PRINT February 1991


Late one night forty years ago, Tony Smith took a car ride on the not-yet-completed New Jersey Turnpike and had an epiphanal experience that he likened to art:

The road and much of the landscape was artificial, and yet it couldn’t be called a work of art. On the other hand, it did something for me that art had never done. At first I didn’t know what it was, but its effect was to liberate me from many of the views I had had about art. It seemed that there had been a reality there which had not had any expression in art.

The experience on the road was something mapped out but not socially recognized. I thought to myself, it ought to be clear that’s the end of art. . . .1

What Smith euphemistically designated the “end of art,” Michael Fried termed “theater” in his now infamous proposal that “theater is . . . the negation of art.”2 Claiming that theater is what happens between the individual arts, the metaphor for which is Smith’s experience of the empty or abandoned situation, Fried argued against Minimalism’s inherent theatricality and its “objecthood.” “The experience of literalist [a.k.a. Minimalist] art,” he writes, “is of an object in a situation, one which, virtually by definition, includes the beholder.” Robert Morris went one step further:

The concerns now are for more control of . . . the entire situation. Control is necessary if the variables of object, light, space, body, are to function. The object has not become less important. It has merely become less self-important.3

Fried responded: “It is, I think, worth remarking that ‘the entire situation’ means exactly that: all of it including, it seems, the beholder’s body.”4

Fried was one of the first to describe the subjugation of the beholder to the Minimalist object, an object that remains as the center or focus of the situation; an object that constitutes experience as something outside the beholder rather than as self-generated; an object that distances, overwhelms, and confronts the beholder in such a way that it is placed not just in our space but in our way.5 A major flaw in his argument, however, was his inability to differentiate between the theatricality of Minimalism, which assigns to the beholder a passive role, and that inherent in Smith’s experience, which grants an empowered participant an active role in the construction of meaning.

The distinction is critical when we approach the work of many younger artists currently appropriating and deploying Minimalism, together with an inherited set of questions concerning theatricality and subjectivity. Minimalism’s original intent was refractory: to clarify esthetic experience and to minimize content, the mirroring function of art was negated in favor of locating content outside the art object, and for this reason a viewer was prerequisite. This viewer, however, was construed less in intellectual terms than as physical; the viewer, as Fried observed, was a body. Whereas Minimalism’s failure to supersede institutional values and commodification was foregrounded in first-generation appropriation art, which situated its critique in the realm of displaced desire (and of Jean Baudrillard’s simulacrum), the current generation constructs its critique somewhat differently by fetishizing the “body” of the Minimalist object as gendered and erotic, and recoding the viewer in his or her relation to the object as ideologically determined. For these artists, the formal and rhetorical language of Minimalism—the rigid, unyielding structures, the harshly cold materials of industry and technology—and the passive subject position of the viewer are seen as analogous to the phallocentric, patriarchal order wherein representation acts to regulate and define the subjects it addresses. Eschewing the impersonality of the Minimalist object, they have sought to radicalize the post-Modern concept of the simulacrum by “de-naturaliz[ing] the traditional historiographic separation of . . . the personal and the political.”6

Prominent among these artists is Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose work, while personal in nature, is not constituted in terms of individual expression; rather, he deals with systems of meaning operating within conventions that are socially produced. By inscribing his practice within the framework of sexual politics in general, and homosexual experience in particular, he seeks to index the unavailability of subjectivity to homosexuals in patriarchal culture, disrupting the putative neutrality of the process whereby viewing subjects are caught up in, formed by, and construct meaning. Historically formed by Conceptual art as well as by Minimalism, Gonzalez-Torres’ work includes textual elements—parenthetical titles, aphorisms, or paratactic captions—that emphasize the linguistic basis of the formation of social and sexual identity.

