30 November 2012

“Untitled” (Portrait of the Cincinnati Art Museum), 1994, Felix Gonzalez-Torres

As originally installed in the Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA

As exhibited in November 2000 at The New Art Gallery Walsall, Walsall, UK.

Currently:  Front Lobby, Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA
Installed:  Tuesday, 14 March – Friday, 17 March 1994 in the Barnhorn / Alice and Harris Weston Gallery (303) of the Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA
Represented by:  Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York, New York, USA


Elger, Dietmar.  Catalogue Raisonné.  Ostfildern bei Stuttgart, Germany:  Cantz, 1997.  131.
Gonzalez-Torres, Felix and Robert Storr.  “Interview mit Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Teil II – 13. December 1994.”  In Felix Gonzalez-Torres.  Ed.  Roni Horn.  Munich, Germany:  Sammlung Goetz, 1995.  24.
Kwon, Miwon.  “The Becoming of a Work of Art:  FGT and a Possibility of Renewal, a Chance to Share, a Fragile Truce.”  In Felix Gonzalez-Torres.  Ed.  Julie Ault.  Göttingen, Germany:  Steidl, 2006.  314.
Robinson, Deborah.  “in memoriam.”  In in memoriam:  22 November 2000 – 21 January 2001.  Walsall, UK:  The New Art Gallery Walsall, 2000.  13.
Spector, Nancy.  “Travel as Metaphor.”  In Felix Gonzalez-Torres.  Ed.  Julie Ault.  Göttingen, Germany:  Steidl, 2006.  267.


in memoriam.  The New Art Gallery Walsall, Walsall, UK.  22 November 2000 – 21 January 2001.

From the Certificate of Authenticity/Ownership:

A portrait consisting of words and numbers (events and their dates)… Ideal installation:  this text is to be painted directly on a wall(s) just below the point where the wall meets the ceiling, in metallic silver paint on a background color to the owner’s liking, in Trump Medieval Bold Italic typeface.  If necessary, the size of the text may be altered to fit the available wall space each time this work is re-installed.

The current installation of the work in the front lobby has the list of events and dates arranged in two rows of text that completely circle the lobby in a band just below the ceiling and just above a decorative molding near the top of the walls.

Although the certificate of ownership stipulates that dates can be added and removed as the museum sees fit, the current installation matches the original list faxed by the artist to the museum during the commissioning process.  That list is as follows:

Though this list presents the possibility of a “correct order” in which the dates should be read, the installation forms a continuous circle with no clear beginning point and no clear end.  As the dates are not in chronological order (or, indeed, any apparent order), the assumption is that the viewer may begin reading at any point.

Biographical Sketch

            Felix Gonzalez-Torres was born 26 November 1957 in Güaimaro, Cuba but moved to Puerto Rico at age 13.  He studied art at the Universidad de Puerto Rico, where he won a fellowship to study at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York in 1979.  After receiving a B.F.A. from the Pratt Institute in 1983, he attended the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program.  It was also this year that the artist met Ross Laycock, who would become his partner and an influential figure in his work.  Gonzalez-Torres began collaborating with a collective of artists called Group Material in 1987, the same year he received his M.F.A. from the International Center for Photography at New York University.  Receiving fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts in 1989 and 1993, his work appeared in several high-profile exhibitions during his brief career, including those at Andrea Rosen Gallery in 1990 (which continues to represent his work), the Whitney Biennial (1991), the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1992), and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (1994).  Ross Laycock died of AIDS in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in 1991, a tragedy that would fuel much of Gonzalez-Torres’ work after this period.  In 1995, a retrospective of his ouvre was mounted at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.  On 9 January 1996, Felix Gonzalez-Torres died of AIDS in Miami, Florida.


