Like many of his other works, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s light bulb sculptures can be presented in countless different ways. They’ve been shown in spaces one might expect—the steely, cold white cubes of museums and galleries around the world—but they’ve also been shown in unexpected places. They have been slung over paper-strewn bulletin boards and desks, as they were in the offices of Helsinki’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 1995; suspended from ceilings more than five floors high, with their bulbs collecting in a pile in the basement, as they were at the Whitney Museum in New York when it reopened in 2015; and hung across various streets like Christmas lights, as they were in Limerick, Ireland, for an outdoor exhibition in 1996. Few works in the history of art have proven to be this nimble.
Gonzalez-Torres, who died in 1996 at age 38 from AIDS-related causes, wanted to cede his authority when it came to the presentation of his works—something many artists are unwilling to do. As a result, institutions have often had difficulty understanding how they ought to be shown. “When I send this stuff to museums,” he once told curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, “they keep faxing us back saying, ‘What do we do with this thing?’ and we keep faxing them back saying, ‘Whatever you want!’ and they just don’t believe it.”
Right now, one of those light string works—1994’s “Untitled” (America), the same one that showed in Ireland in 1996—can be found outside the Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona in Spain, which is currently host to one of the most significant Gonzalez-Torres surveys held in Europe in recent years. In it are a number of works attesting to the artist’s diverse output: his sculptures composed of candy, his “dateline” works featuring text alluding to various events, his printed multiples made available for the taking, and more. Amid it all is an acute sense of loss, though it’s intentionally ambiguous who—or what—is no longer present. How viewers make sense of it all depends on their knowledge of world history and Gonzalez-Torres’s biography, as well as their own identity. On the occasion of that show, below is a guide to Gonzalez-Torres’s art.
Much of Gonzalez-Torres’s work is spare, stripped-down, and slick. Looked at quickly, one might mistake it for Minimalist art of the kind that Donald Judd and Carl Andre made in the 1960s and ’70s, with blocky, rigorously crafted forms that appear mass-produced. But Gonzalez-Torres’s art is a clever twist on that style—call it “lightweight minimalism,” as art historian Susan Tallman has written. Or you could rely on a slightly different terminology, as critic Bob Nickas once did when describing the 1991 piece “Untitled” (Go-Go Dancing Platform), a squarish piece of wood that is lined with light bulbs and can play host to a go-go dancer wearing a tiny silver bathing suit, sneakers, and listening to a Walkman. With a mind to the way it lent a new queer context to a form similar to Robert Morris’s sculptures, Nickas labeled Gonzalez-Torres’s art “kinky minimalism,” even when the performer wasn’t present.
Looked at in this way, Gonzalez-Torres’s art comes to undermine the purity that Minimalists strove for. His candy works, sometimes installed as piles in corners, may resemble Robert Smithson’s sculptures composed of dirt and glass. Yet, unlike the Smithson works, which are meant to be admired forever, Gonzalez-Torres’s are temporary: viewers are invited to eat the candies, effectively causing the piece to disappear gradually until they’re replenished. Add to this the fact that some—though not all—of the sculptures are based on the weights of certain people from the artist’s life. “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), from 1991, for example, is intended to be 175 pounds, the average weight of an adult male, of multicolored wrapped candy. Its title refers to Gonzalez-Torres’s boyfriend Ross, who also died of AIDS-related causes and whom the artist once called his primary audience.
Or consider Gonzalez-Torres’s stack works, composed of poster-like sheets that can be taken away by viewers. Some of these sheets resembled neutral monochromes. Others had images of a flying bird in the sky printed onto them. Still others are printed with short poetic phrases. Art historian Robert Storr has written that these works, along with many others by Gonzalez-Torres, eschew the “anti-aesthetic” practiced by many artists of the ’80s and aim for elegance. With the stacks, instead of keeping those seductive visuals within the walls of institutions, “that beauty is disseminated.”
