New York

Felix Gonzalez-Torres

At El Museo del Barrio, encased in a small vitrine amid newspaper clippings and ephemera crowned by a monitor screening early video projects (including the autoerotic New York, New York!, 1979, and the self-consciously narcissistic Autorretrato número 3 [Self Portrait Number 3], 1979) was a letter written by Ron Clark in support of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s grant application to the National Endowment for the Humanities. Dated April 20, 1983, it is unabashed in its enthusiasm for its subject, who had recently participated in the Whitney Independent Study Program. Gonzalez-Torres, Clark avows, is an “ideal student,” “exceptionally intelligent.” “Felix has the ability to skillfully employ his knowledge of critical and theoretical concepts and methods in the analysis of artistic practice and of the historical processes and social institutions within which art is made and experience[d].”

Small and visually unremarkable, the missive betrays the archival—even didactic—impulse that was at work in “Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Early Impressions.” Admitting his primary debt to other practices, as in the case of a 1978 performance at the University of Puerto Rico where the artist and José Pérez Mesa clothed a dead tree in forty yards of white fabric à la Christo, the show constructed the Gonzalez-Torres before the “Gonzalez-Torres” of Group Material affiliation or Guggenheim solo retrospection. It thereby deftly recontextualized the artist’s work in relation to his formative education, and, more importantly, perhaps, in this institutional context, his Caribbean origins. Juxtaposing familiar subsequent projects (replenishable poster stacks, plastic-sleeved jigsaw puzzles, and Photostat linguistic portraits) with newly exhumed documents, correspondence, press, a résumé, and early works previously unseen outside Puerto Rico, this show’s three loose groupings—along the axes of writing and documentation; the mediumistic imperatives of photography and video; and the metaphor of the beach—reclaimed a native son.

Lest this curatorial recuperation seem too determined or uncomplicatedly adulatory, the works themselves actively resist nostalgia and are often explicit in their commentaries on estrangement and displacement. The video 10 horas, 10 años, 10 madres (10 hours, 10 years, 10 mothers), 1979, is revelatory in this regard, as it cruelly renders Gonzalez-Torres’s evacuation from Cuba (AT THE AGE OF TEN YOU ARE A PACKAGE SENT TO SPAIN). For a January 1982 performance, Rust, Dreams on an Ice Bed, Gonzalez-Torres, assuming the role of tourist, slathered himself in sunscreen and languished on a bed of melting ice, laying bare the contradictions of a tropical paradise marked by “rampant unemployment, massive emigration, high crime rate, and political unrest.” “Come and enjoy / come and forget,” he cooed, “rust from the ocean mist melting away as ice / as history.”

Striking here is how operationally sublimated Gonzalez-Torres’s own didacticism became, especially in light of where he began. To be sure, he retained a sense of “history” and was loath to abandon an iconography of absence, but he increasingly rendered activism elegiac and abstract, so that, for example, the fraught island becomes Untitled (Sand), 1993–94, a lyrically empty series of photogravures of indexical impressions, footprint traces in grainy contours of sand. Circulating in otherwise dispassionate cultural sites and evading censorship during the late-’80s culture wars, Gonzalez-Torres’s later works infiltrated hostile spaces like a virus, as he once appropriately put it. The prescient critique explicit in the early works never really went away; it just grew up. Given our present climate of rampant imperialism where propaganda can pass as journalism, his voice would have resonated, and this show makes one realize how it is missed. As a handwritten scrawl on a promotional photo from Rust spelled out: DARLING, WISH YOU WERE HERE.

Suzanne Hudson