pieter van bogaert
“Untitled”, 1991 by Felix Gonzalez-Torres
in HART, 2021
lees verder in het Nederlands
In a catalog of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, I find no more than two works with titles other than “Untitled”: “Double Fear” and “Forbidden Colors”, from 1987 (the year he earned his Masters in Fine Arts in New York) and 1988 (the year of his first exhibition at the Rastovsky Gallery in the same city), respectively. All later works come as “Untitled”, sometimes followed by a year, often by a description. In his choice for a recurring title I like to read a form of nonviolent resistance. Every naming carries a judgment: it directs the gaze, it guides interpretation, it is a reduction of something that could be so much more. The recurring name stimulates: to ask questions. It comes as an invitation: non-committal. It asks for a filling: of the void. It engages – still today, twenty-five years after his death – in dialogue: with the public, the art, the environment. And then the work appears as a billboard. You don’t even have to go to the museum for it anymore. It escapes: to the places of art.
“I need the viewer, I need the public interaction. 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 the work, to join in.”
(Felix Gonzalez-Torres in conversation with Tim Rollins in ‘Felix Gonzalez-Torres’, New York: A.R.T. Press, 1993)
Sooner or later we all come across work by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. A heap of candy in a corner of the museum, a curtain in front of a window or between two rooms, a stack of posters against the plinth of the wall, garlands of lights: work that is very present and yet so easily blends into the setting. The first questions are banal. Can you take a candy like that? Is it still art then? It quickly moves to a meta-level. What is art? The pile or the candy? Is the pile still intact as art if you bring a poster? Is the candy still art if it ends up in your pocket? Or if you eat it? (For some, eating it is an erotic experience: the work liquefying, dissolving in your mouth, in your body; more so when you know that heap represents another body, or two, depending on its weight.) Are you a collector if you keep candy in a drawer or posters in a folder or on the wall? You think so. People easily develop a bond with Felix Gonzalez-Torres. But that bond is not enough for carrying that title. You are only an owner and can only call yourself a collector when you pay for the work. In return, you get a certificate. For the collector, that certificate is more important than the actual work in the museum, in your pocket, on your wall or on that billboard.
The work is what happens to it: how an audience looks at it and acts with it. That changes with each new visitor: with her experiences in life or in art, her character or the place and circumstances in which she finds the work. That same elasticity is in the certificate, which again speaks in malleable terms like “ideal” dimensions (or materials, or brands) to perform and maintain the work. The certificate is the “idea” behind the work. There too, the work escapes the rules and much depends on the decision of the owner or curator who fills in the malleable terms in the certificate. The work is always interactive, always alive, even after it disappears. Perhaps this temporality is what makes it so beautiful: it is there and it is not. It exists (already), but it does not exist (yet). It is seen, or not seen. It exists in the decision between you and the artist.
“When people ask me, “who is your public?” I say honestly, without skipping a beat, “Ross.””
(Felix Gonzalez-Torres in conversation with Robert Storr, Art Press 198, January 1995)
Much has been said and written about the autobiographical in Gonzalez-Torres’s work. Recurring topics include: the family, childhood, lives and loves, AIDS, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Miami, New York, Los Angeles. From the private life it goes to its public. One cannot exist without the other. But his first audience, that is Ross, the man with whom he has shared his life since 1983 and who will die in 1991. Ross always comes first, then Gonzalez-Torres himself and then the others. Those others? They are the museum’s ushers who observe him installing the work and later pass on those experiences in their instructions to the public. They are the visitors who experience the work. It is the buyers of the work – for private and public collections – and the people whose portraits are part of his work. From the autobiographical he moves towards the biographical tout court. The meaning of the work evolves with the time, the place, the experience – the biography – of the viewer.
Even after his death, Ross remains the most important audience, his first interpreter. “Untitled”: 1991, the year of production in the catalogue refers to the year of Ross’s death. The first presentation comes a year later, in 1992, in Lucerne and New York. Like many other works, this is also a portrait that shows what is not (anymore) there, what is already gone. The portrait is always already a snapshot, a snapshot of something that immediately disappears again. Thus this work continues to lose itself in time, in life, before and after death.
“All art and all cultural production is political”
(Felix Gonzalez-Torres in conversation with Robert Storr, Art Press 198, January 1995)
The public and private intermingle. There is no outside. The (dis)engagement is part of the work from the beginning. It starts with the public moving from the street to the gallery or museum. It continues with (parts of) the work that the visitors take outside again. It ends with yet another vain attempt at escape by the artist who decides to show his work on billboards in the city. Billboards: the symbol par excellence of privatizing public space or making it public.
