THE WORK AND LEGACY OF FELIX GONZALEZ-TORRES
Identity Negation and Negotiation at the Venice Biennale and Beyond
By Claire Dillon | Faculty Advisor: Professor Hannah Feldman | Department of Art History | Honors Thesis | NURJ 2014-15
The work of artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996) is widely renowned for its compelling engagement with issues involving aesthetics, politics, and the personal concerns thought to be inspired by Gonzalez-Torres’s lived experience as a gay and HIV-positive Cuban-American. Many analyses of his work are accordingly driven by limited narratives that focus on the personal and artistic significance of the minority communities to which Gonzalez-Torres belonged. However, Gonzalez-Torres’s art strategically uses abstraction and identity negation to create an empty interpretive space for its viewers, which solicits subjective analyses that are commonly motivated by the viewers’ own personal experiences more so than the artist’s identity.
This project focuses on the issues of identity made manifest in the exhibitions Felix Gonzalez-Torres: America at the 52nd Venice Biennale and Contarlo todo sin saber cómo in Madrid. These exhibitions presented Gonzalez-Torres’s work in new contexts that reevaluate the importance of his identity in art historical research. Through the study of identity politics, this project considers how Gonzalez-Torres’s work forges communities through diverse yet intersecting interpretations that often traverse the boundaries of conventional identity categories. His work envisions a model of identity politics in which all participants must democratically seek compromise between their disparate identifications.
For those who interact with the art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, the work tends to linger in their minds and often in their possession. Gonzalez-Torres’s sculptural installations of candy spills and poster stacks are displayed for anyone’s taking, and many museum visitors document their acquisitions online [Figure 1]. The collection and preservation of these fragmentary pieces of Gonzalez-Torres’s art reveal his audience’s internalized connection with the work. Given the individual and intangible nature of such connections, the cultural and political consequences of these interactions are often difficult to study.
Figure 1. A collection of images documenting museum visitors’ acquisitions of Gonzalez-Torres’s work.
Credit (left to right): Mark Mauno, Rupert Ganzer, Marc Wathieu, Kosuke Fujitaka. All available through Creative Commons licenses.
This paper investigates the intrapersonal and interpersonal networks facilitated by Gonzalez-Torres’s art and their manifestations within the lives and works of others. An individual’s personal identification with and internalization of Gonzalez-Torres’s art necessarily extends the work’s subject matter beyond the artist’s own identity and historical context. These individual subjective analyses subvert the privilege traditionally granted to biographical analysis and identitarian narratives that focus on Gonzalez-Torres’s identity as a gay, HIV-positive, Cuban-American immigrant. Personal interpretations by the audience make his artwork more inclusive or universal while simultaneously diminishing the particularities of the minority communities to which he belonged. Gonzalez-Torres’s presentation at the 52nd Venice Biennale and in the recent Spanish exhibition Contarlo todo sin saber cómo offers insight into the formation of such connections between art and audience.
At the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007, Gonzalez-Torres’s posthumous exhibition in the United States Pavilion revealed the stakes of this careful negotiation between particular identities and universal appeal; several critics were disappointed by the curatorial choice to neglect Gonzalez-Torres’s identity in the exhibition and in its supplementary literature. This case study illustrates the complexities involved in achieving compromise between identity and inclusivity, the latter of which is both productive and threatening to the representation of minority communities.
In his book Emancipation(s), theorist Ernesto Laclau studies the capacity for particularism and universalism to intersect and complement one another. Within the context of Gonzalez-Torres’s work, particularism emerges from any predominant focus on his minority status and its role in influencing aspects of his life and work. While it is important to address the particularities of Gonzalez-Torres’s ethnicity, sexual orientation, and illness, to grant authorial privilege to these qualities is an othering practice that reinforces his isolation from other communities. In fact, the artwork negates these particularisms through its open-ended refusal of categorization and the singularity of any given analysis. At the same time, however, it is impossible to ignore the social ramifications of identity categories and their continued use in society. This delicate balance between identity negation and the inescapable imposition of identity necessitates persistent negotiation with respect to issues of representation within art historical discourse and beyond.
Gonzalez-Torres’s work explores these issues through its strategic use of abstraction, which allows his respondents¾viewers, scholars, artists, and so on¾to participate in that which exists outside the realm of experience assigned to their particular set of identity categories. His work explores art’s capacity to encompass subjective interpretations that draw upon narratives from a viewer’s personal experience, knowledge of the artist and art history more broadly, and countless other sources. In the 2012 exhibition Contarlo todo sin saber cómo, a homemade replica of Gonzalez-Torres’s work Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991 further investigates the possibilities of such a compromise. A heterosexual couple created this copy of Gonzalez-Torres’s work, and the resultant intersection of hetero- and homosexual identities demonstrates how identity negation and negotiation can form community across such categories.
