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Felix Gonzalez-Torres / MATRIX 161

January 15, 1994 - March 20, 1994

Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Untitled (right billboard), 1991-94; dimensions and format variable; private collection, Germany.

Download the exhibition brochure (PDF).

Felix Gonzalez-Torres' MATRIX exhibition consists of two greatly enlarged black-and-white photographs and two long strings of bare light bulbs hanging from the gallery ceiling. The photographs, taken by the artist, depict birds flying against banks of clouds that are suffused with the pale light of an obscured sun. Enlarged to such a degree, the images become grainy to the point of abstraction, coalescing as an image only when viewed from a distance. As part of this exhibition, the same images are installed on actual billboards at sites throughout the East Bay. Also, in conjunction with this exhibition, there is a special insert in the UAM/PFA bi-monthly calendar: a photograph by the artist depicting the rumpled sheets and pillows of an unmade bed.

The materials and techniques of Gonzalez-Torres' artworks are extremely modest: his use of commercially manufactured lighting fixtures and billboard prints neither astonish nor intimidate the viewer with the virtuosity of the artist’s "hand." Rather, Gonzalez-Torres' work is based in a more conceptual tradition that is perhaps closer to the practice of poetry than to the Western tradition of visual arts. Like a poet, Gonzalez-Torres does not reinvent language with each work, but rather utilizes the language (i.e. the materials) already available to him, recombining images and forms to create a specific effect.

While the individual materials of his work may lack much intrinsic aesthetic power, in juxtaposition and in the specificity of their placement (whether in a museum gallery or in some exterior, public site), Gonzalez-Torres’ works become charged with intense emotion. Here, in particular, the artist unabashedly lays bare an expression of awesome solitude that may strike viewers alternately as sad or soothing. There is nothing obscure about this work: its appeal to the viewer is in terms of images and symbols that are rooted in the vernacular culture. For the two photographs in this exhibition, some of the possible associations that come to mind are sky/heaven, bird/individual, bird/angel, light/wisdom, lights/angels.

Gonzalez-Torres identifies with the romantic movement of the early nineteenth century. Contrary to the common association of romanticism with a self-absorbed, anti-social stance, Gonzalez-Torres' work resonates with that aspect of romanticism which was imbued with social consciousness. As Raymond Williams describes:

"What were seen at the end of the nineteenth century as disparate interests, between which man must choose and in the act of choice declare himself either a poet or a sociologist, were, normally, at the beginning of the century, seen as interlocking interests: a conclusion about personal feeling became a conclusion about society, and an observation of natural beauty carried a necessary moral reference to the whole and unified life of man."

Indeed, Gonzalez-Torres' art is both by intention and by effect rooted in contemporary social conditions and comments on these conditions, albeit in an oblique and non-didactic manner. In this work, specifically, Gonzalez-Torres calls to mind both the alienation that plagues our society as well as the profound sense of loss felt for those who have died prematurely from the ravages of disease, war, and crime. While the work is open to numerous readings, its mood of solemn meditation certainly reflects, for the artist, the tragedy of his lover's recent death from AIDS. This highly personal experience certainly lies behind the tender vacancy conveyed by the artist's photograph of an empty bed.

In addition to his solo work as an artist, Gonzalez-Torres has been active for many years with the artists’ collective Group Material (also including Julie Ault, Doug Ashford, and Karen Ramspacher). Like Gonzalez-Torres’ own work, Group Material, through the creation of thematically-based group exhibitions, creates bridges between aesthetic/personal/emotional and activist/public/informational modes. In 1989, Gonzalez-Torres participated in Group Material’s MATRIX exhibition, AIDS Timeline.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres was born in 1957 in Güaimaro, Cuba, and currently lives and works in New York City.

Lawrence Rinder

MATRIX is supported in part by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, Mrs. Paul L. Wattis, the University Art Museum Council MATRIX Endowment, and Stanley M. Smith.

Additional support for this exhibition from Patrick Media Group Inc. is gratefully acknowledged.