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PRINT/OUT: FELIX GONZALEZ-TORRES

Print/Out: Felix Gonzalez-Torres

Felix Gonzalez-Torres. “Untitled.” 1991. Billboard, dimensions vary with installation. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Werner and Elaine Dannheisser. © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, New York. Installation view at 11th Avenue and 38th Street, Manhattan (February 20–March 18, 2012), as part of Print/Out, The Museum of Modern Art, February 19–May 14, 2012. Photo by David Allison

Perhaps you were one of the lucky ones to stumble across these billboards in New York City over the last several weeks?

Felix Gonzalez-Torres. “Untitled.” 1991. Billboard, dimensions vary with installation. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Werner and Elaine Dannheisser. © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, New York. Installation view at Neptune Avenue and Guider Avenue, Brooklyn (February 20–March 18, 2012), as part of Print/Out, The Museum of Modern Art, February 19–May 14, 2012. Photo by David Allison

Between February 20 and March 18, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (1991) peppered the New York skyline, on six billboards throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. With locations ranging from 10th Avenue near the Javits Center to the far corners of Brighton Beach, the work reached diverse populations and altered the associated media landscapes. The provocative yet ambiguous image on each—an enlarged black-and-white photograph of the artist’s recently shared double bed—stood out amid the text-heavy advertising signage that dominates the city. Devoid of the text, logos, or captions typically associated with billboards, this work summoned a second look or even a momentary pause, the introspective quality of the image bringing a perceptible stillness to the surrounding bustle of the city.

Gonzalez-Torres’s work is part of the current exhibition Print/Out (through May 14), which examines the role of prints in contemporary art over the last two decades. The show focuses on the function of prints today: how artists have reinterpreted the defining characteristics of the medium—reproducibility, collaboration, and ease of circulation—and incorporated these trademarks into their larger practices.

In a series of posts over the next few weeks, I’ll look at three of the exhibition’s featured projects, each of which expands beyond the walls of the Museum. One of the earliest works in the show, Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled”, provides a great starting point. Marking the entrance to the exhibition, a billboard-scale enlargement of the photograph (realized here as wallpaper) establishes the work’s connection to the show and also signals its relationship to the city beyond.

Installation view of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled.” 1991. On view in the exhibition Print/Out at The Museum of Modern Art, February 19–May 14, 2012. Billboard, dimensions vary with installation. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Werner and Elaine Dannheisser. © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, New York. Photo by Thomas Griesel

Throughout his work, Gonzalez-Torres (American, born Cuba. 1957–1996) questioned the notion of the unique art object, making series of works based on identical pairs (two clocks ticking side-by-side, two mirrors embedded in a wall) or finding inspiration in the possibilities of endless reproducibility (stacks of sheets as give-aways for visitors, piles of candy to be continually replenished). He wanted his work to be disseminated, to exist in multiple places at the same time, and to be realized completely only through the participation of the viewer, which he described as “one enormous collaboration with the public,” in which the “pieces just disperse themselves like a virus that goes to many different places—homes, studios, shops, bathrooms, whatever.” Reproducibility, collaboration, and circulation—sound familiar? His particular approach, which has been enormously influential for contemporary artistic practice, also made Gonzalez-Torres an essential presence in Print/Out.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres. “Untitled” (Death by Gun). 1990. Print on paper, endless copies. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchased in part with funds from Arthur Fleischer, Jr. and Linda Barth Goldstein. © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, New York

Felix Gonzalez-Torres. “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers). 1991. Clocks, paint on wall. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the Dannheisser Foundation © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, New York

 