Situating Gonzalez-Torres’s work within new interpretive dialogues extends its influence beyond the artist’s identity categories and promotes alliance between individuals of different minority or majority communities. This process complicates the hegemonic classification systems that operate both within and outside of the art historical realm. The ambiguous and enigmatic nature of this network poses a threat to dominant social order, envisions a model of democracy that resonates with recent efforts to theorize queer identity, and reflects the relevance of these theories to Gonzalez-Torres’s work.
Identity politics in the 1995 and 2007 Venice Biennali
The importance of effective negotiation between universalism and particularism was highlighted in Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s exhibition representing the United States at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007. The exhibition, entitled Felix Gonzalez-Torres: America, was curated by Nancy Spector with the intention of creating “yet another narrative with [Gonzalez-Torres’s] work, one that would respond to the nationalistic premise of the presentation and speak to the current diplomatic crisis in our country.”[i] Because Gonzalez-Torres’s art engages so deeply with issues of hegemony and representation, which are often though not necessarily related to notions of identity, even a decade after his death his work was equipped to respond to current events and what Spector called, “the threat of the Conservative Right.”[ii] Spector therefore shifted her focus away from the conventional narratives dictated by Gonzalez-Torres’s identity, and instead highlighted his work’s ability to respond to other issues.
Gonzalez-Torres’s selection for the Biennale was both celebrated as a triumph and criticized as a surrender: while some felt Gonzalez-Torres’s selection redeemed the rejection of his proposal for the 1995 Biennale, which served as the starting point for the 2007 proposal, many were dissatisfied with the exhibition’s choice to leave the artist’s identity unaddressed. [iii] Spector’s evasion of identity was commonly considered a conservative, “dequeered,” and therefore inauthentic presentation of the artist.[iv] This criticism highlights the essential paradox of acknowledging Gonzalez-Torres’s identity while recognizing that his work’s use of abstraction strategically rejects such positive identification.
This paradox necessitates negotiation, which is evident in the many proposal revisions for the 1995 Biennale by co-curators Amada Cruz, Susanne Ghez, and Ann Goldstein. The proposal hints at Gonzalez-Torres’s identity, stating that his work might contain “references to gay rights, AIDS, racism, and gun control,”[v] but his sexual orientation is never directly mentioned. Instead, the text devotes more time to the discussion of the artist’s faith in democracy and his personal experience with the American dream. [vi] The only sentence that explicitly addresses Gonzalez-Torres’s identity was eventually crossed out (in parentheses) in subsequent drafts:
Throughout the proposal process, Gonzalez-Torres’s identity categories were methodically omitted. In some ways, the 2007 exhibition completed this gradual implementation of identity negation; in the official press release announcing Gonzalez-Torres’s selection, there is no mention of gay rights, AIDS, or the artist’s identity.[i] While this was likely part of Spector’s efforts to appeal to a more universal representation of the United States, the criticism surrounding the lack of recognition of Gonzalez-Torres’s identity called attention to the problematic yet undeniable importance of these issues.
The apparent absence of Gonzalez-Torres’s identity merely called more attention to it; Spector’s curatorial strategy geared toward universality was at times confronted with critics’ focus on particularities. One critic reduced Gonzalez-Torres’s oeuvre to “art about AIDS,” suggesting his work was only relevant to a “past tragedy” and was therefore less important than the work of living artists. This discriminatory criticism is an extreme example of the isolation that can afflict minority artists when subjected to exaggerated reliance on biographical analysis.[ii] The reduction of Gonzalez-Torres’s work to a singular issue and historical context deprives the artwork of the temporal transcendence traditionally granted to art objects.
In contrast, journalist Tyler Green’s article, “Felix Gonzalez-Torres will represent me in Venice,” speaks to the importance of the artist’s identity as an interpretive opportunity rather than a limitation; the article’s title suggests Green identifies with Gonzalez-Torres in some way.[iii] Green dryly predicts that in response to Gonzalez-Torres’s minority identity, the U.S government “will probably just look the other way and hope that no one notices that the United States is represented by a queer who died of the gay plague,” which suggests that the implications of Gonzalez-Torres’s queer identity will permeate the exhibition despite its lack of formal acknowledgment.[iv] The infiltration of the artist’s identity and its seemingly inevitable inhabitation of the U.S. Pavilion reiterate the unavoidable necessity of actively seeking a balance between universalism and particularism. Extending beyond an art historical context, this negotiation outlines a more democratic model for addressing identity politics within the broader realm of social experience.