Blank spaces that simultaneously proffer and defer a promise of meaning are central to Gonzalez-Torres’ work. For the inaugural exhibition at the Andrea Rosen Gallery last winter, stacks of immaculately clean sheets of paper were installed in various configurations: a column of white papers edged in black; a short stack of light blue papers; three thick steps of white paper printed with a centered wide blue stripe; and four low piles of white paper precisely aligned on the corners of a square blue cotton cloth mat, all 1990. A pair of symmetrically opposed tacked pages of equal height bore offset-printed inscriptions: “Nowhere better than this place.” and “Somewhere better than this place.” All the pieces were untitled, yet some included parentheses “(The End),” “(Lover Boy),” “(Blue Cross)”—that allude to homoeroticism and loss.

Monolithic at first sight, especially when seen from a distance, the single stacked columns are reminiscent of Morris’ 1966 untitled plywood box, and the geometric arrangement of Untitled (Blue Cross) seems more than coincidentally related to his 1965 untitled sculpture of four fiberglass polyhedrons that define a cross pattern in their interstices. Even le vide papier, as work of art, has appeared sporadically over the last century, dating back to 1883, when the obscure Symbolist writer Alphonse Allais, a member of Stéphane Mallarmé’s circle, mounted a clean Bristol sheet with four thumbtacks to the wall at the Salon des Incohérents and entitled it The First Communion of Young Virgins on a Snowy Day. Gonzalez-Torres’ esoteric references to sexuality—for example, a stack of bare, blue papers is parenthetically referred to as “Lover Boy”—seem far removed from Minimalism’s refusal of social content, but even here a precedent may be found in Morris’ 1963 sculpture Untitled (Cock/Cunt), a schematic wooden plaque mounted with an elongated block of wood. In fact, criticism of the artist’s work has primarily been directed at its presumed derivative nature. More important than questions of influence and originality, however, especially in view of the gay psychosexual component of his work, is to ask whether Gonzalez-Torres merely attaches a politicized (and heretofore illegitimate) content to the hermetic vehicle of Minimalism while leaving its phallocentric conventions intact, or, through more radically invasive techniques, dismantles its ideological standards from the roots up. Put another way, either an appropriated form is “filled” with content (which would be to revert to an expressionist model) or content is found in it.

The meaning of apparently monolithic structures or blank pages will inevitably alter according to the discursive social formations in effect, thus creating a margin of meaning in the distinctions between an appropriated and an antecedent form. Yet essential differences will not always announce themselves through large declarations. No Minimalist artist ever made stacks of loose papers. As fetishes of hierarchical primary structures, Gonzalez-Torres’ paper columns are specifically designed to be peeled away, layer by soft, permeable layer, and the individual pages of the stacks are free for the taking. Theoretically, because they exist in endless copies, any number of pages could be taken without diminishing the whole; in reality, the whole is subjected to perpetual instability by the very nature of its partitive construction.7 As a result, the somatic or phallic identity of Minimalism’s rigidly unified form is transformed into a model of dissemination and renewal. The codes of displacement (connoted by the dispersable columns) and of erotic desire and loss (collectively articulated in the parenthetical titles) converge on the blank or empty pages that serve as symbolic sites of homosexual identity. An Other, like woman, whose identity is often likened to a blank page (as in Allais’ conflation of the virgins and an empty sheet of paper, or the smooth surface designated as feminine in Morris’ Untitled [Cock/Cunt]), the gay male is denied representation within the patriarchal order.

Gonzalez-Torres activates the blank page, however, through his frequent use of the color blue, traditionally a symbol for both melancholy and the romantic, and his choice of delicate and beautiful shades of blue suffuses the blank page with an emotional and psychic resonance. Blue is also the color for boys, and a cultural password for the erotic, as in “blue movies.” Blue movies, and equivalent countercultural forms, disrupt the patriarchal order by empowering desire and subjectivity. Thus the blue blank page presents a parodic interweaving of political disenfranchisement and eroticized subjectivity.

