Conceptual art has tackled many complex topics over the past six decades. From identity politics, political issues, health topics, and more, it has helped both spark public conversation and give people a visual perspective. In the mid-1980s, as the AIDS epidemic reached a fever pitch within the United States and around the globe, many artists began making art about HIV in an effort to garner more awareness about the disease and the people’s lives who were directly affected by it. Art collectives such as ACT UP’s Gran Fury, The NAMES Project memorial quilt, DIVA TV (Damned Interfering Video Activist Television), and others staged public actions, performances, exhibitions and protests to create a public dialogue about this health crisis.
Working out of this sociocultural context of the AIDS crisis, Felix Gonzalez-Torres created art in direct reaction to this time. He was one of the most prominent artists to emerge from this era and built a career on creating thought-provoking work. Known for making large-scale minimalistic installations that used everyday materials such as candy, lightbulbs, clocks, and newspapers, he sought to offer a larger commentary on death, longing, the AIDS crisis, and more.
Born in Cuba in 1957, Gonzalez-Torres would eventually immigrate to the U.S. He earned his B.F.A. from the Pratt Institute of Art and went on to attend the prestigious Whitney Independent Study Program (WISP) through the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, as well as New York University, where he earned his M.F.A. Gonzalez-Torres’ work has been the subject of several major retrospectives, including at the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art. From 1987 to 1991, he was a member of Group Material, a collective art group that sought to work in a collaborative way to educate people and to foster community engagement around vital social and political topics.
Gonzalez-Torres’ work has come to be known globally through both the materials he used and the larger issues he raised. Part of this stems from the way in which the viewer is confronted with their own morality and loss in the work through the larger statement that is being made. His work today feels even more relevant in terms of how it comments on isolation, loneliness, time, and what this means as the world enters the sixth month of a global pandemic.
His art has sparked larger social debates, drawing parallels between the HIV epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic—the staggering loss of life and the disproportionate number of Black, Latinx, and Native American people who have been affected by this disease further exposing a medical and wealth gap that has been there for generations. It also speaks to the suspension of time surrounding the larger uncertainties of people’s day-to-day lives and how they have been completely changed.
The work itself defies time and space and requires the viewer to reckon with it in the moment and more broadly. He thought of the futurity of this work through this approach to materials but also in taking on heady topics; but Gonzalez-Torres probably never imagined a world in which another health crisis with similar circumstances to the AIDS crisis would make his work timely again.
Most recently, his work was the subject of an exhibition organized by the art-world powerhouses Zwirner Gallery and the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, which invited 1,000 participants from across the globe to participate. The original piece, “Untitled” (Fortune Cookie Corner), consisted of over 10,000 fortune cookies and was meant to be constantly replenished.
Due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, the circumstances around this show were unique, and individuals were given a specific set of instructions in which they would install fortune cookies in a space of their choosing. The amount of cookies had to be between 300 and 1,000, per the parameters set up for the piece by the artist, and participants were asked to replenish the installation halfway through the duration of the event. This allowed the people who were able to create installations of his work to live with it daily and document its progression over the course of the six-week show. While the show did draw some criticism in terms of inviting specific people to take part in it versus making it open-ended, it does seem very fitting for this time period.
This larger sense of community engagement can be seen in some of his most recognizable works of art, in which viewers are encouraged to take one of the items it consists of, such as a piece of candy or a newspaper. Gonzalez-Torres’ 1991 piece, “Untitled” (Placebo), for example, explores the roles of time, space, and disappearance and offers a larger commentary about the AIDS epidemic.
The piece is massive and consists of 1,200 pounds of silver-wrapped pieces of candy arranged on the floor of the gallery. Over the course of the installation’s exhibit, the sprawling piece disappears as people take it apart piece by piece, which they are invited to do. The installation literally goes away over time, serving as a larger metaphor for death and the process of breaking down through people’s engagement with it.
In another piece from the same year, “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in LA), Gonzalez-Torres explores the loss of his longtime partner Ross Laycock to HIV. The description of the piece is as follows: “Candies individually wrapped in multicolor cellophane, endless supply. Dimensions vary with installation; ideal weight 175 lbs.” The weight, which directly references Laycock, was meant to call attention to the loss the artist experienced at this time, but also to the millions of deaths that occurred due to the HIV crisis.
These two installations, which were part of Gonzalez-Torres’ sweets series from the 1980s to the ’90s, utilized a variety of candies wrapped in various cellophane colors such as silver, blue, and red, as well as fortune cookies. Part of the thinking behind using objects that were readily available and mass produced meant that his work could be recreated multiple times, and using materials such as these made his installations easy to replenish, especially when the audience was invited to take part in the installation.
With each installation, Gonzalez-Torres included a specific set of instructions that laid out how he intended for the work to be displayed, as well as the desired dimensions. These parameters have allowed multiple versions of his work to be seen in a variety of settings, ranging from exhibition spaces within museums and galleries to people’s living rooms and even a train station.
His positionality as an openly gay man who eventually succumbed to AIDS, as well as having a partner who died from this disease, greatly informed the work he made. This loss, as well as others, was a theme he explored extensively throughout his career.
He also incorporated text into his early work, which was also triggered by the historical events of this time. Another work that responded directly to the AIDS crisis took the form of billboards that appeared in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Through this series, Gonzalez-Torres used texts and photographs to think through larger issues surrounding activism, sickness, and larger forms of oppression. “Untitled,” 1991, (Site #21), features a photograph of an empty white bed with two pillows side by side. Both pillows have indentations from the people who were sleeping before the image was captured. The top cover is turned over and the sheets are wrinkled. There are obvious signs of life, but no one is there. The billboard, which was part of the Museum of Modern Art’s Project Series from this time, was meant to invoke feelings of loss, and to make viewers think more deeply about the image they were encountering. Who were the people sleeping in the bed? Why is the bed not made? What happened to them?
According to the brochure released at the time, “The artist has explained that by ‘taking a little bit of information and displaying this information in absolutely ironic and illogical meetings,’ he hopes to reveal the real meaning of issues. The juxtaposition of an image that we are inclined to read as private in a space usually conceived of as public is what Gonzalez-Torres would describe as an ‘illogical meeting.’ When we call something illogical, we are essentially saying that it runs counter to our expectations.” The visual information you are given is meant to make you think about the absence—what’s not there and what it means. There is a literal lack of human presence in the image, even though the viewer knows people have been there.
These illogical expectations are what we are left with even now. The image itself is illogical, and the time we are living in is as well. It is now five months into COVID-19 hitting the U.S. hard, and while in states like New York and others in the Northeast the number of deaths and infection rates are on the decline, in Florida, California, and other places, they are skyrocketing. While Americans are anticipating a second wave of COVID-19 in the fall, looking at Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work again has made me realize how finite time is and also how vital people’s individual roles are within the world. Small acts of kindness and generosity matter now more than ever.