For Gonzalez-Torres, art was an effective means of addressing social concerns—even more so when it could be multiplied. Inhabiting the familiar forms of Minimalism and post-Minimalism with his stacks and floor pieces, the artist embedded subtle but insistent references to current issues, from political violence to gay rights. In billboard projects like “Untitled”, the artist played with the powerful juxtapositions that could be generated between private and public spaces. By choosing this photograph of his bed, the artist exposed this most intimate of spaces, emphasized by the rumpled sheets and the recent impressions of two heads in the pillows. In the early 1990s, with controversies surrounding homosexuality and the AIDS crisis simultaneously wreaking havoc across the gay community, the bed also represented a site of conflict, symbolizing both love and death. That Gonzalez-Torres’s partner, Ross, died of AIDS in 1991 brings an intensely personal note to this work, but does not diminish it of its universal associations with comfort, intimacy, loneliness, or loss.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres. “Untitled.” 1991. Billboard, dimensions vary with installation. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Werner and Elaine Dannheisser. © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, New York. Installation view at Van Dam Street near Queens Boulevard, Queens (February 20–March 18, 2012), as part of Print/Out, The Museum of Modern Art, February 19–May 14, 2012. Photo by David Allison

Every time I passed by my “local” billboard, on Queens Boulevard and Van Dam Street, I stopped to take it in again. It is a commanding work, even capable of overshadowing the roar of the elevated 7 train and the honking cars exiting the Long Island Expressway (not an easy task!). The presentation in Print/Out marks the 20th anniversary of the first realization of “Untitled”, for MoMA’s Projects 34: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, organized by Anne Umland in 1992. Imagining the future reception of this work, Umland presciently wrote in that exhibition’s accompanying brochure, “A photograph promises the possibility of replication, of reemergence in a different time and under different historical circumstances, a moment when this poignant image of ‘a dwelling in the evening air’ may come to mean very different things.” I look forward to seeing the next iteration!

Please visit the Print/Out website for information on the billboard locations and complete photographic documentation.

At the time of this post, a few of the billboards are still up, including the one pictured above at Queens Boulevard and Van Dam Street, in Queens. Jump on the 7 train to 33rd Street/Rawson to take a look!

Comments

I love the artistic expression Mr Felix Gonzalez Torres

In the artist’s work I can see how it is intertwined with the everyday art making a unique expression

Those are great billboards. They have a great pictures with a direct message. I am all about modern wall art and I found a great website that has many resources and info for this type of art.

I love Felix’s art so much! His is the kind of work that I have, in the past, considered to be ridiculous at best. My opinion of modern art has been changed because I am deeply moved by his body of work to the point of tears and goosebumps.

My first encounter with felix gonzales-torres was at the pulitzer foundation for the arts. I was in art school. It was right before I started working there. I can’t begin to explain how deeply profound his work is. How everything started to make more sense. its timeless really.

I happened upon one of the billboards while walking through the highline. It was dusk and magical. I was a tourist then. I instantly started crying. So amazing.

In Brasil, we say saudades. A sometimes painful, overwhelming nostalgia. It’s feeling missing. Missing spaces and faces and everything in between.

I thank the heavens and the hells for this work. For all the gonzales-torres ideas that remain.

I am very upset about this article. Not until the 5th paragraph is AIDS mentioned and it is only mentioned twice when this whole billboard series is about AIDS, along with his other works. Torres and his partner died of AIDS and to brush over this when examine his work is to completely miss the impact and significance.

To say “Gonzalez-Torres’s partner, Ross, died of AIDS in 1991 brings an intensely personal note to this work, but does not diminish it of its universal associations with comfort, intimacy, loneliness, or loss,” Is to completely appropriate the meaning of his work and his death for the accessibility straight people. Why cant you take it for what it is and focus on the horrors and tragedy of the AIDS epidemic instead of letting non queer people empathize with it?

I am hurt and disappointed with the content of this article.

Thank you, Tyler Graffam, for your comment on this blog entry. As you note, AIDS — both on a personal level and also as a larger crisis — was of central importance to Gonzalez-Torres’s work, and I had no intention to diminish that. The billboard project was discussed here in the context of MoMA’s 2012 Print/Out exhibition, with major themes of that show, such as reproducibility, dissemination, and the power of print, highlighted in relation to the artist’s project.

I was interested in your concern over the “appropriation” of Gonzalez-Torres’s work. I think it’s important to remember that this billboard project was created as a public work, with the express intention by the artist that it be shown in a variety of locations in diverse neighborhoods to maximize the types of people likely to encounter it. That passersby may bring different associations to the work does not strip it of its poignancy as a powerful elegy to the tragedy of AIDS, but perhaps only makes it more powerful.

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