Concurrent with the paper stack pieces, Gonzalez-Torres began to design corner spills, not of asphalt or sulphur or lead but of cookies and candies, that reiterate themes of dissemination and renewal. Untitled (A Corner of Baci), a silver-and-blue-foil mound of approximately 40 pounds of Italian chocolates; Untitled (Fortune Cookie Corner), a larger pour of folded cookies containing only good fortunes; and Untitled (USA Today), a heap of red-silver-and-blue-wrapped Fruits & Berries candies, all 1990, are intended for consumption by viewers yet are easily replenishable. In the spirit of Bertolt Brecht’s insistence on the incompleteness of an artwork without the viewer’s participation, each act of consumption is, in fact, also one of completion. The relation of part to whole, however, remains problematic: the spills could easily disappear given a crowd with a voracious appetite.

Aside from their benign pun on “alchemic” spills of substances like tar, sulphur, and lead by such artists as Robert Smithson, Alan Saret, and Richard Serra, the lighthearted humor of the sugar spills doesn’t negate the possibility of more somber readings. Like the paper stacks, they function allegorically to reveal a psychosexual content informed by the artist’s personal experience as a gay male, a content that might be satisfying for some consumers, but difficult for others to swallow. The wealth of blue-and-silver Baci, the Italian for “kisses,” was originally created as a private piece and not for public display. The thin wax paper message folded under the foil wrapper of each testifies to the power of love, suggesting erotic pleasure between male lovers, which all too frequently must be kept under wraps. The heap of fortune cookies, all containing good fortunes, doesn’t simply extend a friendly “have a good day”; it is particularly poignant in view of the AIDS crisis. The abundant mound of red-silver-and-blue candies, with its allusion to a national newspaper that upholds traditional “family values,” points to the exclusionary politics of a culture that perceives unauthorized sexual difference, and other nontraditional behaviors, as a threat and, hence, worthy of discrimination.

Gonzalez-Torres acknowledges that social meanings spring from a humanized source of personal experience, one that allows for poetic resonance yet does not diffuse the possibility of cultural critique. Aided by synthesizing allegorical structures that interweave public events and private moments, he works against the expressionist model, based on an expressive self and an empathic viewer who receives preconstituted meanings, by proposing a collective social and psychic space in which the beholder actively participates in the construction of meaning. Though his work is informed by autobiographical elements specific to his homosexual identity, its intent is to extend subjectivity to all participants.

This effect is most apparent in an ongoing series of works, created in various formats, in which Gonzalez-Torres returns us to the theater of blank space wherein empty surfaces are captioned with disjunctive nomenclatures. Equivalent to post-Modern genres of history painting and still life, and to texts dislocated from the page, the caption works are the epitome of counternarrative and encode multiple contents, both informational and symbolic, within one form. Perhaps the most widely known of these works is the billboard that appeared in Greenwich Village’s Sheridan Square, New York, from March to September 1989, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion. Positioned in the lower portion of an otherwise empty black surface (an “abandoned situation,” in Fried’s terminology), the caption read: “People With AIDS Coalition 1985 Police Harassment 1969 Oscar Wilde 1895 Supreme Court 1986 Harvey Milk 1977 March on Washington 1987 Stonewall Rebellion 1969.” Gonzalez-Torres’ commemoration frames a century of struggle for gay rights, beginning with Oscar Wilde’s famed decision to remain in England to face charges of homosexuality. Confirming the longstanding collaborative nature of his work with Group Material and other individual artists,8 the billboard can be understood as a conceptual collaboration with the public in that it solicits viewers to restore proper sequence to its deliberately jumbled chronology and thus to knit together its incomplete historical record. One of the consequences of this activity is a mini-history-lesson: even without knowledge of each of the events, our understanding of the continuing struggle for personal freedom is increased. In accordance with this reading, the blank space operates as a symbolic site of art itself, revealed as a place where positive values and actions can be produced.9

