10 December 2012

The Work of Felix Gonzales-Torres (1957-1996) as Discursive Critique

Untitled (Perfect Lovers) 1991

           In his revisionist history of homosexuality in America in the 1970s, Beyond Shame:  Reclaiming the Abandoned History of Radical Gay Sexuality, Patrick Moore deals with the legacy of that period’s greater visibility for homosexuality as it ripples through the social, artistic, and political institutions of the 1980s, 1990s, and today.  In the book, Moore details what he sees as a systematic posthumous erasure of the sexuality of gay artists in the ever-developing art-historical and art-critical discourse.  Citing Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996) as one example of a deceased gay artist whose oeuvre is currently undergoing such erasure, Moore blames the artist for not being vocal enough about his sexuality during his life and thus creating a market-oriented legacy that increasingly hides the artist’s sexual identity.  He implies that Gonzalez-Torres was not open in interviews about having AIDS or having a partner who died of AIDS because of shame and fear.[1]  This criticism of Felix Gonzalez-Torres and his work is very short-sighted in that it does not fully take into account the nature of the work and the aims of Gonzalez-Torres’ project of discursive and institutional critique.
Gonzalez-Torres engaged in a kind of subterfuge, creating visually-pleasing works that appropriated form and technique from several traditions, including Duchampian readymade, Minimalism, and Conceptual Art, to express subjects and sentiments firmly rooted in the artist’s sexual identity.  Whereas artists like Robert Mapplethorpe created confrontational images that explicitly pushed gay sexuality out from behind closed bedroom doors into the public eye, Gonzalez-Torres wanted to “trick” the art world into accepting such sexuality unbeknownst to most.  A larger art-going public will more readily accept “beautiful,” non-controversial objects into the museum or gallery institution setting based solely on their superficial aesthetic level; meanwhile, the gay artist “sneaks in” his accompanying social and political agenda, like a Trojan horse, embodied in often-idyllic, even saccharine forms.  Some critics, like Moore, might argue that this is just making excuses for the artist and his at-times closeted public persona, trying to inject sexual identity where it was not intended by the artist but should have been.  However, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ own words reveal his agenda:
I want to be like a virus that belongs to the institution.  All the ideological apparatuses are… replicating themselves, because that’s the way culture works.  So if I function as a virus, an imposter, an infiltrator, I will always replicate myself together with those institutions.
- Felix Gonzalez-Torres[2]

Patrick Moore need only have looked closely at the artist’s own words, such as those excerpted above, and a small but significant body of literature dealing with his project of discursive critique to understand Gonzalez-Torres’ approach to dealing with sexual identity in his art-making.

Untitled 1991

            For example, while still an M.A. candidate in Art History at Washington University in St. Louis, Elliott Zooey Martin published an essay on Gonzalez-Torres’ investigation of the public and private spheres in his work.  In “Felix Gonzalez-Torres and the Interrogation of the Public Sphere,” Martin restates the artist’s questioning of a clear division, as has been often institutionally imposed, between public” and “private” and details his utilization of Minimalist techniques to expose the inconsistencies within that discourse.[3]   Gonzalez-Torres appropriated forms of public address, such as advertising billboards or even the public art museum, in order to “broadcast” images of an intimate nature, showing the arbitrary line between the two.  His billboards depicting a bed and two pillows with near-identical indentations where heads once rested reiterate the very public nature (through legislation discriminating against homosexual activities or same-sex marriages, for example) of a once-assumed private realm:  the bedroom.
            Similarly, Suzanne Perling Hudson tackles Gonzalez-Torres’ critique of the complex interrelationship between art and criticism in her essay, “Beauty and the Status of Contemporary Criticism,” which was published in October while she was still a doctoral student at Princeton UniversityHudson identifies a certain tendency in artistic production of the past couple of decades, along with its attendant counterpart in criticism—a “return of the aesthetic,” as she phrases it:
Beauty, that most conciliatory of philosophical rubrics and justifications, is back with a vengeance, while beautiful writing about beautiful objects and their beautiful makers additionally denotes the triumph of academic philosophy as well as the democratization of the no-longer autonomous and privileged realm of the aesthetic.[4]

Hudson argues that Gonzalez-Torres was able to subvert a critical and moral backlash against his AIDS-activist art by cloaking his work in beauty during a period of art discourse when work was being valued for its aesthetic merits, rather than its meaning.  Continually making reference in the essay to the inextricable relationship between the artist’s sexual consciousness and his art regardless of the surface appearance of that art, Hudson disproves Moore’s claim of erasure of Gonzalez-Torres’ sexual identity from art-historical discourse.
            It is clear in the article that Hudson recognizes Felix Gonzalez-Torres as strategically working within systems of institutionalized power, such as the museum, commercial printing, or mainstream advertising billboards, in order to appropriate them for his own purposes.  This process reflects the artist’s knowledge of the writings of Michel Foucault (1926-1984), one of the originators of contemporary discursive critique.  For Foucault, power is not something exerted from an external source in order to oppress, but a complex interrelated web of relationships that require manipulation from within.  Many of Foucault’s writings chronicle the development of social and political institutions such as medical clinics and prisons, reveal how those institutions dominate the flow of discourse, and uncover the relationships of power inherent in each.  Gonzalez-Torres read Foucault, a fellow homosexual intellectual who died from an AIDS-related illness, passionately and the French philosopher’s theories can be found at the heart of the later, Cuban-born artist’s project.