            “Untitled” (Portrait of the Cincinnati Art Museum), commissioned in 1995 by the museum upon the recommendation of then-curator Jean Feinberg, is typical of the artist’s other word portrait or dateline pieces, and yet remains a singular work of conceptual art.  Like the others, this work consists of a series of dates and events arranged in no apparent order; however, this list is unique to the museum and to the artist.  Born of a collaborative process between the two, the list combines suggestions specifically made by and related to the museum with dates chosen by the artist.  The result is a mixture of events that places the history of the Cincinnati Art Museum within a larger cultural milieu.  Also intersected here is the life of Gonzalez-Torres, as well as the lives of museum-goers as they read the events and recognize those of significance to them personally.  What appears as a simple list of words and numbers is truly a complex conceptual piece that subtly interacts with the museum visitor.
            The current physical presentation of the list is largely arbitrary; the paint on the walls of the museum is not the “art” of the work.  In fact, the artist was not present during the installation of the piece and only made provision for an “ideal situation” as to how the work should be installed in his contract with the museum.  A commercial sign company, Brushworks, was commissioned by the museum to install the piece originally in one of the contemporary galleries.  As text, the list of events could be endlessly reproduced in any setting, thus negating the idea of the piece as unique, valuable art object.  As stated in the Certificate of Ownership/Authenticity accompanying the work in the museum’s curatorial files, it may be exhibited off-site while simultaneously installed in its “authentic” museum setting.  “Untitled” (Portrait of the Cincinnati Art Museum) was exhibited as such in November 2000 by The New Art Gallery Walsall in Walsall, England.  Here, the list of dates was reproduced using vinyl lettering on a wall in the gallery, ranged in a single register of text.  This second concurrent copy of the text did nothing to diminish the uniqueness of the Cincinnati Art Museum’s “original.”  The ownership of the concept, transferred from the artist to the institution, constitutes the “original work.”
            In effect, though, we are all owners of this piece.  While we read through the list of dates, certainly many will have little or no meaning for us; however, most can identify with some of the pop culture references or political references which serve to stitch us collectively as a culture into the work.  Our individual memories and collective history become necessary operational devices in the functioning of the word portrait.  It does not come to life until it is read and filtered through a viewer’s rational processes.  Therefore, although we are confronted with the physical presence of the arrangement of letters and numbers painted on a wall, they are arbitrary in and of themselves.  It is not until they are decoded and recognized as significant in some way by an individual that the art truly exists.  The list is not simply a portrait of the museum, as the parenthetical title denotes, but a portrait of everyone who takes the time to read through its dates and events.  As long as museum-goers continue to do so, it will remain an engaging and significant piece in the collection of the Cincinnati Art Museum.


This is the artist’s signature as it appears on the Certificate of Authenticity/Ownership. 
His signature does not actually appear with the installation itself.

28 November 2012

Threads of Revolution: Clothing and Costume in Duck Soup

Style of dress can connote many different ideas about the wearer to the observer, both demographic (e.g. socio-economic status, occupation, age, and gender) and psychographic (e.g. attitude, sense of style, and personality).  The association of particular apparel with these characteristics has arisen largely arbitrarily over time.  Complicating these associations, one generally self-selects one’s clothing based on a perceived self-image or an image that he or she wishes to project, rather than as a true indication of these qualities.  In Duck Soup (dir. Leo McCarey, 1933), the Marx Brothers and the film’s writers seem to have been aware of the absurdity of the superficial links between clothing and humanity.  These artists deliberately chose dress as one of their many loci of revolution in the film.
            The filmmakers challenged audience expectations by sudden interventions in common, everyday use of dress.  From the very first screen appearance of Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly, one becomes aware that a realistic depiction of the use of clothes and how they operate will not be relied upon in the film:  Firefly emerges from bed in a nightshirt and quickly strips it off to reveal a dark suit.  Such ease of transformation in physical appearance is generally not possible in reality, but this filmic act reinforces traditional ideas about certain dress being expected for certain occasions.  In this case, it is how Firefly shifts between modes of dress that subverts expectations, not the clothes themselves or their on-screen functionality.

            In other scenes, however, the Marx Brothers severed the ties between articles of clothing and their established uses, in effect divorcing signifiers from that which they once signified.  In a lengthy barrage of sight gags, Pinkie (Harpo Marx) and Chicolini (Chico Marx) make ridiculous the scheming ambassador from Sylvania, who has hired them to spy on Firefly.  These bodily “attacks” on the ambassador include Pinkie cutting off the official’s coattails with a giant pair of shears and spreading paste on the seat of his pants.  The official’s uniform of formal dress, indicative of his station and occupation, becomes one of several locations of playful dissidence and insubordination.
            Hats, too, served as the props of many of the Marx Brothers’ sight gags and, in tandem, targets in their battle against convention.  In one scene, Chicolini and Pinkie get into a fight with a man operating a lemonade stand and in the course of the fight a rapid-fire series of hat changes between the three occurs.  Pinkie, at one point wearing a dunce cap in the shuffle, eventually destroys the lemonade salesman’s hat by setting it afire inside Chicolini’s peanut cart.  Hats may serve the practical purpose of protection against weather, but typically they are worn as social convention.  Here, the destruction of the hat provides yet another image of the overturning of social convention, using the commonplace in an unusual way.

