Felix Gonzalez-Torres
    •  Felix Gonzalez-Torres

      Art Work Without a Price Tag

      By Nancy Atakan


      While touring the 1997 5th International Istanbul Biennial, I told a friend she could take one of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ reproductions from a stack on the floor. Looking at me incredulously, she picked one up and then quickly replaced it.  How many people touring the exhibition reacted the same way?  Did spectators who might normally pay a large sum of money for a print by a famous American artist want one that was being given to them?  Without a price tag did it lose its value?  Were they shocked by the generosity of this artist?  Were they able to forget the well-taught taboo about touching works of art? Did they simply scrutinize the stack as they would a Minimalist work by Carl Andre?  I suspect my friend was not the only one to be confused and reluctant to take one of the reproductions. When I returned to the exhibition a few days later, I saw that a sign giving the audience permission to take prints had been placed beside the work.

       As early as 1990 Gonzalez-Torres had integrated the act of giving into his artwork. In “Untitled” (A Corner of Baci)[1], he allowed the audience to take pieces of chocolate and in his 1991 “Untitled” (Placebo), to take glistening, silver-wrapped pieces of candy from a heap piled in the exhibition space. From the same year, in “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L. A.) the amount of candy used for the installation depended on the weight of his lover’s body.  

      The beauty of Gonzalez-Torres’ work does not rest in the visuality of the art object.   While the work may visually resemble that of the Minimalist, Carl Andre, who also stacked uniform manufactured elements, the aims of the two artists vary drastically. Gonzalez-Torres’ work shows the beauty in the moment of experience and of human interaction.  By removing one of the parts of the work and causing its dimensions to continually vary, the spectator joins the artist in making the work.  This simple action brings into play complex issues about the nature of art, beauty, love, and morality.  By asking the spectators to participate in the ritual of giving and receiving gifts, the artist invites each person to remember related personal experiences.  The artist’s gift at the 5th Istanbul Biennial, an elegant image of a bird flying among gray clouds printed on paper, also stimulated memories about the real, the present, and the concrete. A few days after I had visited the biennial, I remembered Gonzalez-Torres’ work as I sat on my terrace watching birds dipping and gliding through the clouds.  I saw them take pleasure from simply experiencing the moment, from just being alive, from stretching their individual boundaries and limitations to experience their individual capabilities.  For me, Gonzalez-Torres’s gift represented the state of utter oneness with the universe.  Like the most precious experiences in life, some of the most meaningful works of art do not have price tags.


      By alluding to intimate or private issues, Gonzalez-Torres often exposed his vulnerabilities and preferences. For example in 1991, using a practice previously implemented by Joseph Kosuth, he installed on billboards around New York City the image of a rumpled, unmade bed, marked by the imprint of missing bodies. By dedicating this work to the memory of his lover, Ross, who had recently died from AIDS, he not only brought a private image into a public space, but also touched upon controversial issues about ones right to make personal choices in a society that often intrudes into ones private space. It was as if by inviting the public to view his empty bed, he expected others to remember similar instances of closeness, separation, loneliness, loss, pain, and pleasure.  In a simple beaded curtain, “Untitled” (Chemo), in small grid paintings, “Untitled” (31 Days of Bloodwork), or in the 1994, “Untitled” (21 Days of Bloodwork – Steady Decline), he gave an emotional charge to visually benign images.  Without reading the titles, spectators could easily confuse the grid paintings with visually similar work by Sol LeWitt.


      Gonzalez-Torres again and again placed importance not only on his personal, but also on collective memories.  In “Untitled” (Welcome), he hide photographs and mementos under a pile of neatly arranged rubber welcome mats while in “Untitled” (Album) he invited the audience to complete the work by inserting their own photographs into an empty photograph album.  As a metaphor for the Cuban habit of referring to any place north of Miami as el norte, he strung 12 strings of lights from the ceiling of an exhibition space.  These sparkling lights symbolized the aspiration he shared with other Cubans to reach a better place or an imaginary haven in North America. While appearing to be a source of illumination or warmth, Gonzalez-Torres’ lights, like the lights in northern cities, only radiate an impermanent and misleading warmth that can be randomly turned on or off by whomever controls the switch. In another work by writing on black panels the phrases and dates, “Red Canoe 1987 Paris Blue Flowers l984 Harry the Dog l983 Blue Lake l986 Interferon l989 Ross l983”, he gave the audience an opportunity to make their own associations and interpretations.  Likewise, by writing on public billboards the words and dates, “People With AIDS Coalition l985 Police Harassment l969 Oscar Wilde l895 Supreme Court l986 Harvey Milk l977 March on Washington l987 Stonewall Rebellion l969”, he referred to the long history of the struggle of gay rights.  It was as if he was asking the viewer to remember where he/she had been on those dates and how he/she had experienced these events. 


      As I have pointed out, Gonzalez-Torres often used methods of presentation that had been previously used by Minimalist artists or the conceptual artist, Joseph Kosuth. But, another dimension became obvious when he showed along side Ad Reinhardt and Joseph Kosuth at the London Camden Arts Center in l994. By using a huge square of black candies, a stack of black paper, and black text pieces for this exhibition, Gonzalez Torres visually linked his work to Reinhardt’s black square canvases and to Kosuth’s black wall texts. During discussions between Kosuth and the curator of this exhibition, Kosuth emphasized the social and political dimensions of his work and its connection to both the older, Reinhardt and the younger, Gonzalez-Torres. He also pointed out that Reinhardt’s intellectual presence as writer, cartoonist, teacher, and artist had shown him that an artist could actively participate in producing cultural meaning.  When Kosuth’s work for this exhibition, a quotation, “the Thing-in-itself is found in its Truth through the loss of its immediacy”, and clippings from British and American newspapers, was located between Reinhardt’s cartoons, texts, and black paintings on the left and Gonzalez-Torres’s installation on the right, Kosuth appeared as the son of the grand old master and the father of the younger artist. All three of these artists integrated teaching and lecturing into their role of artist and worked to secure the relevance of art for contemporary society.


      Perhaps the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres went unnoticed by many visiting the 5th Istanbul International Biennial since it did not appear as sensational or controversial as many of the other pieces, but I found it appropriate for his subtle work to be included within the conceptual framework of  “On Life, Beauty, Translations and Other Difficulties”.  This artist who died in l995 at the age of 38 worked to transport viewers to a place of beauty, freedom, and pleasure, realized that aesthetic choices are political and understood that viewer’s perception depends on gender, social-economic status, race, and sexual orientation. 



      Felix Gonzalez-Torres (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, April 24 – June l9, 1994; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D. C., June 16 – September 11, 1994; The Renaissance Society at The University of Chicago, September 25 – November 6, 1994, Typecraft Inc., Pasadena, California, 1994.


      A Reinhardt J Kosuth F Gonzalez-Torres Symptoms of Interference, Conditions of Possibility (exhibition catalogue), The Camden Arts Center in London, 7 January – 6 March 1994, Academy Group Ltd. London, 1994.



      Istanbul, 1997

      Published in Arredemento




      [1] .  I believe his method of labeling each work “Untitled” followed by an extra bit of information in parentheses showed that each individual piece is only a part of his whole work.  Each piece, like each memory represents only a portion of the forgotten feelings and events in ones life.