The issues that arose from the 2007 Biennale illustrate the impossibility of isolating an individual to an identity category, and alternatively, ignoring the importance of such categorization. Gonzalez-Torres’s work operates in between these two extremes by connecting his audiences through inclusive networks. The connections fostered by such responses constitute a community that reimagines the ways in which identity categories can be perceived and practiced. While the predominant identitarian narratives applied to Gonzalez-Torres’s work are the product of “a society that seems to accept difference only insofar as it is susceptible to classification,” the reinterpretation of this artwork challenges such norms through interpersonal connection, interaction, and collaboration.[v] This more inclusive conception of democracy is indicative of the negatory and negotiatory identity politics inherent to Gonzalez-Torres’s work, and the work’s capacity for social change.
This resonates with Ernesto Laclau’s theories about how contamination between universalism and particularism can create a more accurate, albeit paradoxical, understanding of identity.[vi] No community is entirely homogenous, which means identity categories are always united under a degree of universality.[vii] As a result, Laclau’s conception of the universal does not contain defined content of its own.[viii] Instead, the universal is an empty space to be filled by different particulars, and Gonzalez-Torres’s strategic use of abstraction similarly creates the empty interpretive space that allows universal connections to develop. At the same time, however, the memory of positive identification remains tied to a particular community despite its efforts to appeal to the universal. This discussion of identity therefore relies on difference while attempting to overcome it through universalizing appeals.[ix]
This model allows art historical scholarship to move beyond the influence of Gonzalez-Torres’s identity while maintaining the memory of its significance. The artistic and intellectual exchanges facilitated by art’s enigmatic qualities constitute a democratic understanding of identity. Oppressive hegemony would be significantly destabilized if universalism did not represent a dominant identity category, but instead served as an empty space for communities and identities to interact. What remains is an eternal negotiation whose non-solution is a prerequisite for democracy.[x]
Community made manifest in Contarlo todo sin saber cómo
Contarlo todo sin saber cómo was displayed at the Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo in Madrid, and the exhibition title, translated as Telling Everything, Not Knowing How, could be interpreted as a reflection of the challenges of negotiation between the particular and the universal. While Gonzalez-Torres’s art was not exhibited, his life and work served as a point of departure for the entire exhibition. Curator Martí Manen was primarily concerned with the role of narrative in art, but the exhibition also discussed the relationships and communities that might arise from reactions to and reinterpretations of Gonzalez-Torres’s work. In accordance with his focus on narration, Manen notably wrote a short novel to accompany the exhibition in lieu of a catalogue [Figure 2]. The novel functions as a subjective narrative model; through interpretations provided by the novel’s characters, it guides its readers through predetermined analyses of artwork by Gonzalez-Torres and the exhibited artists.
The narrative follows the lives of two individuals, simply referred to as “he” and “she,” whose relationship is closely bound to their identifications with Gonzalez-Torres’s work. The story begins with the characters’ responses to Gonzalez-Torres’s death in 1996. Their direct engagement with the artist’s legacy¾which includes a replica of Gonzalez-Torres’s sculpture, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)¾uses the artist’s relationship with and representation of Ross as a starting point for the characters’ understandings of the artist’s work, their relationship to his work, and their relationship to each other.
Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) is composed of hard candies wrapped in various colors of cellophane [Figure 3]. The installation initially weighs 175 pounds but its size changes as viewers take candy from the pile. When the amount of candy dwindles, the artwork is replenished. The sculpture makes direct reference to Gonzalez-Torres’s relationship with his late partner Ross Laycock, who succumbed to AIDS-related complications in the year this work was created. The sculpture’s initial weight of 175 pounds represents Laycock’s healthy weight, which dwindles as museum visitors take candy from the pile.[i] The work is at once melancholy yet celebratory, deeply personal yet impersonal; for those who never knew Laycock or Gonzalez-Torres, Ross becomes an empty signifier that invites interpretation from the viewer’s personal relation to love and loss, or any other thoughts the sculpture might evoke.
Such subjective interpretations are developed in the novel Contarlo todo sin saber cómo. In one instance, the female character ponders Ross’s abstract portrait and its implications for studying the work of Gonzalez-Torres: “She has seen a photo of Ross and would rather not have seen it. It is better that Ross is an idea, it is better that even Felix is an idea.”[ii] She rejects Ross’s biographical information and extends this rejection to include the biography of the artist, thereby diminishing the significance of the artist’s identity as well as the identity position that conscribes his biographical relationship to Laycock. Encouraged by her appreciation of Ross’s abstracted identity, the woman continues to cultivate a similarly abstracted image of Gonzalez-Torres. Through this process, Gonzalez-Torres becomes Felix. Gonzalez-Torres’s abstract role in the novel differs from the traditionally close association between the artist’s life and work, and this difference is key to the characters’ connection to his artwork.
