Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Untitled (1989)
New YorkPublic Art Fund: Sheridan Square
June 4 – July 28, 2019
Twenty stories up, a Pride flag flaps above the border between Chelsea and the West Village on 14th Street. At street level, the windows of the building’s bank branch have been blocked out in the same rainbow motif. Pride and corporate inclusivity have become big business, even for businesses that may also contribute to lawmakers working against equality and justice in Congress.
Several blocks downtown, at the intersection of 7th Avenue and Christopher Street, a billboard presides over Sheridan Square, Pride’s epicenter. At first, it seems a vacancy; the billboard is black with two stacked lines of simple white text running along the bottom edge. But the text does not call out a phone number for rental inquiries. Instead, it lists scrambled events and years from queer history, out of chronological sync. Felix Gonzalez-Torres found the formal origins of this billboard, Untitled (1989), and other works like it (grouped together under the moniker “datelines”) in flipping through television channels in the early morning hours after a shift waiting tables. The datelines drew their power, for Gonzalez-Torres, in a techno-cultural experience that is passing out of our streaming world.
The Public Art Fund first installed Untitled to mark the 20th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, and has returned to lease the same board for this year’s 50th anniversary. Untitled is temporary, but not a vacancy. Once you realize Untitled sits there with intention, and not just to hold the place until the next advertisement goes up, it demands to be read. It does not offer a linear order to its historical archive, and you aren’t comforted with (nor allowed easy access to) narrative or explanation.
Dates call up other dates, some public and some personal. From Untitled’s list: police harassment 1969 (at bars like Stonewall), Oscar Wilde 1897 (the year of his release from prison for gross indecency), Harvey Milk 1977 (the year of his assassination). In 1992, as a child, I met the first gay men whom I remember as gay men. In 2016, Pulse Orlando, where a gunman massacred 49 people. Untitled’s presence above the street is temporary, but its lease on memory is lasting. It offers freedom in ambiguity, and its ephemerality consoles in the alienating affect of corporate inclusion. The billboard also asks, as another of its questions, how do things stay the same, and how do things change?
The black screen that frames Gonzalez-Torres’s jumble of events counters the colorful celebration around it with an aesthetic strategy that avoids giving a recognizably “queer” image. In 1989, this and other works by the artist trapped politicians eager to censor queer art by offering them no images to object to. “What I’m trying to say,” Gonzalez-Torres once explained, “is that we cannot give the powers that be what they want, what they are expecting from us.” The evasive subversion of the comment (and the subversive blank drawn by the work’s title) still inspires today, but in some ways, what he proposes makes for a safe bet for the Public Art Fund in 2019: a reinstallation that may seem to erect a monument to the billboard—to the work—itself.
Yet, Untitled keeps calling up other dates and comes face-to-face with the monument of Stonewall and Sheridan Square whose public history and use will always be evolving. At our short remove from the culture wars of the ’90s, Gonzalez-Torres’s commentary on his own work may sound out of sync with the spirit of our time. What, for one example, would need to change for this billboard to give visibility to anti-trans violence? What else do we need to see?