- "Untitled" (Ischia)
- 15 watt light bulbs, porcelain light sockets, extension cords
The conceptual works of American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres challenge the emphasis on materiality in traditional definitions of art. Gonzales-Torres' works exist as fleeting interactions between the work and the viewer, and are an extension of the aesthetic of the 1960s, when happenings and conceptual art favoured the artistic idea rather than the aesthetic object.
The formal qualities of Gonzalez-Torres' resemble those of minimalist sculptures. Tight rectangular shapes lying on the floor, a chain of light bulbs hanging in a corner, a shimmering curtain dividing the gallery space in two. But the persistent material presence of traditional sculptures is lacking here. Ephemeral materials, such as confectionary or posters, are often chosen – materials intended for distribution to a public. At the moment of being viewed the work is activated, the recognizable formal elements dissolve, and the idea behind the work comes to view.
Although their materiality was always subservient to his ideas, in retrospect his works can be seen to fall into certain groups, arranged according to chosen material or method of execution. One such category is his works using sweets, another is the works employing piles of posters, and a third category embraces the fascinating portraits consisting of dates and recordings of specific events, discreetly placed like a timeline at ceiling level. Here Gonzalez-Torres blends personal and historic events, a fascinating commentary on the relationship between our own lives and our common history.
These paired concerns of private experience and public awareness typify much of Gonzalez-Torres' art. His life and experiences were as generally very important for his art, and many works reference personal events from his childhood and upbringing. At the same time he was a very private person and for many years avoided being photographed in public. This gesture was consistent with the artist's wish not to focus on his person but rather to deflect all attention towards his art. His use of personal experiences did not, however, prevent him from confronting the great challenges and issues of our time, including American firearm laws, all forms of discrimination, whether directed at skin colour or status, and attitudes to HIV sufferers. This appalling and deadly disease would come to have tragic consequences both for Gonzalez-Torres and many of his artist colleagues.
Gonzalez-Torres' political commitment can be marked both in his artistic output and in his relationship to art institutions. He often challenged the accepted borders of professional demarcation in the art museum. When realizing an exhibition in an institution he would often talk to the guards and involve them in talking to the audience and explaining his works to the public. In this way he broke down the established barriers between professional groups, posing questions of the public's expectations.
Gonzalez-Torres was also well-known for his role in the artist collective Group Material. Among the artists who were associated with the group were Julie Ault, Tim Rollins, Doug Ashford and Karen Ramspacher. Together they curated a series of exhibitions and publications that are still regarded as having seminal importance for young artists and curators. The political fervour of the group, arousing in many others a social awareness, was perhaps of greatest significance in establishing the position of Group Material.
In spite of his relatively short career Gonzalez-Torres embraced so many of the central aspects of the art discourse of the 1980s and 90s that he is still regarded as one of the central voices of the period. In 2007 he represented USA in the Venice Biennale and his art is regularly exhibited all over the world.