only one part, of his art.
His haunting installation “Untitled” (A Portrait) (1991/1995) is a five-minute video looped on a monitor placed on a pedestal, with two empty chairs facing it. Pieces of text appear and disappear — fade in, fade out — words in white against a black screen. It begins with a kind of wide shot on the world: “a new supreme court ruling/a patriotic mob/a public opinion/stock market crash.” The details then move into the more intimate realm of memory: “a found black cat/long love letters…a night sweat/a shopping spree…strange music/a new lesion.” The hypnotic rhythm makes for visual music, in which the last words to appear express something of what Gonzalez-Torres mourned he wouldn’t be able to imagine for the future — and yet what is, to the present eye, what he left behind: a possible landscape.