He installed his first billboard in 1989 on a corner of Sheridan Square in New York. The location is important and contributes to the meaning of the work: near the Stonewall Inn, where twenty years earlier gays and lesbians took to the streets against police brutality. In the data on the billboard is a story about oppression and protest: the possibility of escaping violence. Next billboards show more freedom, with many skies, with or without clouds or with birds in free flight. They are beautiful in all their simplicity.
“Untitled” is equally simple: no text, no color, just an image of a bed. This image is a snapshot: an eminently private moment. The simultaneous display of the same image on twenty-four outdoor billboard locations, spread across New York’s five boroughs, makes it extraordinarily public. The twenty-fifth image hangs at MoMa at the same time in an exhibition by the artist. A private meaning is Ross, who died a year earlier. A public meaning is the Bowers v. Hardwick verdict that criminalized the practice of sodomy in private space a few years earlier, in 1986. Private becomes public.
Is that important in appreciating the work? It may. But more important here is also what escapes the image: the emptiness, the unmade, what is not made. The bed is not made – unmade, like so much of Gonzalez-Torres’ other work. It is still open. The photograph still shows traces of the people in the bed: the imprint of two heads are clearly visible, but the sleepers have disappeared. That openness, that unmade, is the space that the viewer must fill in himself.
“I do not want to be outside the structure of power. (…) I want to be like a virus that belongs to the institution. (…) So if I function as a virus, an impostor, an infiltrator, I will always replicate myself together with those institutions.”
(Felix Gonzalez-Torres in conversation with Joseph Kosuth, October 10, 1993)
Unless you see the work in the museum, “Untitled” comes without credits: no title, no author, no explanation. This is an image among many others. An image that brings calm to the excess. That makes one pause in the hectic. An image to dream away – to escape – in the midst of reality.
It shows a radically other place, a place for the other, of othering. The place of beginning and end: of a day (morning and evening), of a life (birth and death), and everything in between. It is an image that appeals to the imagination and at the same time (just because?) also very recognizable: a person spends easily one third of life in bed. Everyone can think of something to fill up that empty bed: an experience, a longing, a loss, a dream, a nightmare.
All those twenty-five images together form a fragmented whole. Always the same, always different. Photographs of the first installation in New York show trees without leaves and people wearing thick coats: a warm bed in cold days. Such a bed means something very different to a homeless person than to a businessman, something very different to a single person than to someone in a steady relationship. This work cries out for attention and yet wants to be left alone. The absence of color and the silence in the image makes it disappear, the scale makes it appear: bed becomes snapshot becomes billboard.
By showing his work on billboards in the city, Gonzalez-Torres shows himself again as an escape artist: the virus escapes from the institution, uncontrollable. There the work hangs: high above the city. Impervious: to those who notice it. Unreachable: too big, too far, too scattered for those who want to experience it fully. Inevitable: omnipresent, for those who do not want to see it.
“How does one learn not to fear the night any longer, that the darkness comes, and one can actually go to sleep, and sleep until the next day, and get up without this metallic and bitter taste in one’s mouth, the taste of guilt, desire for death, the desire for a quick and final end? I guess one cannot learn those things, they just sink into our bodies. In a very subtle way, yet it is definite. It is there, and we can sense it. How good.”
(Felix Gonzalez-Torres in a letter to Andrea Rosen, September 27, 1994)
The bed as a safe haven in anxious times. How good.
This bed is a landscape. It is a portrait, an image of what is not there (anymore). It has something melancholic, something nostalgic. It is an image full of homesickness, full of love. An image to look back on and to long for the home that is not there (yet). A home that is more than a place to escape and be yourself: a person, a feeling, a moment. An image. Within reach and yet so far away. So good.
The quotes are from "Felix Gonzalez-Torres," edited by Julie Ault, Steidl Publishers, 2006. ISBN 978-3-86930-921-7
 While editing this article, Holly McHugh from the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, points my attention to another work with a different title than “Untitled”: “Untested”, 1987. She emphasizes the importance to read also “Untitled” as a title as stated in her email: “Gonzalez-Torres specific titling strategy, including the punctuation of the word “Untitled” is intended to signal that the works do indeed have titles and are not without title. The titles of the artworks are specifically “Untitled”, followed by the parenthetical portion of the title – for those works that include parentheticals. You can see the various titling strategies on the chronological list of works on the Foundation’s website.”
 In another remark in her email on this text, Holly McHugh notes that the work can be installed indoors only if the minimum of six outdoor locations has been met for any given exhibition of the work.
Fort Beau, January 2021