(Secretary Press, 2016)
A large blank white paper sheet with an inch-wide black border, from Untitled (The End) (1990), a paper-stack work by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, hangs on my bedroom wall. Friends react variously to this sheet taken from its stack, often with confusion at how slapdash it looks taped up there, sometimes making fun of the idea that it’s an artwork, with pause for its perceived melancholy. Born in Cuba in 1957, Gonzalez-Torres came of age and into his artistic career in New York City in the 1980s, at the beginning and height of the AIDS crisis that would claim his life in 1996. Melancholy, however, is only one affective mode deployed by Gonzalez-Torres’s works. Over the years, I’ve squirreled away candy from his candy stacks, too, taking great pleasure in them, sometimes saving the candies, sometimes only their beautiful wrappers, allowing me a more personal connection to the artist.
In Stone’s Throw, David Deitcher depends upon this and other complicities between himself and his subject (ostensibly the work of Gonzalez-Torres) and between himself and his readers to craft a hybrid work of criticism and memoir. The book comprises an essay in two parts that interweaves a critical reevaluation of the artist’s works with Deitcher’s memories of his friendships with Gonzalez-Torres and the curator-activist Bill Olander. In the first part of his essay, Deitcher assesses Gonzalez-Torres’s own description of his work as a “tough art,” as well as the artist’s place in a post-Minimalist art historical lineage. In the second part, Deitcher turns to his close friendship with Olander, and to the mix of art, politics, and affect that frame his memories of his friend, especially around the time of his death from HIV/AIDS-related causes in 1989.
Gonzalez-Torres first expresses the formula of “tough art” as a guiding aesthetic principle (his own take on the tradition of Minimalism’s primary structures or Donald Judd’s specific objects) on the back of one of several makeshift postcards he sent to Deitcher, this one dated December 1992. Deitcher includes several facsimiles of these cards—repurposed 4 × 6 photographs—throughout the book. These postcards, sent from one friend to another, serve both Deitcher and us, his readers, as archival documents that mimic the take-away aesthetic of some of Gonzalez-Torres’s best-known works while also operating as an affectively charged relic of their friendship. Through its necessarily clipped message, the postcards telegraph a way of communicating shared by friends and revivify the voice of the dead artist.
Complicating the role of emotion in his work, Gonzalez-Torres mysteriously elaborated upon “tough art” by later providing Deitcher with a quote from Carl Andre that had inspired him: “My sculptures are masses and their subject is matter.” Deitcher spends the majority of the first half of the book attempting to reconcile Gonzalez-Torres’s fealty to his Minimalist forebears in the face of Andre’s anti-expressionism, which Deitcher considers to be so at odds with the emotional heft of Gonzalez-Torres’s work. In fact, the inclusion in the book’s plates of works by artists who also subversively infused Minimalist forms with sentimentality (such as those by Tony Feher and Roni Horn) emphasizes the relevance of Gonzalez-Torres’s insistence on Minimalist continuity to a post-Minimalism inflected by gender, sexuality, and affect. To Gonzalez-Torres’s twinned clocks Untitled (Perfect Lovers) (1991), Deitcher joins Horn’s Gold Mats, Paired—for Ross and Felix (1994/2003), two thin mats of pure gold that pay homage to Gonzalez-Torres’s works while, like those works, adapting Andre’s forms to the expression of sentiment. As Deitcher concludes, Gonzalez-Torres teases the residual affect out of the “in-between spaces” of Judd’s Minimalist serial repetition to give form to the emotional charge of living under the threat of HIV/AIDS.
In memorializing his close friend, the artist-curator Olander, in part two, Deitcher returns to another proposition made in the first half of the book: that Gonzalez-Torres’s works operate in acknowledgement of the shifting social positions of their audiences. Instead of the candy stacks and carpets, or squared stacks of paper, that recall the Minimalist vocabulary, Deitcher here turns to works more indebted to conceptual art, such as the anti-chronological timeline billboard once installed across Seventh Avenue from Sheridan Square, Untitled (1989). The specificity of the work’s installation, across from the site of the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion that galvanized the movement for LGBTQ rights through the end of last century, helps to define the contingent social and political positions of Gonzalez-Torres, Olander, and Deitcher in the period Deitcher recounts. The billboard’s conceptual remix of events from LGBTQ history (including Oscar Wilde’s trial and the formation of the People with AIDS Coalition) offers an example of an artwork whose meaning is contingent on those same shifting positions and political vulnerabilities.
Stone’s Throw breaks generic molds of criticism, history, and memoir in ways similar to Douglas Crimp’s 2008 essay, “Action around the Edges.”1 There, Crimp writes in part of the allure and the danger posed by the Christopher Street piers, a meeting place for gay men and others to socialize, carouse, and have sex, especially in the 1970s. Deitcher describes his own fears and discomfort with his sexuality that kept him out of the action at the piers and elsewhere in the years of relatively liberated sexual possibility between Stonewall and the onset of the AIDS crisis.
Yet, Deitcher’s story about Gonzalez-Torres, Olander, and himself touches on other political fears and possibilities that one can find in the ambiguities of the untitled billboard’s intervention into LGBTQ history. The three worked with or around the activist group ACT UP and its artist-run affiliate Gran Fury. Olander, as curator at the New Museum, worked with ACT UP to create the landmark exhibition Let the Record Show (1987), which included the iconic slogan “Silence=Death” in neon lights. When examined, the extreme marginality and desperation of the ACT UP cause through the 1980s and early 90s is evident. By the end of 1989, the year of Olander’s death, 27,408 Americans had died from the epidemic.2
As activist Peter Staley recounts, due to the apathy and willful obstruction of lawmakers, such as North Carolina’s Jesse Helms, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was not permitted to invest in HIV prevention into the early 1990s.3 In response, in 1991, Staley and other activists covered Helms’s house in a giant condom that read in part, “Helms is deadlier than a virus.” The revival of Helms’s style of political animus this spring in North Carolina’s HB2, a law that restricts access to restroom facilities for trans people among other attacks on LGBTQ rights, disturbingly revives the memory of this ugly period in American history.
From this shared history, Deitcher, thus fashions his own “tough art” out of the conventions of criticism and memoir. Like Gonzalez-Torres finding those “in-between spaces” in Judd’s seriality, Deitcher finds the writerly space between criticism and memoir: he writes a critical appraisal of Gonzalez-Torres’s work while also writing for his lost friends, Felix and Bill. The postcards from Gonzalez-Torres that punctuate Deitcher’s text remind Deitcher, and us his readers, of what lingers and remains of friendship after death. The postcard stands out as a privileged, if understated, trope in Stone’s Throw—as that which arrives (or arrives again) after the friend’s death and so undoes chronology through a ghostly redeployment of affect.
- Cf. Douglas Crimp, “Action around the Edges,” in CLAGS News 18.1 (2008) and the forthcoming Before Pictures (2016), from which it was excerpted.
PHILLIP GRIFFITH is a writer, editor, and scholar living in New York City.