New York

Felix Gonzalez-Torres

It seems that everyone—with the exception of the vain and the nakedly ambitious artist—hates the midcareer retrospective. The origins of the age of prematurity can be traced to exhibitions such as the one mounted by Jane Livingston and Marcia Tucker in 1972 at the L.A. County and Whitney museums documenting the career of then-31-year-old Bruce Nauman. Since then, the increasing emphasis by art dealers on "judicious placement”—a euphemism for thrusting the work of younger artists onto those collectors who sit on museum committees—coupled with the expanding ranks of art administrators, has firmly established the midcareer retrospective as a regular feature of the exhibition landscape. Scaling the museum system, with the aid of endless exegeses propped up by learned footnotes (in Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ case a staggering 131), has, it seems, become something of a mandatory investment. None of which adequately explains why an artist such as Gonzalez-Torres, whose work so often turns on the subtle distinction between institutional complicity and institutional critique, would fall into this trap.

For an artist whose work is modest to the point of invisibility, the Frank Lloyd-Wright building might have suggested itself as the perfect foil: a backdrop against which to dramatize the intertwining of mortal frailty and sculptural dispossession. Informative without being preachy, this is art that has, in the past, insinuated its way into the institutions that house and receive it, only to ask us to join in its conceptual and participatory games. The trademark candy spills and paper stacks invite the audience to reach into the normally sacrosanct space of the object, to bridge the gap between the promise of abundance and the threat of depletion, the desire to consume and the need to preserve—and perhaps most significantly between the institution and its audience. But within the Guggenheim, the games fell flat, as if the rules and terms of their conduct, once the reflection of a highly personalized vision, had been rewritten by the politburo that is the select committee. The mysterious dissolution of space suggested by the spiral form of the building might, had there been a single intervention, reflected on the permeable barrier between public and private spaces. Instead, the show remained earthbound, more closely linked to the display of greed that characterized the opening night than to an ethereal ascension.

Gonzalez-Torres has repeatedly stressed the importance of the public to his work: “I ask the public to help me, to take responsibility, to become part of my work, to join in.” But this demand becomes an unbearable constraint once the work begins to trumpet its social responsibility. A case in point was the room devoted to the billboard images—in an institutional context they conveyed nothing other than a documentary piety. Poetic evocations of absence and loss, the billboards—with their peripatetic, nonchronological histories—were originally placed in inner cities or along highways, glimpsed perhaps at the command of a stoplight, positioned at literal as well as metaphorical intersections. Deprived of the life they draw from being immersed in the vicissitudes of urban environments, they remain both emotionally and specularly flat. In the antiseptic confines of the museum, the billboard images, now facsimiles of sincerity, became essential components in the administration of a culture of benevolent paternalism.

With a show comprised largely of candy spills and paper stacks, Gonzalez-Torres continued his long-established practice of making a gift of his art. If it goes without saying that we pay at the door to be indulged in the spirit of the artist’s generosity, quite what we are sampling when we chew on his sweet offerings is less clear. The weight of some of the spills related to the fluctuating body weight of the artist’s now deceased lover, each subtraction of a piece of candy becoming an invitation to participate in an otherwise private ritual of grief and commemoration. But as the paired clocks that tick in synchrony in Untitled (Perfect Lovers), 1991, suggest, such symbiotic relationships will eventually run their course. Sacraments in the communion of care and remembrance, the spills and paper stacks become, in this context, a strange Eucharist—no longer the body of the departed but of the museum, now the instrument and church of our humanization.

For all the work’s purported open-endedness and insistence on the crucial role of the audience to its completion and continuation, righteousness rather than possibility underwrites these transactions. It is a righteousness born of two related suppositions. The first is that the brave new world of the disinterested institution gains its moral authority from the contrast between it and the supposedly corrupt, market-driven world outside where otherwise virgin art is penetrated by venereal lucre. The second assurance, packaged within the first, is that the “experience of art” under the politically correct auspices of what Dave Hickey has aptly termed the “therapeutic institution,” becomes detached from the purportedly dysfunctional parent culture from which it is spawned precisely in order to enact its remedial role. In the end, what we get seems less benevolent than passive aggressive—the policing of decency within an enforced culture of consolation. Take a print home, suck on a candy, and have a nice day. You’d better.

Neville Wakefield