Felix Gonzalez-Torres

There is a double motivation behind this traveling Felix Gonzalez-Torres retrospective. Not only does the show present a carefully selected panorama of works by the Cuban-American artist, but it also serves as a welcome excuse for producing a luxurious two-volume catalogue raisonné. It was difficult to imagine a more thoughtful presentation of Gonzalez-Torres’ work than the unhurried installation in Hannover. At the entrance to the galleries the viewer was confronted with the already-legendary paper stacks the artist inscribed with the phrases “Nowhere better than this place” and “Somewhere better than this place.” To enter the show one also had to pass through one of the plastic beaded curtains Gonzalez-Torres began making in 1991. Together, these two works set the tone for the entire exhibition, in that they appeared at the limits of the expository space while operating on the border between the art object and what could be called a “cultural readymade.” In this sense, it is interesting to note that the shape of the piles of paper could be considered as a given, when one thinks of their relationship to Minimalist sculpture. The curtains also resemble similar ones decorating the entrances of many of the poorer homes in Central and South America. In any case, there could not be a more appropriate way to inaugurate an exhibition of the work of an artist who attempted to unravel the conventions surrounding art institutions and the relationship between the work of art and the spectator.

The remainder of the exhibition contained examples from the series Gonzalez-Torres produced after his first show at Andrea Rosen Gallery in 1990: works made with candies, posters, jigsaw puzzles, and strings of lights. The retrospective’s careful, spread-out installation accented each piece’s singularity, but it also imparted a certain sense of emptiness and melancholy. It is worth wondering how the show would be perceived if one were unaware of the artist’s still-recent demise, as well as the link between his death and the nature of his project. Death, after all, seems to be the most persistent figure in Gonzalez-Torres’ oeuvre: it could be found in his fascination with limits, disappearance, and dissolution; with surfaces that are reflective while remaining empty; with minute mechanical defects that can cause two identical clocks to differ or lights to burn out. But death, as it appears in his oeuvre, is never merely suggestive of silence or finitude. As each piece is consumed it begins anew (the candies and sheets of paper, for example, can be replenished as they are removed by spectators).

And it is on the other side of death, on the side of ghosts, that the accompanying catalogue raisonné appears—for two reasons. First, a catalogue raisonné usually indicates the close of an artist’s productive life; and second, it also implies an intimate conversation with the artist, even if he or she is not present. In preparing such a catalogue, it is impossible not to ask certain questions: What qualifies as the work and what doesn’t? Should sketches and personal notes be incorporated? As David Deitcher points out in one of the essays included, the project of systematizing the work of an artist whose approach was so obviously asystematic seems at first glance contradictory. Throughout his career, for example, Gonzalez-Torres toyed with the notion of originality, something that is essential to any process of cataloguing an artist’s work. Paradoxically, it is because this “archive” is based on a series of pieces that were conceived in part as a challenge to the very notion that art can be organized, measured, and standardized that it is so suggestive.

The very rigor of the catalogue’s organization causes one to consider the boundaries that Gonzalez-Torres’ work both highlights and blurs: limits between art and life, public and private, presence and absence, oblivion and memory, life and death. Raising questions that are especially urgent because they have no definite answer, this catalogue raisonné reaffirms that the artist’s death is only further proof of his work’s continuing vitality.

Carlos Basualdo

Translated from the Spanish by Vincent Martin.