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Felix Gonzalez-Torres Photo

Felix Gonzalez-Torres

American Sculptor, Photographer, and Installation Artist

Born: November, 26 1957 - Guaimaro, Cuba
Died: January 9, 1996 - Miami, Florida
Felix Gonzalez-Torres Timeline
"Without the public these works are nothing...I ask the public to help me, to take responsibility, to become part of my work, to join in."
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Felix Gonzalez-Torres Signature
"there is no private space anymore. Our intimate desires, fantasies, dreams are ruled and intercepted by the public sphere"
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Felix Gonzalez-Torres Signature
"Meaning can only be formulated when we compare, when we bring information to our daily level, to our 'private' sphere. Otherwise information just goes by. Which is what the ideological apparatuses want and need. 'You give us thirty minutes and we give you the world.' A meaningless one. So public life and private life. In our culture, we live in a world of interrelations. As Lenin said, 'everything is related to everything.'"
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Felix Gonzalez-Torres Signature
"Above all else, it is about leaving a mark that I existed: I was here. I was hungry. I was defeated. I was happy. I was sad. I was in love. I was afraid. I was hopeful. I had an idea and I had a good purpose and that's why I made works of art. "
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Felix Gonzalez-Torres Signature
"I think more than anything else I'm just an extension of certain practices, minimalism or conceptualism, that I am developing areas I think were not totally dealt with. I don't like this idea of having to undermine your ancestors, of ridiculing them, undermining them, and making less out of them. I think we're part of a historical process and I think that this attitude that you have to murder your father in order to start something new is bullshit. "
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Felix Gonzalez-Torres Signature
"Something I tell my students is to read once; then if you still have problems with it, read it a second time. If you still have problems, get drunk and read it a third time...and you might get something out of it."
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Felix Gonzalez-Torres Signature
"Let's move forward to a certain degree, in terms of the kind of protest art that says all Capital is bad, Bennetton is bad. We know that! We really do know that. We don't need a gallery space to find out something we read in the news."
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Felix Gonzalez-Torres Signature
"I think if I started this list of influences again I would start with [Bertolt] Brecht. I think this is really important because as Hispanic artists we're supposed to be very crazy, colorful-extremely colorful. We are supposed to "feel," not think. Brecht says to keep a distance to allow the viewer, the public, time to reflect and think. When you get out of the theater you should not have had a catharsis, you should have had a thinking experience. More than anything, break the pleasure of representation, the pleasure of the flawless narrative. This is not life, this is just a theater piece. I like that a lot: This is not life, this is just an artwork. I want you, the viewer, to be intellectually challenged, moved, and informed."
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Felix Gonzalez-Torres Signature
"When you read Greenberg you can get lost in page after page on how a line ends at the edge of the canvas, which is very fascinating - I love that, I can get into that, too. But when some of us, especially in the younger generation, get involved with social issues we are put under a microscope. We really are and we have to perform that role, which includes everything. It includes the way we dress to where we are seen eating."
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Felix Gonzalez-Torres Signature
"It's a riot when I show these pieces in a museum because people aren't supposed to touch the art much less take it with them. At the 1991 Whitney Biennial people would ask the museum guard if it was true that they could really take a piece from the stack of paper. The guards got into it."
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Felix Gonzalez-Torres Signature
"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. In my recent show at the Hirshhorn, which is one of the best experiences I have had in a long time, the guards were really in it. Because I talked to them, I dealt with them. They're going to be here eight hours with this stuff. And I never see guards as guards, I see guards as the public. Since the other answer to the question "Who's the public?" is, well, the people who are around you, which includes the guards. In Washington people asked me, "Did I train the guards, did I give them a lecture?" I said, "No, I just talk to them when I'm doing the work." They said, "You know we have never been to an exhibit where the guards go up to the viewers and tell them what to do, and where to go, what to look at, what it means." But again, that division of labor, that division of function is always there in place to serve someone's agenda."
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Felix Gonzalez-Torres Signature
"But as we know aesthetics are politics. They're not even about politics, they are politics. Because when you ask who is defining aesthetics, at what particular point - what social class, what kind of background these people have - you realize quickly again that the most effective ideological construction are the ones that don't look like it. If you say, I'm political, I'm ideological, that is not going to work, because people know where you are coming from. But if you say, "Hi! My name is Bob and this is it," then they say, that's not political. It's invisible and it really works. I think certain elements of beauty used to attract the viewer are indispensable. I don't want to make art just for people who can read Fredrick Jameson sitting upright on a Mackintosh chair. I want to make art for people who watch the Golden Girls and sit in a big, brown, Lazy-boy chair. They're part of my public too, I hope."
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Felix Gonzalez-Torres Signature

