LONDON — Stacks of paper, piles of candies, strings of light bulbs, billboards, beaded curtains. The catalogue of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s works does not include much else. Executed in less than a decade, from 1986 to 1995, the artist’s official oeuvre numbers fewer than 300 pieces, yet his fortune and his influence on subsequent artistic practice has been quite remarkable.
Over the years, critics have highlighted many different aspects of his work, from the prevalent formal influence of minimalism to his pieces’ marked relational content, not to mention his significant contribution in addressing the AIDS crisis. Moreover, Gonzalez-Torres has himself provided elements to the theoretical debates, extended beyond the discussion on his practice, that have been useful in understanding 1990s art in a broad sense. The artist’s entire production is marked by an interlacing of political and emotional content, whose forms are never ostentatiously declared or programmatic, but rather indirect, reticent, and intensely lyrical.
Every time Gonzalez-Torres’s work is exhibited, a critical opportunity arises. In this, curators play a decisive and extremely delicate role because they must construct a frame of meaning that responds to the specificities of his practice.
This spring, Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York, Hauser & Wirth in London, and Massimo De Carlo in Milan have organized an unprecedented three-part Gonzalez-Torres’s exhibition. The shows, curated by artists Julie Ault and Roni Horn, feature a different body of work for each space: Andrea Rosen is showing his highly conceptual series of portraits, De Carlo some beaded curtains and a mirror piece, and the exhibition at Hauser and Wirth, the first in London since 2000, groups together all the jigsaw pieces the artist realized in 1991, in addition to two mirror works and one of the iconic light bulb pieces, all from the same year.
Both Ault and Horn were close to Gonzalez-Torres during his lifetime. Ault worked with him as part of Group Material, an art collective too often forgotten, while Horn and the Cuban artist created works inspired by each other. Ault and Horn’s effort in curating the exhibition, and their loyalty to their fellow artist’s practice, certainly don’t go unnoticed.
“A piece by Felix, like life, has the possibility of transforming itself because of the contingencies of life,” Andrea Rosen states in the monograph dedicated to the artist that was edited by Ault and published in 2006. Indeed, Gonzalez-Torres’s works allow for multiple readings. Borrowing a concept the late novelist and semiologist Umberto Eco, Gonzalez-Torres’s pieces could be considered a perfect example of “open work” — artworks whose meaning is left open by their creators and further completed by the audience. Eco developed this idea in his 1962 book of the same name, which also anticipates some of the major themes of contemporary literary theory, from plurality and the proliferation of meaning in art to the emphasis on the role of the reader. In a way, Eco’s “open work” is activated and brought to a certain degree of completion only by its reader, because the artist doesn’t provide close solutions or clear directions. Eco’s examples — Bertold Brecht’s plays, James Joyce’s writing, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Anton Webern’s compositions — all share a constitutive indeterminacy.
Gonzalez-Torres’ frequent decision to leave the interpretation of his pieces to the public, without forcing a univocal reading, was a fundamental part of his strategy and can be included in the concept of “openness.” While this essential aspect of his practice allowed for many different interpretations of the work when the artist was alive, it has also led to endless curatorial conundrums after his death. Writing about avant-garde experimentation in music, Eco noticed the “considerable autonomy left to the individual performer in the way he chooses to play the work.” Substitute the words “performer” with “curator” and “play” with “exhibit” and the concept perfectly applies to a Gonzalez-Torres exhibition. This is the reason why there has been an ongoing debate on the methodologies to follow in curating his work.
For the London show, Ault and Horn took an inclusive approach: having all his puzzle pieces from 1991 grouped together is, indeed, a rare treat. Although there were not clear indications from the curators about the specific decision of the year, 1991 is rather symbolic in the artist’s life: In January of that year, Gonzalez-Torres’s partner, Ross Laycock, died from AIDS-related complications.
In a way that is typical of Gonzalez-Torres’s oeuvre, the puzzle series features a unique combination of fluidity and specificity, perpetually stuck in the elusive border between private and public. The artist made his jigsaw pieces out of a variety of images, such as newspaper clippings, photos, bits of love letters, and handwritten notes. Disguised in the form of table games, the fragmented pictures whisper about the fragility of memory and the poetry of the everyday. Looking at them, isolated words come out from the hubbub of the letters: I read “struggle” and “anxiety” but also “love” and “life.”
Like a kid who has caught a butterfly and ends up squashing it for fear of letting it get away, we are unable to preserve memories the way we wish. The puzzles suggest a nostalgic movement coming from the disheartened intention of reviving the intensity of a past time. They materially translate the mental process involved in memory: its extreme fragility and the steady, albeit slow, threat of oblivion. The artist reacts to this fatality by protecting each work in a transparent plastic bag, as if to slow the fading of memories in an attempt to limit the easy dispersion of the singular parts.
Time dictates its own tyranny: it slowly consumes bodies with diseases and old age, it silently dims faces and events that were once vivid in our minds. Yet, although despotic, time can also be extremely generous. Love, Gonzalez-Torres suggests, beats time. There couldn’t be any better consolation.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres continues at Andrea Rosen Gallery (525 West 24th Street, Chelsea, New York) through June 18, at Massimo De Carlo (Via Giovanni Ventura 5, Milan, Italy) through July 20, and at Hauser & Wirth (23 Savile Row, London, UK) through July 30.