In 2020, few artworks hit the wrong note quite like the staging of the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s 1990 artwork “Untitled” (Fortune Cookie Corner). For the “live exhibition” this past summer, Andrea Rosen Gallery and David Zwirner invited 1,000 art professionals to create the piece—a pile of the cookies—and display it on their social media channels. The exhibition was called a “response to the moment” by the two galleries. It was anything but. Instead, a loose interpretation of the artist’s intentions turned it from an exercise in sharing and community building to a tacky hashtag, seemingly aimed at producing little more than FOMO.
Gonzalez-Torres completed “Untitled” (Fortune Cookie Corner) six years before his death in 1996. For the 2020 presentation, his dealer during his lifetime, Andrea Rosen, who co-represents his estate with Zwirner since 2017, took liberties with words like “place” and “site” to produce replicas of the original work—each comprised of 250 to 1,000 wrapped cookies. It was the kind of low-cost, high-impact spectacle to which the artist’s work has become increasingly vulnerable.
What makes Gonzalez-Torres’s installations of stacks and piles of things like posters and candies so special in a setting such as a museum is that unlike practically everything else on view, its constituent parts can be touched, taken, often even eaten. They can be misplaced. Preserved. Re-gifted. Parents tell kids to grab a few, but not too many. Speaking of his piles of sweets in 1995, the artist said, “It’s a metaphor. I’m not pretending it to be anything other than this—I’m not splashing lead on the floor. I’m giving you this sugary thing; you put it in your mouth and you suck on someone else’s body. And in this way, my work becomes part of so many other people’s bodies.”
The major formal novelty of Gonzalez-Torres’s stack-and-pile works is how the parts of the whole—candies, cookies, posters—are distributed democratically to viewers. Any individual with access to the place where a piece is installed can take one if they want and, in turn, perhaps feel an added sense of engagement in the process.
The 2020 installation inverts that logic. Instead of installing “Untitled” (Fortune Cookie Corner) in a unique location and letting its constituent elements filter into local communities, Rosen multiplied the piece and filtered those facsimiles into a network, not of art viewers, but of art professionals. Here, the privileged and well-connected (among them artist Jack Pierson, collector Rosa de la Cruz, and museum director Franklin Sirmans) were invited to stage a questionable version of the original artwork, and to also perform their own experiences with it in front of global audiences via social media. Some people ate their cookies. Some tried sharing them with neighbors. Light Industry cofounder and curator Ed Halter’s family dog, Snoopy, ate some of his. Collector Tiffany Zabludowicz strewed hers on a cliff’s edge. But most viewers, industry outsiders, experienced the piece at a remove, by virtue of its ultimate platform: Instagram. In this way, with the experience explicitly offset for its intended audience by social media, the work was dishonored.
The project raises several concerns regarding the fealty of the artist’s foundation to the spirit of his work: Did Rosen and the Foundation plainly contradict the piece’s instructions in the manner in which the piece was reproduced, installed, and promoted? And what considerations were made regarding which VIPs were invited to be hosts for the installations, or, in Rosen’s bizarre terminology, “places” comprising the larger “site” of the exhibition?
“Untitled” (Fortune Cookie Corner) launched online on May 25, the same day Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd. As imagery of protesters demanding the defunding and abolition of police at Black Lives Matter protests around the country began flooding social media, warm pictures of fortune cookies began to trickle into the feeds of designers and DJs. They could not have been more out of step with “the moment.” Gonzalez-Torres was a militant AIDS activist. That his project would serve as a distraction from, or a salve for, a sense of political urgency is—one has to believe—something he would have loathed.
Joshua Smith is an artist and political organizer based in Los Angeles.