Summary of Felix Gonzalez-Torres

As an openly gay man living through both the AIDS crisis and the extraordinary public politicization of art in the 1980s, Felix Gonzalez-Torres's groundbreaking installations are famous for their simplicity and affective impact, embedding poetic meditations on love and loss in the mundane material of everyday life. Although his career was brief, his legacy endures, particularly in political art and Relational Aesthetics, in which the audience is a necessary component, activating the work and realizing its meaning. Generous, austere, and often intended to be endlessly reproducible, his artwork continues to influence audiences in subtle but persistent ways.

Accomplishments

  • Gonzalez-Torres's extraordinary contribution to contemporary art was to bring personal history and politics to the familiar forms of Minimalism and Conceptualism. Cube-like stacks of paper, strings of light, textual fragments, and the simple shapes of clocks, cellophane candies, and clouds were imbued with references to current events, including gay rights, gun violence, and the AIDS crisis.
  • The portrait was an important genre for Gonzalez-Torres, one that allowed him to undermine the aesthetic autonomy of Minimalism. He used a system of parenthetic titles for otherwise "Untitled" works that point the viewer toward physical or personal associations the artist had with his various subjects. The idea of his installations as abstract portraits underscores the overall intimacy of his art by emphasizing his personal relationships with the people or places that inspired each particular work.
  • Gonzalez-Torres wanted his work to be widely disseminated and he believed it was not fully realized without the participation of the viewer. "Without the public these works are nothing...I ask the public to help me, to take responsibility, to become part of my work, to join in." Although some of these ideas had emerged in the manifestos of movements like Dada, Surrealism, and the Happenings of the 1960s, Gonzalez-Torres's total openness to the viewer inaugurated a new era in the relationship between the artist and the audience.
  • He transformed everyday objects such as candies and photocopies, often in installations that allow visitors to take these objects with them when they leave. These works radically model the democratic circulation of ideas and art, violating boundaries between public and private spaces, and extending the experience of his art beyond the gallery.

Biography of Felix Gonzalez-Torres

Felix Gonzalez-Torres Photo

Felix Gonzalez-Torres was born in Guaimaro, Cuba in 1957, the third of four children. He and his sister Gloria relocated that year to an orphanage in Madrid, Spain before eventually settling in Puerto Rico with their uncle. He graduated from Colegio San Jorge in 1976, and began to take art classes at the University of Puerto Rico while becoming involved in the local art scene.

Important Art by Felix Gonzalez-Torres

"Untitled" (Loverboy) (1989)

"Untitled" (Loverboy) consists of two sets of gauzy light blue curtains hanging in front of open (or closed) windows. The work showcases Gonzalez-Torres's ability to move the viewer with simple but evocative materials that reference the rich history of modern art, while leaving the final meaning of the work open to interpretation. French windows and curtains may be commonplace fixtures, but they assume new meaning when encountered in a fine art installation. Here, the windowpane's grids immediately recalls similar forms in early-20th-century paintings like those by Piet Mondrian and masterworks of Minimalism by artists including Donald Judd and Sol Lewitt.

And yet the delicate and diaphanous curtains are closer in tone to the Post-minimalist works of Eva Hesse, whose Continent series had a strong impact on the young Gonzalez-Torres. As they quiver in the wind, the sheer curtains serve as reminders of human habitation in a space that is otherwise left empty. The fabric records the slightest outside breeze or movement within the gallery, becoming a fragile visual representation of unseen, absent forces. The open windows further suggest a sudden or unplanned exit, foreshadowing the loss of the artist's longtime partner, Ross Laycock, who was living with AIDS.

