Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Cuban/American (1957 - 1996)
González-Torres was born in Guáimaro, Cuba. In 1970, he and his sister were sent to Madrid, where they stayed in an orphanage until settling in Puerto Rico with relatives in 1971. González-Torres graduated from the Colegio San Jorge in 1976 and began his art studies at the University of Puerto Rico, while actively participating in the local art scene. He moved to New York City in 1979 with a study fellowship. The following year he participated in the Whitney Independent Study Program, where his development as an artist was profoundly influence by his introduction to postmodern theory. He attended the program a second time in 1983, the year he received a BFA in photography from the Pratt Institute of Art. In 1986, González-Torres traveled to Europe and studied in Venice. In 1987, he was awarded the degree of Master of Fine Arts by the International Center of Photography and New York University. Subsequently he taught at New York University and briefly at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.
González-Torres was known for his quiet, minimal installations and sculptures. Using materials such as strings of lightbulbs, clocks, stacks of paper, or packaged hard candies, his work is sometimes considered a reflection of his experience with AIDS. In 1987 he joined Group Material, a New York-based group of artists whose intention was to work collaboratively, adhering to principles of cultural activism and community education. Along with the other members of the group — Doug Ashford, Julie Ault, Karen Ramspacher, and Tim Rollins — González-Torres was invited by the MATRIX Gallery at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in 1989 to deal with the subject of AIDS.
In his "dateline" pieces, begun in 1987, González-Torres assembled lists of various dates in random order interspersed with the names of social and political figures and references to cultural artifacts or world events, many of which related to political and cultural history. Printed in white type on black sheets of paper, these lists of seeming non sequiturs prompted viewers to consider the relationships and gaps between the diverse references as well the construction of individual and collective identities and memories. Gonzalez-Torres also produced dateline "portraits," consisting of similar lists of dates and events related to the subjects' lives. In Untitled (Portrait of Jennifer Flay) (1992), for example, "A New Dress 1971" lies next to "Vote for Women, NZ 1893."
González-Torres was considered within his time to be a process artist due to the nature of his 'removable' installations by which the process is a key feature to the installation. Many of his installations invite the viewer to take a piece of the work with them: a series of works allow viewers to take packaged candies from a pile in the corner of an exhibition space and, in so doing, contribute to the slow disappearance of the sculpture over the course of the exhibition. Untitled (Placebo) (1991), in one installation, consisted of a six-by-twelve-foot carpet of shiny silver wrapped candies. Like other candy pieces in his oeuvre, the works have "ideal weights" which may fluctuate during the course of an exhibition. A borrower may choose to install the work at a weight different than the "ideal weight". The candy pieces may also be installed in any formation the borrower desires. In 1990 during Roni Horn’s solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, González-Torres encountered her sculpture Forms from the Gold Field (1980–82), two pounds of pure gold compressed into a luminous rectangular mat. When he met Horn in 1993, he created "Untitled" (Placebo – Landscape – for Roni) (1993), an endlessly replaceable candy spill of gold cellophane–wrapped sweets. In 1992 González-Torres was granted a DAAD fellowship to work in Berlin, and in 1993 a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
In 1989 González-Torres presented Untitled (Memorial Day Weekend) and Untitled (Veterans Day Sale), exhibited together as Untitled (Monuments): block-like stacks of paper printed with content related to his private life, from which the viewer is invited to take a sheet. Rather than constituting a solid, immovable monument, the stacks can be dispersed, depleted, and renewed over time. Untitled (1991), however, is a unique stack of 161 signed and numbered silkscreens that remain together. Similar to the 1989 billboard commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, its iteration as a stack of prints was meant, as the artist noted at the time, as a “more private and personal object”—one that is not disseminated physically but instead through the experience of remembering. The stark black page and white typeface on each sheet trace a nonlinear chronology of significant events in the history of the gay-rights movement.
In 1991 González-Torres began producing sculptures consisting of strands of plastic beads strung on metal rods, which often reference the organic and inorganic substances associated with battling AIDS. Around the same time, he made his first lightstring piece — two intertwined low-watt lightbulbs on cords dangling from a nail on the wall. Twenty-four nearly identical lightstrings exist, differentiated only by their parenthetical titles and the display chosen by each work's owner. Each sculpture can be arranged in any way a particular installer wishes, and thus holds the potential for unlimited variations. Over the course of any given installation, some of the bulbs are sure to burn out.
All of González-Torres' works, with few exceptions, are entitled "Untitled" in quotation marks, sometimes followed by parenthetical title. (This was an intentional titling scheme by the artist). Of González-Torres’s nineteen candy pieces, only six, by their parenthetical titles and ideal weights, can be readily interpreted as portraits. Of these two are double portraits of the artist and his lover, Ross Laycock; two are portraits of Ross alone; one is a portrait of Felix’s deceased father; and Untitled" (Portrait of Marcel Brient) (1992), a portrait of the artist’s close friend French collector, Marcel Brient.
One of his most recognizable works, Untitled (1991), was a billboard installed in twenty-four locations throughout New York City of a monochrome photograph of an unoccupied bed, made after the death of his long-time partner, Ross Laycock, from AIDS. In one interview, he said "When people ask me, 'Who is your public?' I say honestly, without skipping a beat, 'Ross.' The public was Ross. The rest of the people just come to the work."
The most pervasive reading of González-Torres's work takes the processes his works undergo (lightbulbs expiring, piles of candies dispersing, etc.) as metaphor for the process of dying. However, many have seen the works also representing the continuation of life with the possibility of regeneration (replacing bulbs, replenishing stacks or candies). Other readings include the issue of public versus private, identity, and participation in contemporary art.
González-Torres died in Miami in 1996 due to AIDS related complications.
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