Felix Gonzalez-Torresby Phillip Griffith
David Zwirner Gallery
April 27 – June 24, 2017
“It is a sacrilege,” bell hooks wrote in a 1994 essay about the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “to reserve this beauty solely for art.” The latest exhibition of his work, and the first at David Zwirner Gallery, arrives on the occasion of the artist's longtime gallerist and estate executor Andrea Rosen’s recently announced co-representation of Gonzales-Torres’s estate with David Zwirner. The exhibit offers a tidy summary of Gonzalez-Torres’s formal vocabulary (including his work in billboards, with five additionally installed around the city) and draws out the urgent beauty hooks described in his art.
In conversations about the artist—who was also a member of the art-activism collective Group Material—critics and scholars often assign this urgency to the political conditions related to Gonzalez-Torres’s biography as a queer Cuban-American living with HIV. Much has changed since the artist’s death during the epidemic in 1996, and yet here we are today, with Rose Garden overtures to the Religious Right at the White House last month and debates, fiercer than ever, over our health care system. The exhibition seems occasional, too, for this political return, summed up in the title of one of the paper stacks on view, “Untitled” (Republican Years) (1992), a paper cenotaph for the victims and destruction of the Reagan-Bush years.
Each of the galleries elicit reverence, as if one were entering a chapel upon entering each room. The spare arrangement of works throughout focuses attention on individual pieces, to be appreciated in isolation as well as in relation to specific works, and emphasizes the volume of space surrounding and between each piece, insulating and enhancing their soft vibrations.
Approaching the first gallery space, one confronts fleeting images of oneself in “Untitled” (March 5th) #1 (1991), a paired set of small round mirrors hung at roughly eye level on the wall opposite. Subtly, a floor-to-ceiling curtain of white and silver plastic beads, “Untitled” (Chemo) (1991), comes into view, laterally bisecting the room with a penetrable wall; one circles twinned stacks of white paper, “Untitled” (1989/1990), taking a sheet, before pushing through the strings of beads towards the faintly perceptible billboard pasted to the far wall—a bird in flight against a mute gray sky. The beaded curtain emphasizes the verticality of the room, up to its skylights, a skyward movement echoed by the bird in the billboard design and recalling a cathedral’s choir screen. It would be a sacrilege not to pass through.
The following downstairs gallery emphasizes stark lines: from the narrow stretch of black backgrounding the white lettering of “Untitled” (Portrait of the Magoons) (1993), to the long golden strip of candies beneath,“Untitled” (Placebo-Landscape-for-Roni) (1993). At the room’s far end, the black borders of the red stock paper stack and, albeit circular, frames of the adjacently hanging clocks in “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers) (1987-1990), maintain a focus on the frame that sets each object apart. In the long space, an expansive sense of perspective, and of an unknowable and infinite future, is stressed by the linearity of the portrait and candy spill—dedicated to Roni Horn—while the twinned clocks and stack draw out the circular logic of Gonzalez-Torres’s works, able to be replenished as they deplete themselves. The artist’s permission bestowed to owners of his portraits to add and subtract dates from their work flirts with this infinity—making the portrait a work at once entropic and forever renewable.
Upstairs are works united by Gonzalez-Torres’s talismanic use of powder blue: “Untitled” (Water) (1995), a second curtain of beads;“Untitled” (Girlfriend in a Coma) (1990), a white paper stack here set against a powder blue wall; the ghostly curtains of “Untitled” (Loverboy) (1989); and “Untitled” (Go-Go Dancing Platform) (1991), studded on its perimeter with bare lightbulbs, winking at minimalism’s bare macho forms.
Critics and fans have granted Gonzalez-Torres a level of sainthood in the well-known facts of his politicized biography; an oeuvre with such affective heft nearly demands such blessing of the artist. However, as evidenced by the simplicity of the forms in this exhibit, much of Gonzalez-Torres’s work eschewed the pointedly political. The intersection of politics, biography, and the affective simplicity of Gonzalez-Torres’s forms is felt keenly in “Untitled” (Bloodwork – Steady Decline) (1994). The reduced geometry of the drawing, with its precisely sloping line traced on graph paper, immediately evokes a patient’s medical chart, or if read biographically, seems to hint at the kinds of tests a patient with HIV, like Gonzalez-Torres, would know intimately. However, the drawing is not a purveyor of interior emotion or drawn from his medical history; it is a geometric abstraction. Between truth and beauty, ideal and material forms, the simplicity of Gonzalez-Torres’s works evades the political, escaping into an arena of idealized aesthetic appreciation, only to return us back to our material realities, our bodies, with an emotional sucker punch.
A small room tucked away on the first floor revisits the dateline form—one Gonzalez-Torres had employed in his 1989 Sheridan Square billboard—here with two photostat prints and a video portrait. One of the prints, “Untitled” (1988), with its white print on black background, signifies political and non-political events: “Span 1970,” “National Rifle Association 1988,” “Gaza Strip 1963.” The timeline ends ominously with “Patient Zero,” the personage lost to history, its corresponding date left off the timeline. The video portrait, “Untitled” (A Portrait) (1991/1995), again spare white text on the screen’s black background, evokes aesthetic appreciation and political outrage and disappointment. A sequence of language reads with renewed relevance in 2017: A new Supreme Court ruling / A public mob / A public opinion. Of the works throughout, these three pieces feel the most like self-portraits (both of the artist and of the viewer who gazes at him or herself in their reflection) and this mix of narcissism, generosity, aesthetic beauty, and politics grounds this exhibition without offering easy answers on how to read Gonzalez-Torres’s beautiful art and legacy in politically charged times.
PHILLIP GRIFFITH is a writer, editor, and scholar living in New York City.