            In one sequence, both Chicolini and Pinkie dress in a nightshirt and nightcap to impersonate Firefly.  Three characters have exactly the same outward appearance and two of those characters engage in a lengthy mimicry of one another, which is comedic, and yet strangely unsettling.  The two imposters are incapable of sustaining the ruse for very long and eventually shed their disguises and return to their former physical appearances.  This use of doubling and mirroring draws attention to the ways in which we use clothing to conceal aspects of our personality or physical form and also how we use it to assume properties or characteristics that are not inherent.

            Perhaps the most complex and ridiculous use of costume in the film comes near the end, during the battle scenes between Freedonia and Sylvania.  Firefly assumes military uniform, as befitting the battle, however it changes constantly, completely subverting the general continuity of the other elements of the film.  In one shot he wears a Civil War uniform, in another a Revolutionary War uniform, in another a coonskin cap and leather gear, and so on.  In this scene from Duck Soup, and those already mentioned, the Marx Brothers ruthlessly ridiculed the costumes and accoutrements of war, and in doing so war itself becomes ridiculous.  They were revolutionaries, but their battles were fought in movie theatres, rather than conventional theatres of war.

25 November 2012

More husband hijinx

I haven't had much success in crowd-sourcing a new ad for my husbrand. My friend, Ryan, has helped with some wording, but I was hoping for buy-in from a lot more people. I need people to believe.

So, until I can raise enough interest to complete a second ad, I have created an Amazon wishlist to make it easy to gift me with exactly what I want. Mail order spouses are a thing of the past, now that the Internet makes shopping such a cinch!

A preview of my Amazon wishlist.

Cisco Disco

Sunday, February 8, 1993 1:41 a.m.

Tonight's entertainment comes in the form of a Cisco Disco party, thrown by the girlfriend of my buddy J_____ from work, at her Old Louisville apartment. Mostly girly-girls and athlete dudes there; J_____ plays football and this is his milieu. Everyone is drinking a cheap, fruity, thick wine called Cisco and dancing poorly to bad 70's music. The steam heat of the top-floor apartment has everyone stripping off their winter wardrobes, even with a living room window cracked. Maybe it's the pheromones.

I am a little uncomfortable because, while there are a couple of soccer players here who I recognize from a gay bar downtown, I really only know two people including J_____. His girlfriend is not the other-- J_____ is the one who invited me, probably without her knowledge. She's cordial in a "I'll put up with you being here because you're his friend and I have to for the sake of the relationship" sort of way. I respond in the way most natural to me: I drink. Quite a lot. To a point where eventually I have to plant myself on her hand-me-down couch, bottle of strawberry Cisco in hand. I sit there for the remainder of the night watching the sweaty, off-beat, writhing mess of libidos permutate before me.

The other person at the party who I know is also a co-worker. Jason P_____, who works in the kitchen at Spag, plops down on the couch beside me and says, charmingly, "Your primary directive is to get drunk. Your secondary-- to get laid." We had both already become highly accomplished in the first directive. He is working stealthily on the second, his eyes stumbling around the room and bumping into every girl there. My own rapid survey of the room confirms that I won't be meeting the second directive tonight, at least not with anyone at this party. 

None of the girly-girls-- all make-up, inebriation, and hairspray-- do a thing for me. My work buddies are the most attractive people here: Jason P_____ is good-looking, small with dark hair and J_____ is all muscle, ginger hair, and visible charisma. But, they're both out of the question and neither has ever expressed any interest in me, anyway. I look over at the two soccer players I've seen drinking and dancing at the Connection and speculate briefly on the viability of taking either home tonight. I quickly dismiss the idea, as it seems likely they're together. They're not making out or anything-- it's just that they haven't separated since they got here, and I suspect their close proximity to one another is going to continue through the rest of the night, on into the bedroom.

I take a swig from my bottle. It tastes like a strawberry Slush Puppy, minus the slush, plus medicated cough syrup. I resign to sneak out as soon as Jason P_____ moves from the couch and no longer notices me. But, he's been sitting here a while and now I'm wondering if maybe he can't get up. Wait, what if I can't get up? I had better try. I pull myself to my feet.

"Are you leaving?" Jason P_____ stands, surprisingly easier than I expected. Easier than me, in fact.

"Yeah. I have to get up in time to do some homework tomorrow before I work dinner."

