PRINT May 1996


Félix González Torres

A MUTUAL FRIEND called me in Havana from New York to tell me the news of the death of Félix González Torres. As I hung up the phone I thought that this precarious communication might have been the only link between the artist’s death and the country of his birth. It was like one of Félix’s own works, a subtle line coming down, a minimum trace of a presence in absence. Félix is not well known in Cuba, and his death went as unnoticed as had his life.

I felt an absurd emptiness. I also thought of the telegram that ten years earlier had announced to me the death of Ana Mendieta, 38 years old, like Félix. I remembered a sort of curse that weighs heavily on Cuban culture: its most brilliant figures seem to die young.

Félix and I had last seen each other in the spring. At the time, he seemed more enthusiastic over his bulldog pup than his show at the Guggenheim. He told me about a project he was working on that he planned to install in France: two tangential, circular pools of water with a nearly invisible opening at the point of contact, just enough to make the water a common element. The project belongs to his “couples” theme, but I also read it as a metaphor for his work as a whole, an imperceptible joining of the public and private, the artistic and political, the esthetic and conceptual in one common body.

Félix possessed an almost Caribbean warmth and sense of humor. He felt himself to be as Puerto Rican as Cuban, and he loved being involved in New York’s Puerto Rican community. He also set aside a good deal of time for his family and friends, a rather rare phenomenon in the hectic, careerist art world of New York. “There are times,” he would tell me, “when you need your grandma’s black beans,” and he would take off to Miami. His art was nourished by those same beans: the indigenous, private experience making its unexpected appearance in the context of broader social and artistic issues. To illustrate Out There, an anthology of theoretical essays, he included family photos of children, snapshots that contrasted sharply with the dense texts. Only from the back of the book do we learn these are shots of the authors and some of the figures discussed, emphasizing their origins and their humanity next to their writing. Félix himself appears in a photograph celebrating his birthday in Guáimaro, like any other boy in rural Cuba at that time

Félix worked outside the typical circuits of Cuban-American and Latino artists, showing his pieces only rarely in the Southern Hemisphere. However, his ties with Latin America are crucial to the unique character of his work. His education in rural Cuba and in Puerto Rico, along with his participation in the Latino community in New York, doubtless conditioned his highly social and subjective reworking of Conceptualism. His work fits much better in the context of conceptually oriented Latin American work, in which social and cultural urgencies, on the one hand, and personal emotionality, on the other, exclude the tautological concerns of first-generation Conceptualism. The way Félix tackled political issues in his projects is subtle and complex, a relation between art and politics quite common in Latin American culture (as seen in the work of numerous others, from the Colombian artist Antonio Caro to such predecessors as Luis Camnitzer, Eugenio Dittborn, Cildo Meireles, Hélio Oiticica, and Doris Salcedo), and his own weaving of personal intimacy, social concerns, and artistic sophistication contradicted hegemonic narratives based on binary oppositions (public/private, esthetic/political, etc.). But Félix always worked without labels—he always worked from within, and in his own way. His paradoxical feat of romanticizing Minimalism and Conceptualism may be seen as the concealed, unsuspected introduction of a “Latino” strain into what had been largely European and American movements.

With his photos of seas, skies, and birds in flight, Félix introduced kitsch into the most refined of artistic discourses. His use of kitsch was in no way ironic; it was pure sentimental beauty, served up, without apology, on the table of Conceptualism. His irony was aimed in the other direction: he deconstructed Minimal and Conceptual art from within, as one who appreciated and subscribed to both movements (Félix always knew that all deconstruction was a self-deconstruction), and at the same time from the perspective of the “other.” In this dual role, he structured a difference within the self-referentiality of Conceptual art, integrating this difference in an almost subliminal way, yet never abandoning the most austere minimal contention. Félix raised questions about the concept of the work of art, its aura, and the ambiguity of its message, distribution, and museographic conceptions. His critique extends to that sort of post-Modern universalizing language that prevails in the so-called international art scene, although as a dominant code this language is a de facto denial of a pluralist perspective.

More than a one-directional critique, Félix’s art makes use of Minimal and Conceptual poetics in a new way. It is a friendly, open Conceptualism that requests and requires the participation of the people. If the poetry of the work seems at odds with the philosophical foundations of Minimalism and Conceptualism, these ambivalences are at the very core of Félix’s work, an art of complexity conditioned by the social insertion of the artist as a Latino homosexual immigrant.

As I finish writing this text in Spanish I feel that the accent marks that I have insisted on maintaining in Félix González Torres’ name will disappear with the translation, a hyphen will link his two last names, and it will be like a simile of his work’s reception, as well as its hybridity, all over again.

Gerardo Mosquera is a curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York.

Translated from the Spanish by Vincent Martin.