“Untitled” (I was here) (Felix Gonzalez-Torres, part 1)

“I am feeling the effects of this disease on my soul.  That it is so hard for me to write, to do new work, to take a ‘leap,’ to imagine possible futures.  It’s not there.”  [Felix Gonzalez-Torres, letter to Julie, November 16, 1995]


“Finally, above all else, it is about leaving a mark that I existed:  I was here.”  [ interview with Tim Rollins, 1993]


In January 1990, Felix Gonzalez-Torres inaugurated the new decade with a solo exhibition at the Andra Rosen Gallery in New York.  The press release circulated in advance of the opening cited a letter from the artist to his dealer, making public a text whose language passes from a specific interpretation of the works presented to a theoretical claim about art in general:

I feel this particular installation is about vulnerability, about having nothing to loose [sic], about the possibility of renewal through the recontextualization of each piece every time it’s taken by the viewer.  It is also a comment on the passage of time and on the possibility of erasure and disappearance….  It is about life and its most radical definition or demarcation:  death.  Like all art, it is about leaving this place for some other place maybe better than this place. [Andrea Rosen Gallery, press release, New York, 1990].

The exhibition, which “had a lasting impact on everyone who saw [it],” consisted of a number of the paper “stacks” that would become one of the artist’s signature practices:  columns of varying dimensions installed on the gallery floor in a gesture of resistance to the commerce-driven aesthetics that had dominated the mainstream New York art scene for much of the preceding decade.  “Around 1989 when I started those ‘stack pieces,'” Gonzalez-Torres would later observe, “everyone in New York was fighting for room on the walls, and you would have had to win a fist fight to conquer two inches on the wall.  So I said, ‘Forget the walls, I’ll do something on the floor.'”   [F G-T, interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, 1996]

A more critical feature of the installation was its design as a gift to its viewers:  Not only were the paper stacks accessible to touch, in defiance of museum and gallery convention, but the individual pages were free for the taking, endlessly reproducible and hence always capable of replenishment to the “ideal height” specified by the artist.  Premised on their own dispersal to the point of disappearance, Gonzalez-Torres’ stack pieces raise the difficult theoretical and historical questions about the status of the art object famously posed in Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility,” which interrogates the concepts of originality, authenticity and aura.  Indeed, in an interview conducted in 1993, the artist would acknowledge that “I honestly think that when I made those stack-pieces I was still trying to understand Walter Benjamin.”

Existing from the outset as copies without an original, the stacks of unsigned offset prints “prompt uncertainty about every criterium we use to classify something as art.  What is, exactly, the work?  Is it the stack of paper?  Or is it each sheet of paper – which also contains all the information?  And where, ultimately, is the work once the stack has been diminished to nothing, its pages all carried off?  The object appears to have disappeared, the viewers have destroyed it, the artwork has called itself into question.  On the other hand, however, the simple fact that Gonzalez-Torres does not lend these pieces a permanent shape makes them immune to destruction” [Catalogue Raisonee, ed. Dietmar Elger, 74].

[The artist’s candy-spill installations initiate the same kind of collaboration with the public, aka the “former audience.”]

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Filed under Culture, History and historiography, Media, Reading and writing

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