On ViewDavid Zwirner
January 12–February 25, 2023
In formal fluidity, Felix Gonzalez-Torres captured resilience. Forever rearticulated, the physicality of his art is itself ancillary, representing a finely tuned and unique symbolic language that Gonzalez-Torres developed to harbor the political, the personal, and the sometimes-violent intersection of the two. Emotionally evocative though the work may be, Gonzalez-Torres has not constructed a theater of empathy but of complicity. To feel sympathetic is not enough without acknowledging the web of interrelation that links the shattering of one person’s world to the maintenance of another’s political power. When we look at his work, we must then think about systems, dependencies, and conveniences.
Installed at David Zwirner gallery, this exhibition proves how Gonzalez-Torres continues to fiercely pierce our present. This is not due in any tangible way to the attempts to recontextualize individual pieces for the year 2023, but is rather a side-effect of the enduring radicality baked into how Gonzalez-Torres conceptualized his formal practice. His work pre-exists without a specific object and therefore, just as the spectator cannot simply look, the labor of installation goes beyond mere placement to become a reformation. Because of this, the show feels alive and manages to resist the ossification that now comes almost automatically with having seen something before, with knowing the conceptual gambit. Viewers may have been trained to take the tubular black licorice candies from “Untitled” (Public Opinion) (1991), but the theater of the act has not deadened.
Gonzalez-Torres’s inventive rethinking of form is on most obvious display in “Untitled” (Portrait of the Magoons) (1993), which appears three times in the exhibition, reimagined by different authors—the original owner Nancy Magoon, Coco Fusco, and Glenn Ligon. Events and corresponding dates are painted directly onto the wall at the edge of the ceiling, with each rendering edited according to its author. The structure is consistent, but what occupies it remains subjective so that, taken all together, the portraits refract the vast and the specific, the private and the public, by illustrating drastically diverse readings of our common experience of time. The portraits punctuate the gallery spaces, installed alongside the candy spill and the large billboard and sound installation, “Untitled” (1994–95). Conceived of but unrealized in his lifetime, this installation features two spot-lit billboards illustrated with black and white images of a bird flying through a gap in the clouds. Periodically the lights cut, and a loud track of applause fills the room. Originally intended for an exhibition at CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux, the installation pairs with “Untitled” (Sagitario) (1994–95), two circular pools carved into the floor, each twelve feet in diameter. Their round edges nearly kiss, the water threateningly close to spilling over onto the floor. A familiar motif in Gonzalez-Torres’s work, the two circles read as bodies, intimate but never truly attached—impossibly connected. At CAPC, the idea was that the sonic boom and recorded clapping might reverberate and cause a rupture in the pools, a subtle and just perceptible flow of water. A forced exchange legible as both turbulent and triumphant.
These are the kinds of poetics we have come to expect from an artist fluent in implication. Through his mastery of loosely held forms, Gonzalez-Torres braided together meanings that continue to be reformulated precisely because they are free of objecthood. In this way, his art maintains its political and emotional expediency. Brilliant in his borrowing of Minimalist aesthetics and his concurrent rejection of Minimalist principles (preferring instead to inject his form with intense, variable connotations), Gonzalez-Torres built upon the theatrics of a body and object in space. A leap in how the political can subversively play within the artistic arena, his practice and its lasting influence must be taken into account when we now look at his work. So too does his dialect of delicacy and durability. The absence of his hand combined with the constancy of his themes and the precision of his perennial return to them remain a standard for works of art with a claim to conceptualism. The object matters less than the series of actions that fabricate it, the system its creation catalyzes, and the ultimately fluctuating form it takes. There is room for grief, but really it is about the potential for the sound vibrations from emphatic applause to spur a seemingly impossible ripple of water, a relation sparking exchange; a metaphor for the consequences of connectivity.