Not all the caption works are as thematically unified as the Sheridan Square billboard. Pol Pot, 1988, a framed photostat, jumbles a greater variety of themes, including historical and television events: “Pol Pot 1975 Prague 1968 Robocop 1987 H Bomb 1954 Wheel of Fortune 1988 Spud.” As Nancy Spector has noted, “Such seemingly random juxtapositions illustrate the tragic reductivism of the historical process, yet at the same time, they illuminate the spaces between events as the loci of meaning.10 Other caption works, such as Untitled, 1989, assume the form of historiographic metafictions. Installed in a foyer at the Brooklyn Museum above a bank of windows, its caption was framed by the blank, reflective surfaces of ceiling and floor and read: ”Red Canoe 1987 Paris 1985 Blue Flowers 1984 Harry the Dog 1983 Blue Lake 1986 Interferon 1989 Ross 1983." While each entry can be imagined as a meaningful moment in the artist’s life, the presumed autobiographical content is nonetheless quite remote, and the construction of meaning from the chain of disjunctive signifiers, randomly sampled from cultural/public and personal/private events, must be satisfied from the viewer’s own fantasy and lived experience.

The certainty of a fixed or predetermined meaning in the caption works rarely exists. The representational function of language parallels that of the blank surface: both are given in relation to an absent image that can only be constituted by the reader/viewer. Hence, the actual voice of these works belongs to the viewer, who is empowered to recuperate wholeness and to bring multiplicity into focus from whatever comes naturally to mind. Following Walter Benjamin’s theory of allegory, the caption works proceed from the perception that “any person, any object, any relationship can mean absolutely anything else.”11 Concerning the nature of his relationship to his art, Gonzalez-Torres has remarked:

This work is mostly personal. It is about those very early hours in the morning, while still half asleep, when I tend to visualize information, to see panoramas in which the fictional, the important, the banal, and the historical are collapsed into a single caption. Leaving me anxious and responsible to anchor a logical accompanying image—scanning the TV channels trying to sort out and match sound and sight. This work is about my exclusion from the circle of power where social and cultural values are elaborated and about my rejection of the imposed and established order.12

Inherent to the programmatic instability of meaning in Gonzalez-Torres’ work is a subject in process who is constantly formed and reformed, positioned and repositioned, with regard to alleged or imagined content. A pair of commercial clocks, placed side by side on the wall, telling time in perfect unison, is called Untitled (Perfect Lovers), 1987–90. Who are these “perfect” lovers? Do the clocks memorialize another couple lost to AIDS, or symbolize the hope for eternally enduring union? Without the aid of the parenthetical title, such queries would not arise; the standard institutional clocks, part of the hardware of Conceptual art, would become real and informational rather than abstract and poetic. By fetishizing the “body” of the clock, Gonzalez-Torres converts the informational into the erotic. This transformatory process of displacement is specifically located in the vibrating gap between object and language, a gap that Conceptual art saw as a function of representation and sought to eliminate. But it is precisely his concern with the issue of representation and its politics, and also the question of desire and its gendered politics, that leads Gonzalez-Torres to designate the theatrical spaces in between as the site of the poetics and politics of his work as well as of its erotic psychosexual valences, which are almost always signified through language.13

A series of puzzle works rather teasingly postulates those “spaces in between,” as well as themes of mobility and the play of absence and presence. Photographic images are printed on a surface broken into jigsaw pieces. Ranging from snapshots (the shadow of a couple, footprints in the snow, birds in flight) to media stills (for example, the Pope giving communion to Kurt Waldheim, or scenes of urban crowds), the images remain intact and coherent as long as the puzzle is fitted together. Usually “framed” in factory-sealed plastic bags, and essentially fragile in nature, the completed puzzle and the whole picture are under constant threat of fragmentation.

