Felix Gonzalez-Torres

Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ works function well when the viewer is aware that they involve an implied invitation to participate; here, without explicit instructions, however, few viewers left the gallery sucking on candy or carrying off the sheets of paper, as the artist intended. A small C-print puzzle, Untitled (Lover’s Letter) (all works 1991), presents a fragmented manuscript from Oscar Wilde’s Salomé. The cropped text, in which Salomé describes the beauty of John the Baptist’s body, hair, mouth, and voice, is taken from her final declaration of love before his severed head. In this work, Gonzalez-Torres introduces notions of love, death, and revenge, which function as keys to the entire exhibition. He also installed one stack of virgin white paper, Untitled (Passport), on the floor at its junction with the wall like some solitary tooth, and another, Untitled (Double Portrait), in the center of the room. Here the unseen surface of each sheet hosts two identical dark gold rings forming a figure eight that cannot be seen without lifting one of the sheets. In Untitled (Blue Placebo), a long, orderly stripe/spill of blue Streglio candies trails along the length of the gallery’s other wall.

The two white forms and the blue stripe create an almost Minimalist situation whereby, like Salomé, the artist seems to turn away from the object in which as much has been invested. Like a dying person losing energy, these “Minimalist” works can potentially lose their form: they are intended to be carried away, literally sheet by sheet, by the viewers. Once the sheets of paper are invested with this significance—whether or not they are actually taken away—the sacrosanct Minimalist cube is violated, and there is no turning back. Like Salomé, Gonzalez-Torres takes his revenge and makes the death of the desired object (here the perfect Minimalist form) public. At the same time he reminds us of its unattainable beauty. As the title of the C-print puzzle suggests, art is made to live a lover’s life; visitors come and take away bits and pieces, enjoy it, and consume it.

We have come to know that two circles, two clocks,’ two identical forms, in the work of Gonzalez-Torres, are signifiers for homosexual love, but to conclude one’s reading here would be to do both it and the artist’s political agenda an injustice. It is not simply an idea of homosexuality that is being represented here. Gonzalez-Torres’ work constitutes a spiritual discourse that moves beyond a concrete political agenda. The consumable candies call to mind the ritual of communion, the consumption the body and blood of Christ. In these works the viewer comes to see death as part of a sublime cycle, mirroring the Christian belief in the circularity of Christ’s existence and resurrection. Love and death are bound together in the church’s mythology just as they are in Gonzalez-Torres’ work. He also celebrates masculine identity, without glorifying a phallocentrism, and relies instead on an infantile, presexual state. Here, as in the past, color is used as a set of coded signifiers; for example, pale blue represents this infantile masculinity. As it distances itself from all notions of Minimalist sculptural practice, Gonzalez-Torres’ work acquires a somber depth that both underlines its political achievement and opens new territories where the spiritual and the conceptual can exist side by side.

Anthony Iannacci