One of Gonzalez-Torres’s most famous pieces is “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers), 1987–90, which features two clocks against a white painted wall. At first, the two clocks are set in unison. Their batteries will expire at different rates, causing them to fall out of sync—but they can also be reset at the owner’s will. The work was made not long after Ross was diagnosed with AIDS, and it became a meditation on the nature of time itself for Gonzalez-Torres. “This piece I made with the two clocks was the scariest thing I have ever done,” he once said.
Losses, disappearances, and absences are invoked constantly in Gonzalez-Torres’s art. “His is an art of blank spaces and things left unsaid,” curator Amada Cruz once wrote. Such is often the case with this “portraits,” which often do not depict their sitters, at least explicitly. In his 1992 work “Untitled” (Portrait of Andrea Rosen), an homage to his longtime New York dealer, a series of words and dates is painted at the top of a wall, near where it meets the ceiling: “Silver 1982 Grey Rocks 1966-75 Bathroom mirror 1973,” it reads, in part. A photograph of its installation in Rosen’s office from 1992 shows a blank workspace with nobody inhabiting it; the text is just barely visible amid sunlight streaming in.
To show Gonzalez-Torres’s 1988 work “Untitled” (Madrid 1971), two puzzles must be pieced together to form two images: a sepia-toned one depicting a young boy and a black-and-white one featuring a low-angle shot of a monument. Above the images, “MADRID 1971” is written in red lettering. There could be many associations between these two pictures and the text—a story about emigration, perhaps, or a narrative about a trip of some kind. As curator Carlos Basualdo has pointed out, however, encrypted in this work is a reference to Gonzalez-Torres’s three-month stay in Madrid in 1971, when he was 13. Then again, as Basualdo has written, “If we knew the identity of that adolescent boy … would we have uncovered the mystery?”
The facts are these. Gonzalez-Torres was born in Guáimaro, Cuba, in 1957. He was sent to Spain as a teenager in 1971, and later that year left to live in Puerto Rico until 1979, when he moved to New York. In 1987, he became a part of Group Material, a pioneering art collective that also included figures like Julie Ault and Jenny Holzer at various points. In 1995, Gonzalez-Torres had a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York; Nancy Spector served as its curator, and would later organize another major showing of his work in 2007 at the Venice Biennale’s U.S. Pavilion. Gonzalez-Torres died in 1996 in Miami.
But Gonzalez-Torres encouraged viewers to largely disregard all of the above, given that how they read his work could also be informed by viewers’ own experiences. Perhaps in a nod to this constant re-contextualization, the title of each Gonzalez-Torres work is a squishy thing. Most are labeled “Untitled”—note the quotes, which signify that the piece technically isn’t untitled—along with an additional phrase in parentheses that lends a new valence.
“Meaning can only be formulated when we compare, when we bring information to our daily level, to our ‘private’ sphere,” the artist wrote in a text published in 1996. “Otherwise information just goes by.”
During the ’80s, a number of artists began looking to critical theory for inspiration, drawing on texts by Jean Baudrillard, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and many more in their highly conceptual work. In that respect, Gonzalez-Torres was no different, even if he considered the experimental playwright Bertolt Brecht, who preceded these figures by several decades, to be among his principal influences. He also wasn’t immune to art theory, specifically the kind related to formalism and Minimalism. “Believe it or not I am a big sucker for formal issues, and yes, someone like me—the ‘other’—can deal with formal issues,” he told the artist Tim Rollins in 1993. “This is not a white-men-only terrain, sorry boys.”
In his work, though, Gonzalez-Torres was determined to show that the precepts proffered by these theorists were hardly universal in their reach. Instead, each object required its own specific context—haughty theories imported from Europe may not do the full job of explaining his art’s significance, contrary to popular logic at the time.
And because he spoke openly about how they did or didn’t apply to issues of the day, including U.S. conservatives’ crackdown on artistic freedom and gay rights, he was deemed a “political artist” by various critics. According to Robert Storr, he never much cared for the labels applied to him, including “gay artist” and “Latino artist.” (Gonzalez-Torres was open about his sexuality.) When critics pointed to Gonzalez-Torres’s Cuban heritage as proof that the latter could be used to describe him, Storr wrote, the artist drew attention to a missing element in his art: “No palm trees!”