A visitor takes a candy from "Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)" by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. (photo via Flickr)

For two summers, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” (1991) was displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago alongside a wall label that made no mention of AIDS, or of Gonzalez-Torres’s partner Ross Laycock, the subject of the installation. A few days ago, the label was revised to include a reference to AIDS following “visitor feedback” — some of which criticized the museum for the omission.

The work comprises 175 pounds of cellophane-wrapped candy, a pile that corresponds to Laycock’s ideal body weight. In the year of its creation, Laycock died from an AIDS-related illness. Five years later, Gonzalez-Torres also died from complications of AIDS. Visitors to “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” are encouraged to take a piece of candy, a gesture symbolizing physical decline, loss, and renewal.

The Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) first exhibited Gonzalez-Torres’s work in 2000 and has displayed it intermittently since. In 2017, “Untitled (Ross in L.A.)” was exhibited alongside a label that described the work as an “allegorical portrait of the artist’s partner, Ross Laycock, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1991” and explained that “the diminishing pile parallels Laycock’s ideal body weight before he died.”

Then the work was de-installed, and when it was put back on display in the summer of 2018, it was accompanied by a wall label that made no mention of AIDS and focused solely on the work’s aesthetic value. (The accompanying audio focuses heavily on Laycock and the AIDS crisis and has gone unchanged since 2015, according to a museum spokesperson.)

“Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s work is characterized by a sense of quiet elegy,” read the new label. “He possessed an uncanny ability to produce elegant and restrained sculptural forms out of common materials.” The text acknowledged that 175 pounds “corresponds to the average body weight of an adult male” but excluded any biographical information.

“Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” was taken down again in the summer of 2018 and reinstalled this July, once more accompanied by the newer text that avoided any mention of AIDS. This time, visitors voiced their concern. On September 28, Zac Thriffiley, an English teacher based in Chicago, penned a letter about the label in the Windy City Times, an online publication that calls itself “the voice of Chicago’s gay, lesbian, bi, trans and queer communities.”

Thriffiley’s poignant letter discusses his experience visiting the artwork for the first time in 2016 (when the old label hung) and again this September (when the label no longer mentioned AIDS). He describes his first encounter with the installation, explaining that he took a piece of candy “smiling at what I assumed was a playful gimmick.”

“But that amused curiosity quickly dissipated as the guide turned my attention to the descriptive plaque beside the installation,” Thriffiley writes. “As a gay man myself, the installation took on far greater significance than I had initially given it credit for, and I soon began taking visiting friends and family to see the installation whenever it was available to share this profoundly moving experience with them.”

Thriffiley told Hyperallergic in an email that he noticed “the new, white-washed placard” on September 24.

On the same day Thriffiley’s letter was published, a post emerged on Twitter that also drew attention to the discrepancy between the two labels. The Tweet, shared by user @WillScullin, went viral, attracting over 10,000 likes and thousands of retweets.

A museum spokesperson told Hyperallergic that the institution changed the label on September 29 in response to “visitor feedback we saw on social media.”

“In concert with artists and their estates/foundations, we continually update labels to introduce different types of context,” the spokesperson said. “In this case, we heard visitor feedback to the previous label and took the opportunity to revise the text.” A third version of the label now appears on the museum’s website, again mentioning both Laycock and the AIDS crisis.

Rock Hushka, a co-curator of the 2016 exhibition Art AIDS America at the Bronx Museum, which included Gonzalez-Torres’s work, said the curators and the AIC “made an egregious error and failed in their mission to serve and educate their community.”

“They have also dishonored the artist and his contributions to American art,” Hushka told Hyperallergic.

It’s not the first time that mention of AIDS has been stripped from discussions of Gonzalez-Torres’s work, and the ethics of contextualizing and curating his practice has been hotly debated.

“The notion that you erase his personal biography, in any form, takes away half of what he was up to,” said Hushka. “But then there’s the other half of it being purely aesthetic.”

Hushka added that lately there has been a push toward a more aesthetic interpretation of Gonzalez-Torres’s work, something he thinks is driven by the late artist’s foundation. Gonzalez-Torres’s estate is co-run by David Zwirner Gallery and Andrea Rosen, the latter of whom serves as president of the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation. The “foundation statement” makes no mention of AIDS, and there is strikingly little mention of it on the website. (The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation did not respond to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.)

“The whole idea of Felix’s work is that those two aspects are inextricably combined,” Hushka said. “And you should never remove one or the other.”

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

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