This abstract understanding of Ross and Felix is of utmost personal significance for the novel’s characters, though they struggle to articulate its importance:
Their engagement with Ross and Felix’s relationship is a productive, yet problematic, exercise in empathy. The characters’ connection with Ross and Felix encroaches upon the particularities of the couples’ different sexual orientations, but the dialogue between these two couples illustrates how the artwork’s enigmatic qualities function as a space for artistic and political discourse. This connection fosters allyship: the male character is so affected by Ross and Felix’s relationship that he feels compelled to share their story with guests, and it was he who recreated Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) in his dining room.[i] As a heterosexual man, his identification with Ross and Felix reveals a slip in conventional identity categories, which allows Gonzalez-Torres’s work to take on greater personal meaning for individuals of different identities.
The male character’s copy of Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) gives tangible form to one example of the many individual encounters and experiences prompted by Gonzalez-Torres’s work. This appropriation places the sculpture within a heterosexual perspective, and by extension, adapts Ross and Felix’s relationship in this context. This act is both contestable and empowering. The reinterpretation of Gonzalez-Torres’s work blends the particularities of identity with more universal concepts, which fosters dialogue and alliance between disparate communities and individuals. The paradox of blending particularity and universality emerges as Gonzalez-Torres’s art is adapted to serve purposes not directly related to the artist’s own identity, but that nevertheless honor the importance of his lived experience. At the same time, this process necessarily lessens the importance of differences between sexual orientations, nationalities, and other identity categories, which creates the need for constant negotiation between identities.
The predominant focus on Gonzalez-Torres’s identity risks fetishizing the artist, his sexual orientation, and his ethnicity, and it comes at the expense of interpreting his work through other means, such as focusing on its untitled and abstract aspects. These important qualities encourage audience participation without being restricted to particular identities. This practice challenges the positive identifications that oversimplify the artist’s work, and facilitates the creation of new and meaningful connections between diverse communities. For Gonzalez-Torres, this practice allowed him to avoid the censorship that commonly affected other openly gay artists.[i]
Gonzalez-Torres’s successful avoidance of censorship is perhaps best demonstrated by his selection for the 52nd Venice Biennale. The abstract nature of his art ensured its accommodation within the United States Pavilion through its successful use of disidentification, or its simultaneous presence within and outside of hegemonic order. Scholar and queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz coined this term to promote identity negation through “an anti-identitarian identity politics” that operates outside of the positive categorizations of heterosexuality and homosexuality, thus challenging the merits of this dichotomy and any other binary.[ii] Though this practice releases Gonzalez-Torres from the particularism of identity labels, critics’ negative reactions to the 2007 Biennale reveal that his identity cannot be fully separated from his work.
Identity negation and negotiation are balanced as the anonymous characters from the novel Contarlo todo sin saber cómo interpret their relationship through the lives and losses of Felix and Ross. The strong empathetic connection between the two couples and the resultant collapse of the homosexual and heterosexual binary was facilitated by the artist’s solicitation of subjective interpretation and participation. The characters’ mimetic reinterpretation of Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) gives form to the interpersonal ties produced by their engagement with Gonzalez-Torres’s work. The social ramifications of Gonzalez-Torres’s work bring renewed focus to his art’s potential to activate its audience.
These examples of presentation and interpretation reveal the negatory and negotiatory identity politics inherent to Gonzalez-Torres’s work and the work’s capacity for social change. Expanding art analysis and interpretation beyond the presumed objectivity of conventional biographical methods releases the artist’s work from identity labels such as gay, Cuban-American, and HIV-positive, and instead reproduces these distinctions as categorical refusals that are part of a larger project of anti-hegemonic discourse. Renewed engagement with the empty interpretive space provided by Gonzalez-Torres’s work activates personal responses among his audience, the intersections of which cultivate new communities that function within and outside the established order. This reconsideration of art’s relationship to political issues has produced new survival strategies for minority subjects within art historical discourse, and it prompts careful reexamination of abstraction’s ability to serve political aims.
Claire Dillon (’14) is the recipient of numerous grants and awards including the J. Carson Webster Prize for Distinguished Honors Thesis in Art History (2014); Best Poster Presentation in the Humanities, Fine Arts, Political Science, and History at CAURS (2014); Mellon Mays Fellow (2012-2014); and Warnock Travel Grant (2013). She currently works as the Director of Education + Outreach for the Chicago-based non-profit ART WORKS Projects. She also serves as the Editorial Assistant for the publication Art Journal. She hopes in the future to travel to Ireland to earn a Master’s in Medieval Studies before returning to the States to pursue a Ph.D. in Art History.
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