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There are only two lines of text on the pitch-black billboard Felix Gonzalez-Torres debuted in 1989, but every word bears the weight of LGBTQ history:
People With AIDS Coalition 1985 Police Harassment 1969 Oscar Wilde 1895 Supreme Court 1986 Harvey Milk 1977 March on Washington 1987 Stonewall Rebellion 1969
Thirty years later, the artist’s seminal work will return to New York City’s West Village neighborhood to honor the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and commemorate WorldPride, which is expected to draw more than 3 million tourists in June. Public Art Fund, which also produced the billboard’s first version, will present the work in its original location at Sheridan Square above Village Cigars and across from the Stonewall Inn. Lead support for the project comes from Google, which usually advertises in that billboard space.
“Felix Gonzalez-Torres stands among the most significant and influential artists of his generation,” said Nicholas Baume, the non-profit’s director and chief curator, in a statement. “Direct public engagement is fundamental to his artistic practice, which expanded the possibilities for creative expression both within and beyond the museum walls.”
Public Art Fund estimates that 100,000 to 200,000 participants in the 1989 Gay and Lesbian Liberation Day March passed by the Gonzalez-Torres billboard, called “Untitled.” The artist, who died in 1996 from AIDS complications, has built a considerable body of work dedicated to the disruption of mainstream hierarchies, histories, and chronologies. Here, he presents a few critical moments from Euro-American queer history for contemplation.
“The letters running across the lower part of the billboard suggest a long caption, capable of sustaining the projection of many images. The size of the letters is rather small for such a large space,” Gonzalez-Torres once wrote of his work. “This is not an ad; I don’t expect it to be readable while speeding down Seventh Avenue to the Holland Tunnel. I hope the public will stop for an instant to reflect on the real and abstract relationships of the different dates.”
In addition to billboards featuring text, Gonzalez-Torres also appropriated the advertising space for large-scale photographs of empty beds in the 1990s. These images — which appeared in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn — inscribed the bedroom as a site of public controversy surrounding homosexuality and the AIDS crisis. For the gay community, the empty beds became a symbol of love and death, presence and absence. (The artist’s partner, Ross Laycock, died of AIDS in 1991.)
Public Art Fund is a major commissioner of large-scale works in the city. Recently, the organization debuted Siah Armajani’s “Bridge Over Tree” sculpture in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Last year, the nonprofit also presented Yinka Shonibare’s wind sculptures inspired by West African textiles in Central Park and Ai Weiwei’s citywide exhibition, called Good Fences Make Good Neighbors. Most famously, Public Art Fund ran a series of 85 exhibitions called Messages to the Public from 1982 to 1990 on the Spectacolor board in Times Square. The series included landmark works by Jenny Holzer, Alfredo Jaar, Kiki Smith, and David Wojnarowicz.