Gonzalez-Torres himself inflected the tension between the works’ impermanence and their immunity to destruction in autobiographical terms:
This work originated from my fear of losing everything. This work is about controlling my own fear. My work cannot be destroyed. I have destroyed it already, from day one …. That is how I made this work. That is why I made this work. This work cannot disappear. This work cannot be destroyed the same way other things in my life have disappeared and have left me. I destroyed it myself instead. I had control over it and this is what has empowered me. But it is a very masochistic kind of power. I destroy the work before I make it. [quoted in Nancy Spector, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, 1995, 122]
In the artist’s account of the stacks’ origins, their “how” and “why,” destruction precedes creation, the end predates the beginning, in a formulation that recalls the precarious temporality of human existence: specifically, the metaleptical structure of what we call our lifetime insofar as it emerges against the imminent horizon of our impending death. That such a seeming inversion in the expected order of things (“I destroy the work before I make it”) proves a telling trait of the work of art in this particular age of AIDS is adumbrated in Gonzalez-Torres’ gloss on the “one enormous collaboration with the public” that the stack pieces initiate – a give-and-take venture in which the “pieces just disperse themselves like a virus that goes to many different places – homes, studios, ships, bathrooms, whatever” [quoted in Spector, 58]. Thus, while critics were quick to point out the stacks’ formal affinities with the monolithic, manufactured solidity and singularity that characterizes the minimalist sculpture of the 1960s, as well as their indebtedness to certain tendencies in so-called conceptual art, there are emphatic differences between the paper stacks and any such precedents. As Gonzalez-Torres assessed this attempt at a critical genealogy, “This type of work (the stacks) has this image of authority, especially after so many years of conceptual and minimal art. They look so powerful, they look so clean, they look so historical already. But in my case, when you get close to them you realize that they have been ‘contaminated’ with something social” [Rollins, 21]. With proximity comes a reckoning with the “contaminated” status of the stacks, which, “like all art,” are hostage to “the passage of time” and subject at least to “the possibility of erasure and disappearance,” but at a rate and to an extent that warrants differentiation rather than, or at least prior to, assimilation.
That the stacks share these susceptibilities to contamination and premature disappearance with human existence itself is rendered painfully legible in the context of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The simile with which the artist characterizes the dispersal of the pages – “like a virus” – locates a crucial and perilous temporal dimension in this body of work, one that emerges again in Gonzalez-Torres’ retrospective account of the pivotal 1990 exhibition:
… I wanted to do a show that would disappear completely. It had a lot to do with disappearance and learning…. Freud said that we rehearse our fears in order to lessen them. In a way this ‘letting go’ of the work, this refusal to make a static form, a monolithic sculpture in favor of a disappearing, changing, unstable, and fragile form was an attempt on my part to rehearse my fears of having [his longtime lover] Ross [Laycock] disappear day by day right in front of my eyes. [Rollins, 13]
And yet the stack pieces bespeak not only fear, but a certain hope as well, in that they are predicated on the possibility of replenishment and restoration to their “ideal” dimensions – a possibility unavailable to Ross, for example.