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