"You taking that bottle with you?" I hand the half-full bottle of strawberry mouthwash to him, which he downs in a single gulp, "I work dinner, too. See you there."


I don't see him at work that night. The back of the house manager says he's in the hospital for alcohol poisoning. Wonder if he met his secondary directive before landing there. Or maybe while.

24 November 2012

Back when the name "Hanna(h)" would make you think "Barbera," not "Montana"

I've been thinking a lot about cartoons lately. So much so that I'm thinking in cartoons, a flickering parade of animated images, projected against opaque white thought bubbles.

And those images that dance before me are the ultimate examples of "Disneying" narrative, reducing every story to a moral duality of good versus evil, love conquering hate. Cartoons were Hanna(h) Montanaing children's entertainment long before Billy Ray ever had a glint of lust in his eyes. The white-washing typically occurred in story, with sanitized plots and simple situational comedy. The studios turned the occasional blind eye to cartoons tackling the real issues, like law enforcement's extended investigation into a string of pick-a-nick basket larcenies. These were, however, exceptional. For the most part, cartoons were a lesson in justice served and evil punished.

Perhaps the greatest dumbing down of material in childrens' entertainment occurred in character. Most of the cartoon characters from my childhood were nothing but stereotypes. Looney Toons was filled with them. Foghorn Leghorn was nothing but a good ol' ill-bred, poorly-educated, down-home country hick. Speedy Gonzalez, his own thick, Spanish accent and vocabulary presented for laughs, was accompanied by his lazy cousin, Slowpoke Rodriguez. And, clearly, Pepe Le Pew was a sexual harasser. That cat never wanted his advances.

Hanna(h) Barbera characters had even less subtlety. Huckleberry Hound, although a sheriff in the Old West, for some reason had the slow stigmatic drawl of the deep south. Honk Kong Fooey's every screen entrance was accompanied by a reverberating gong. Snagglepuss was pink, had a lisp, spent part of the day in a cage, and dressed like a Chippendales dancer. No, he wasn't gay.

Stop-motion animation has also been on my mind, but not because of a tendency toward indoctrinating the idea that the Other can be neatly divided into types and is here to entertain us. Animation is really a time-elimination operation. Not just any time is eliminated, however, but a specific kind of time: non-narrative time. This is the time unfolding in-between the key beats of narrative; this is a liminal time. Non-narrative time necessarily produces narrative time, which is nothing but a spine of sought-out and connected beats, key moments, form. Non-narrative time is real time, measurable in labor and production, and yet it is time that we discard, suppress, willingly forget, sacrifice to the narrative. It's time that exists, but that is literally obscene ("off-scene") in hopes that it will not attract our attention. We're complicit in this operation; we don't want to experience non-narrative time because it reveals the illusion and obscures the spectacle. 

Narrative time is time made spectacular, cut down to the interesting and entertaining bits. It's time edited. It's the product of labor, the strip-mining of coal while looking for diamonds. All else is discarded because the only part that is of value to us is the diamond, the pleasurable illusion, the gem of story. And then, only valuable to us until the next diamond is brought to the surface, followed by the next, in a prescripted cause and effect chain, a diamond choker. It is an order imposed, and the result presented for our distracting entertainment.

The persistence of vision, the illusion upon which animation, and spectacle, is based, has its counterpart in narrative. While our mind blinks to obscure non-narrative time, the imprint of our last beat of narrative time remains there, a distraction from the labors of non-narrative time. It fades only slightly before we're presented with the next beat of narrative time to hold in mind and provide a distracting spectacle. We grasp onto the narrative image, forgetting that the flow of time continues until it becomes time to replace our current narrative image with the next.

We might, however, form our own connective patterns if we can survey the whole timeline. Searching from outside of time, we might find a natural pulse, organic, rather than one constructed and imposed. We, instead of ignoring non-narrative time, might examine it closely enough to recognize Aristotle's unity of time is characteristic of all time. All time is narrative. Not all narrative time has to be spectacular, however. Perhaps if we, as audience, choose for ourselves the key moments of time, the beats, the form, perhaps if we become our own narrators rather than accepting the narrative time that has been selected for us and presented to us as a distraction from the real, then, maybe then, we have the antidote to spectacular time.

To counteract spectacular time, we have to step out of time, in an off-rhythm, syncopated marching to Thoreau's drummer or a wild and spasmodic Butoh dance. We must play with all our being, and not accept leisure time as our time. We have to play and we have to laugh.