The quality of instability that characterizes actual form (the puzzles, the spills, the paper stacks), and is paralleled in the mobility of subjectivity (as is most evident in the caption works, whose empty surfaces reflect the viewer’s own intentionality and desires), is itself allegorical, and can be understood as further evidence of Gonzalez-Torres’ aim to dephallicize artmaking. Under attack is the concept of the master narrative and its legitimizing elements. “The narrative function,” Jean-Francois Lyotard observes,

is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements—narrative, but also denotative, prescriptive, descriptive, and so on. Conveyed within each cloud are pragmatic valences specific to its kind. Each of us lives at the intersection of many of these. However, we do not necessarily establish stable language combinations, and the properties of the ones we do establish are not necessarily communicable.14

What is at stake is not only the status of narrative, but of representation itself: Martin Heidegger’s “world pictures” can no longer stand as emblems for the modern age.15

Gonzalez-Torres’ production, by example, constitutes a consistent refusal of mastery, most notably in the voice that speaks throughout his work but that is not exclusively identified with the artist or given a fixed gender, and in the construction of meaning as a nonspecified, open-ended process. With regard to the beholder, Gonzalez-Torres envisions a fully embodied participant who is not designated as a centered point in a “field of vision” but is endowed with shifting and multiple perspectives, not to mention a complete range of the senses—seeing, feeling, tasting, smelling, touching. If this is the reduction to plurality, the “abandoned” or “empty” theatrical situation Fried so feared, then let the curtain rise and the performance begin.

Jan Avgikos is an art historian and critic who lives in New York.


1. Tony Smith, quoted in Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum V no. 10, Summer 1967, p. 19. Reprinted in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1968, p. 131.

2. Fried, p. 125.

3. Robert Morris, quoted in Fried, p. 127.

4. Fried, p. 127.

5. For an in-depth, revisionist analysis of Minimalism’s theatricality, see Anna C. Chave, “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power,” Arts Magazine 64 no. 5, January 1990, pp. 44-63.

6. Lisa Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism, London: Routledge, 1989, p. 142.

7. The single pages, particularly the blank white or blue sheets, raise the question of their status as art. Presumably, a single blue sheet exists as a detail of Untitled (Lover Boy), or four single white sheets exist as a detail of Untitled (Blue Cross). In conversation, Gonzalez-Torres has acknowledged that some have found it difficult to maintain this conceptual premise. Following one opening, the artist was dismayed to discover several papers lying crumpled in the street.

8. Gonzalez-Torres is a founding and current member of Group Material, whose core members include Julie Ault, Karen Ramspacher, and Doug Ashford. He has also produced works with Michael Jenkins and Louise Lawler, among others.

9. It is worth noting, however, that for the duration of the installation of the AIDS billboard, the adjacent billboard remained unleased, despite its prime location. Its empty surface and brief “Ad Space Available” caption created an ironic counterpart to Gonzalez-Torres’ installation.

10. Nancy Spector, “Smart Art,” Contemporanea 2 no. 4, June 1989, p. 96.

11. Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne, London: New Left Books, 1977, p. 175.

12. From a statement written in conjunction with his installation at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, September-November 1988.

13. Despite the ample cues to gay identity, AIDS, the loss of loved ones, etc., in Gonzalez-Torres’ work, it would be restrictive to define it solely in terms of sexual politics. As he has commented, although he works within the political arena he does not make works that are exclusively “political.” He often, in fact, refers to his work as romantic.

14. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984, p. xxiv.

15. “The fundamental event of the modern age is the conquest of the world as picture. The word ‘picture’ [Bild] now means the structured image [Gebild] that is the creature of man’s producing which represents and sets before. In such producing, man contends for the position in which he can be that particular being who gives the measure and draws up the guidelines for everything that is.” Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, trans. William Lovitt, New York: Harper & Row, 1977. Quoted in Craig Owens, “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism,” in The Anti-Aesthetic, ed. Hal Foster, Seattle: Bay Press, 1983, p. 66.