Objects in Gonzalez-Torres's oeuvre often come in twos: curtains, clocks, pillows, and other pairs are allegories for romantic unions (particularly his relationship with Laycock). Following Laycock's death in 1991, Gonzalez-Torres produced a public billboard, "Untitled", an image of two pillows, each with a central depression, signifying the absence of the corresponding bodies. Like the present work, the billboard images evoked themes of intimacy, loss, and mortality.

"Untitled" (Perfect Lovers) (1991)

"Untitled" (Perfect Lovers) is an installation of two identical, battery-operated clocks, synchronized and hanging side-by-side. As ordinary objects elevated to the level of fine art, the clocks undoubtedly reference the Duchampian readymade, and, with their austere forms and serial repetition, Minimalist sculpture. Like all of Gonzalez-Torres's works, however, mundane materials are springboards for subtle personal and political meanings that vary with their context. The viewer's response to the clocks shifts dramatically knowing that the artist created the installation while his partner Ross Laycock was dying from AIDS. Gonzalez-Torres acknowledged that clocks would fall out of synch, one eventually stopping first. "Time is something that scares me . . . or used to. This piece I made with the two clocks was the scariest thing I have ever done. I wanted to face it. I wanted those two clocks right in front of me, ticking."

On the other hand, the clocks exemplify his desire to create works with multiple possible meanings. Although it obviously reflects his own homosexual relationship, the abstract nature of the clocks' substitution for bodies allows it to be read generally, as a metaphor for love. Gonzalez-Torres explained how he resisted the label of "gay art" during a period of increased censorship and furor over the NEA funding for Robert Mapplethorpe: "Two clocks side by side are much more threatening to the powers that be than an image of two guys sucking each other's dicks, because they cannot use me as a rallying point in their battle to erase meaning. It is going to be very difficult for members of Congress to tell their constituents that money is being expended for the promotion of homosexual art when all they have to show are two plugs side by side, or two mirrors side by side..."

Gonzalez-Torres often produced multiple versions of his installations, and his detailed instructions for their display became an important element of the piece itself. For "Untitled" (Perfect Lovers), the instructions require the commercial clocks to be of exact dimensions and design and that they touch; before the exhibition opens the hands are set to the same time; an essential part of the work is that the clocks can be perpetually reset and, therefore, the work is infinite. A rule around the work is that the clocks can fall out of sync but if one of the clocks stop, they are fixed or replaced, as the case may be. With such directions, Gonzalez-Torres created the basic boundaries of the work, while still allowing for certain flexibility in any given exhibition or installation.

"Untitled" (Death by Gun) (1990)

The stack of posters, "Untitled" (Death by Gun), reproduces a composite image of 460 individuals killed by gunshots in a single week in the United States. Each copy includes the name, age, and circumstances surrounding the individual's death. Gonzalez-Torres encouraged museumgoers to take one of the photolithographs from the stack, allowing for exhibitors to renew the stack as it was depleted. Again, the artist played with the conventions of the boxy, Minimalist sculptures of Donald Judd and Carl Andre - reworking their solid forms as a constantly changing cube.

Although it may seem that by calling attention to gun violence Gonzalez-Torres was suggesting the Minimalists had avoided politics, in fact he was consciously updating their phenomenological strategy, which insisted on the viewer as the point of interpretation and activation of the work.

Gonzalez-Torres, along with other artists associated with relational aesthetics and the Pictures Generation, furthered the concept of participation as a political act. Instead of simply walking across a sculpture, as with Andre's floor sculptures, the audience takes a piece of it home with them. "Untitled" (Death by Gun) also relates to the political legacy of printmaking as a cheap and easy way to distribute information, raise awareness, and galvanize the public.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Felix Gonzalez-Torres
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
Artists
  • Julie Ault
    Julie Ault
Friends & Personal Connections
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    Doug Ashford
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    Tim Rollins
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    Jim Hodges
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    General Idea
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Felix Gonzalez-Torres Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 24 Apr 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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