Untitled (America) 1994

            In general, though, writings of a more art-critical nature eschew discussion of the theoretical underpinnings of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work in favor of surveys of formal consideration and technique, with only casual mention of the artist’s sexuality, if at all.  For example, Robert Storr’s article “Setting Traps for the Mind and Heart,” published in Art in America around the time of the artist’s death, never refers to “institutional analysis” or “discursive analysis.”  It is not clear in his writing if Storr even recognizes the artist as having engaged in such an approach with his work.  Rather, Storr attempts to anchor the artist within established artistic traditions, most notably Minimalism, in order to authenticate and legitimize the work.[5] 
Jan Avgikos’ article “This is My Body,” published in Artforum in 1991 relies on a similar survey strategy tying Gonzalez-Torres to the Minimalist lineage, and yet is very forthright about the artist’s sexual orientation.  She, in fact, sees the artist and others of his generation working in the legacy of Minimalism as veering significantly from “first-generation” Minimalists of the late 1960s and 1970s such as Donald Judd and Richard Serra by “fetishizing the ‘body’ of the Minimalist object as gendered and erotic.”[6]  Avgikos, like Hudson, disproves Moore’s claims of erasure of sexual orientation in the discourse surrounding Gonzalez-Torres by viewing his art as inseparable from his sexual consciousness.  Thus even less academic writing, published through more popular channels like Art in America and Artforum, deals directly with homosexual identity as central to the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres.
            To attack the artist for allegedly hiding his gay sexual identity, such as Patrick Moore does, is not only futile but possibly ethically questionable, as the artist is no longer alive to defend himself.  An ever-growing monument to the artist, the sexual component of his work, and his project of discursive critique, the art-historical and art-critical writings published concerning Gonzalez-Torres stand alone as defense against such misperceptions.  From survey pieces focused on the form and technique of the work, like those of Jan Avgikos and Robert Storr, to more theoretically-charged works like those of Elliott Zooey Martin and Suzanne Perling Hudson, all writing about the artist ultimately serves his own purposes of enmeshing himself and his work deep within the institution of art discourse, where he can posthumously dismantle and rework it from within.

[1] Patrick Moore, Beyond Shame: Reclaiming the Abandoned History of Radical Gay Sexuality (Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 2004), 168.
[2] Felix Gonzalez-Torres in Ad Reinhardt, Joseph Kosuth, and Feliz Gonzalez-Torres. Symptoms of Interference, Conditions of Possibility (London, United Kingdom: Camden Arts Centre, 1994), 76.
[3] Elliott Zooey Martin, “Felix Gonzalez-Torres and the Interrogation of the Public Sphere,” Chicago Art Journal 15, (2005): 18.
[4] Suzanne Perling Hudson, “Beauty and the Status of Contemporary Criticism,” October no. 104 (Spring, 2003): 117.
[5] Robert Storr, “Setting Traps for the Mind and Heart,” Art in America 84, no. 1 (Jan., 1996): 76.
[6] Jan Avgikos, “This is My Body,” Artforum 29, no. 6 (Feb., 1991): 81.

Selected Bibliography

Ault, Julie, ed.  Felix Gonzalez-Torres.  GöttingenGermany:  Steidl, 2006.

Avgikos, Jan.  “This is My Body.”  Artforum 29, no. 6 (Feb., 1991):  79-83.

Clearwater, Bonnie.  Defining the Nineties:  Consensus-making in New YorkMiami, and Los   Angeles.  MiamiFlorida:  Museum of Contemporary Art, 1996.

Elger, Dietmar.  Catalogue RaisonnĂ©.  OstfildernGermany:  Cantz, 1997. 

Felix Gonzalez-Torres.  Felix Gonzalez-Torres:  America.  New YorkNew York:  Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2007.

Ho, Christopher.  “Within and Beyond:  Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s ‘Crowd.’”  Performing Arts Journal 23, no. 1 (Jan., 2001):  1-17.

Horn, Roni, ed.  Felix Gonzalez-Torres.  MunichGermany:  Sammlung Goetz, 1995.

Hudson, Suzanne Perling.  “Beauty and the Status of Contemporary Criticism.”  October no. 104 (Spring, 2003):  115-130.

Martin, Elliott Zooey.  “Felix Gonzalez-Torres and the Interrogation of the Public Sphere.”  Chicago Art Journal 15, (2005):  16-29.

Moore, Patrick.  Beyond Shame:  Reclaiming the Abandoned History of Radical Gay Sexuality.  BostonMassachusetts:  Beacon Press, 2004.

Reinhardt, Ad, Joseph Kosuth, and Feliz Gonzalez-Torres.  Symptoms of Interference, Conditions of Possibility.  LondonUnited Kingdom:  Camden Arts Centre, 1994.

Robinson, Deborah.  “in memoriam.”  In in memoriam:  22 November 2000 – 21 January 2001.  WalsallUnited Kingdom:  The New Art Gallery Walsall, 2000.

Spector, Nancy.  Felix Gonzalez-Torres.  New YorkNew York:  Guggenheim Museum Publications, 1995.

Storr, Robert.  “Setting Traps for the Mind and Heart.”  Art in America 84, no. 1 (Jan., 1996):  70-77.

Woo, Janice.  “Indexing:  At Play in the Fields of Postmodernism.”  Visual Resources 10, no. 3 (1994):  283-293.

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