How Felix Gonzalez-Torres and contemporary art provide answers to that age-old question, "What Is Love?".
by Alex Nagorski
Haddaway challenges the masses with this provocative 1993 hit
One of my favorite things to do in New York is museum hop. Despite never having really picked up a paintbrush myself (outside of my 8th grade art classroom), I’ve always felt a magnetic pull towards art galleries. Specifically galleries containing contemporary/postmodern art.
When I was still in college, I missed an audition for a play I really wanted to try out for because I wanted to make sure I made it to New York to go to the Whitney Biennial before it was over. I’ve been counting down the months until Kim Cogan’s solo show at the Gallery Henoch in September. But why am I so in love with these types of art?
My mother is an art fiend as well, but her definition of art is strictly classical. I grew up in a house full of Klimt and Van Gogh replicas, prints of Baxt costume designs, and Botticelli posters. And while these were beautiful, they didn’t speak to me the way that the photography of Gregory Crewdson or a multimedia project by Miranda July or Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn do.
Perhaps it is because with contemporary art, I feel that artists (more often than not) invite their audiences to participate in the work. What you see hanging on the wall of the museum is not the finished product – rather it is your reaction to the work and what you take away from it long after the gallery doors have locked for the night that becomes the art.
A Rembrandt painting is undoubtedly beautiful, but how much room for interpretation do these paintings really offer? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not in any way trying to devalue this type of art, but what really inspires and moves me is art that challenges its audiences to be present in it. Art that forces you to dig deep within yourself and examine the world you inhabit in order for your own definition of what the piece you’re looking at means to you.
Take for instance the exquisite work of one of my favorite artists, Felix Gonzalez-Torres. His primary muse was one that centuries of artists before him had used: love. But it was not until I saw Gonzalez-Torres’ work that I related what I believe love to be with a piece of artwork. For the first time, it was not as though I was looking at a painting of two people holding hands on a park bench trying to relate to the feelings the subjects had, but instead had a raw, visceral connection to the work I was seeing.
In 1988’s “Untitled” (Lovers), Gonzalez-Torres simply took two clocks, set them for the exact same time, down to the millisecond, and placed them directly next to one another. Initially seeming to only have denotative value, the piece in fact harbors a heavy connotative definition of love within its minimalist context.
This was the first piece of art about love that I had ever seen that made me feel like I understood what being in love felt like for the artist. The setting of the clocks to the exact same time displays how Gonzalez-Torres believes that being in love creates a synchronization of two different beings. These were two clocks that were originally not on the exact same setting. They were certainly not previously displayed directly next to one another to the point of touching.
By changing them to be on the same setting and erasing the space between them, however, Gonzalez-Torres created a piece that so simply yet brilliantly conveys the feeling of unity that comes with being in love. The same way that lovers come from different places, backgrounds, etc., these clocks represent how two human beings can come together to form a coalition of harmonized co-existence. With this piece, it is clear that Gonzalez-Torres defines love as the coming together of two individuals and creating a mutually exclusive team.
In his piece “Untitled” (Placebo), 1991, Gonzalez-Torres created a work that represented the bond and sense of intertwined beings that he felt two people in love share. Using the combined weights of himself and his lover Ross Laycock, this piece was an instillation of (approximately four hundred pounds worth of) pieces of identical candy that could be arranged within the museum space as desired by the curator.
Although Gonzalez-Torres used himself and his partner as his prime examples, it is important to note that this piece does not specifically apply to only them, but rather the broader subject of love in general. The candy does not have portraits, photos, or names on the wrappers, thereby not restricting whose love this piece is about. While yes, to the artist, it is personal, but to an audience, it is universally applicable.
In addition to allowing the audience to substitute themselves and their loved ones in for Gonzalez-Torres and Laycock, “Untitled” (Placebo) also invites its spectators to have an incredibly active role within the creation of the piece. Gonzalez-Torres would simply ship the candy to museums in a box with the simple instructions to arrange it however the curators would see fit. This could be anything from a long stretched out shape composed of individual candies to merely a large pile in the corner of a room. Already, the museum and curators were far more involved in creating the piece than they traditionally were.
This by default becomes a cumulative project, as the curators set the piece up in a way that best exemplifies their personal perceptions of the definition of love. Therefore, what the audience sees when they walk in is not just how Gonzalez-Torres thinks of love, but also how the space they are inside interprets it.
However, it is not only the museum that has a say in how this love is physically represented in this piece. The audience plays an integral role in allowing “Untitled” (Placebo) to achieve the masterful and poetic justice it deserves. When people are viewing the piece, they are allowed to move the candy. They can rearrange it, pocket it, eat it on the spot, etc. What Gonzalez-Torres accomplishes by giving the viewers of his art this type of power is showcasing how universal love is. Although everyone may define or interpret it differently, it is something that has an undeniably universal presence – whether on a subconscious level or not.
By granting permission to his audience to become a part of the piece, not only does Gonzalez-Torres prove this point, but he also is able to show the claim that the concept of love does not discriminate. This piece both brilliantly and beautifully shows that love is not restricted to certain races, classes, sexual orientations, religions, or communities, as it is something that transcends all those boundaries. It is something that everyone is a part of despite all other sociopolitical factors that may be ingredients to prejudice in other aspects of life.
Additionally, as a gay artist, Gonzalez-Torres is able to assert an activist stance by showing that the love between him and his partner is just as valid, real, pure, and gorgeous as the love of any other two non-homosexual people.
Gonzalez-Torres was a minimalist if ever there was one. In fact, many people have criticized his work for being too basic. “Well I can do that too” has been a response I’ve heard from too many people that has irked me every time I’ve tried to introduce them to his work. But it is the type of love that Gonzalez-Torres demonstrates in his work that provides the type of resonance that I believe art should have on its audiences.
So to anyone who wants to gallery hop with me and find the next Felix Gonzalez-Torres, my shoes are already on and I’m ready to go.