Gonzalez-Torres addressed love, mourning, and loss in his art, and “Untitled” (Death by Gun) is an unusually direct approach to these themes. The viewer’s first reaction to the work is often one of uncertainty. Is this stack of papers on the floor meant to be walked around and viewed from different angles, like sculpture? Or did the artist intend for them to be picked up and examined? Listed on each sheet are the names of 460 individuals killed by gun in the United States during the week of May 1–7, 1989, cited by name, age, city, and state, with a brief description of the circumstances of their deaths and, in most cases, a photograph of the deceased. These images and words, appropriated from Time magazine, where they first appeared, are reprinted without commentary.
Conceptually, the work is ongoing. Viewer participation is an important element, and the public is encouraged to read the sheets and take them away to keep, display, or give to others. Gonzalez-Torres determined that the ideal stack of pages is nine inches high, and he arranged for the sheets to be continually reprinted and replaced, thus ensuring that “Untitled” (Death by Gun) can be distributed indefinitely. In the three decades since the work was made, its message has only become more urgent, as gun deaths and mass shootings continue to be common American tragedies.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
The viewer's first reaction to Untitled (Death by Gun) is one of uncertainty. Is this stack of papers on the floor meant to be walked around and viewed from different angles, like sculpture? Or did the artist intend these papers to be picked up and examined? Listed on the sheets are the names of 460 individuals killed by gunshot during the week of May 1–7, 1989, cited by name, age, city, and state, with a brief description of the circumstances of their deaths, and, in most cases, a photographic image of the deceased. These images and words, appropriated from Time magazine, where they first appeared, reflect González-Torres's interest in gun control.
Conceptually, Death by Gun is an ongoing work of art. Viewer participation is an important element, and the public is encouraged to read the sheets and take them away to keep, display, or give to others. While González-Torres determined that the stack is "ideally" nine inches high, he arranged for the depleted sheets to be continually reprinted and replaced, thus insuring that Death by Gun can be distributed indefinitely. From its beginnings, printed art has been made in multiple copies for dissemination to a wide audience. Here that idea is expanded with an edition that is "endless."
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 344.
Printed art by Félix González-Torres stands in bold contrast to the etchings, woodcuts, lithographs, and screenprints that make up the traditional history of modern print-making. González-Torres did not pursue this medium for the expressive possibilities inherent in its various techniques but, instead, chose it for its ability to function within his broader conceptual practice. The commercial offset process (photolithography) offered him a vehicle that was easy and inexpensive to produce, and also endlessly replicable. The fact that its surfaces maintained the detached, second-generation appearance of his often grainy photographic sources was a feature that suited his message of ephemerality rather than permanence.
Stacks of printed paper, in the form of sculptural objects with Minimalist overtones, constitute a major component of González-Torres's work, which also encompasses such projects as installations of wrapped candy, hanging cords of lightbulbs, and beaded curtains. His printed art extended as well to billboards, give-away booklets, and newspaper inserts, often incorporating his own or found photographs. A gentle, poetic mood emanates from much of this art, suggesting poignant memories or provoking thoughtful consideration of social issues.
While González-Torres dealt with gay rights, AIDS, and a variety of governmental abuses in his own work and as a member of the collective Group Material, the subject of "Untitled" (Death by Gun), and its treatment, is unusually specific for him. Appropriating imagery from Time magazine, it presents 460 individuals killed by gunshot in one week in the United States, and includes the name, age, and circumstances of death for each person depicted. No opinion about gun control is added by the artist. Here an issue of public debate engages anyone who follows the artist's intention and takes away one of his sheets. Dissemination, an age-old function of printed art, is ongoing since "Untitled" (Death by Gun) is reprinted as the stack is depleted.
Publication excerpt from Deborah Wye, Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p. 245.