American, born Cuba
1957, Guáimaro, Cuba
1996, Miami, Florida
In the works of Felix Gonzalez-Torres the simplest gesture can be powerful and scathingly perceptive. His art is filled with such apparent contradictions: it is both public and private; politically engaged and profoundly beautiful; and concerned with impermanence and mortality yet life-affirming and regenerative. Although his mature career lasted only eight years, from 1988 until his death in 1996, Gonzalez-Torres was an ardent and insightful participant in the ongoing conversations that define contemporary culture.
Born in Cuba, the artist moved to New York in 1979 and trained as a photographer, though he would go on to work in a variety of media, including sculpture and installation. In 1989 Gonzalez-Torres began making his stack pieces: blocklike 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. And unlike minimalist sculpture, from which their clean geometric forms are derived, they invite the public to interact with them. As the artist stated, "Without the public these works are nothing. I need the public to complete the work. I ask the public to help me, to take responsibility, to become part of my work, to join in."
Relinquishing his work, however, was always a bittersweet undertaking for the artist, as it was tied emotionally to loss of his long-term partner, Ross Laycock, to AIDS in 1991. "I wanted to make an artwork that could disappear," Gonzalez-Torres related, "that never existed, and it was a metaphor for when Ross was dying. So it was a metaphor that I would abandon this work before it would abandon me."
Around the time of Ross's death, Gonzalez-Torres made his first lightstring piece — two intertwined lightbulbs on cords dangling from a nail on the wall — as a meditation on lifelong partners and perfect, endless love. More than 20 nearly identical lightstrings exist, differentiated only by their parenthetical titles and the display chosen by each work's owner. An eternal optimist at heart, Gonzalez-Torres gave these works titles such as Untitled (America #1), which was meant to evoke hope and possibility rather than irony and disillusionment.
The artist's candy spills — piles of candies heaped in a corner from which visitors are welcome to help themselves — are likewise celebrations of generosity and love. One spill of fortune cookies carries the stipulation that the concealed fortunes must have positive messages. All of Gonzalez-Torres's work shares this enduring hope in the face of loss and impermanence. There is a deep sense of connectedness to others and to the world, as well as an acknowledgment of the faith, trust, and vulnerability that accompany opening ourselves up to something or someone else.