The public life of Felix Gonzalez-Torres
December 1 marks the 10th anniversary of Day Without Art, an
event that commemorates the life and work of hundreds of artists
killed by AIDS. One was New York-based artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres,
whose public billboards and take-home prints forged a charged
connection between public dissemination and private ownership,
popular discourse and rarified art theory, between the daily lives
of gay Americans and the right-wing maelstrom sweeping the country
in the epidemic's early years.
The last time I saw my friends Felix and his lover, Ross
Laycock, together was in a huge pile of candy on a museum floor in
New York City. The total weight of the thousands of shimmering,
silver, foil-wrapped candies was equal to that of the two men
combined. Visitors to this installation that Felix created for the
Whitney Museum's 1991 Biennial Exhibition were invited to take
pieces of the candy, and as they did, the pile slowly dwindled -- a
metaphor for the gradual dissipation of two lives. "I wanted to make
an artwork that could disappear," Felix said in 1995, a year before
his death. Much of his artwork addressed this simple idea -- the
multiple prints that museum-goers carried away, the candy spills.
Felix called these, along with his text-based "portraits" made up of
names and dates, "informational fragments," "private revelations in
a public context."
The first time I saw Ross and Felix together was at a cocktail party in
Manhattan in 1983. The two had met a week before and were already
deeply in love. It was obvious that Ross, an inseparable friend of
mine since our teenage years in Canada, had finally found a man of
substance. Ross and Felix's intense relationship played itself out
during the Reagan era, a time of great difficulty for many, in
particular gay men and lesbians. It was also, for some of us, a time
of great creativity and profound personal change, of vibrant
activism centered on a seemingly uncontrollable epidemic. Of his
art, Felix defiantly stated, "This work is about my rejection of the
imposed and established order."
I remember marching with Ross and Felix in the 1989 New York Gay
Pride parade -- Ross by then thin and fatigued, Felix screaming at
the Christian Coalition counterdemonstrators and me running to find
bottled water for Ross's medication. As the marchers spilled onto
Christopher Street, near the Stonewall Bar where riots 20 years
earlier had signaled the launch of the gay rights movement, we
passed under a massive billboard that Felix had installed as a
commemoration. The sign placed our lives squarely in a long history
of struggle against misunderstanding and aggression.
Ross died a year and a half later. He asked to be cremated and to
have his ashes separated into 100 sealed plastic bags. That way
Felix could leave bits of Ross, his "only audience," his "public of
one," wherever he traveled.
Felix scattered traces of Ross throughout his artwork in the ensuing years
before Felix, too, succumbed to a barrage of AIDS-related illnesses
in 1996. Ross appears as one of a pair of synchronized wall clocks
whose batteries will expire at different times; as a single light
bulb on a cord titled "March 5," Ross's birthday; as a billboard
photograph of a clean white bed with two pillows bearing the
impressions of lovers' heads.
Felix stated that "each of us perceives things according to who
and how we are at particular junctures." In Felix's work, his
personal history is inextricably linked to a shared gay one. His art
represents stolen lives, lost friends, uncaring political
leadership, but it also conjures up two robust and beautiful young
lovers, walking together in the snow on a cold Canadian winter day
or fighting over sections of the Sunday New York Times and
laughing hysterically -- always laughing.