Humans have very dynamic and unique emotions. When someone’s emotions are unexpected they tend to be exaggerated. For example, getting your mother flowers for mother’s day is expected. If you didn’t she might call you to complain. While getting your mother flowers for no occasion will bring her surprised joy, and you will be the favorite child. The artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres evokes this unexpected emotion of empathy to millions of people even after his death in 1996.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) is featured in many art museums around the world, and I was lucky enough to stumble upon it at the Art Institute of Chicago. As I approached the pile of candy in the corner of the room the security guard told me to take a piece. I was a bit shocked and joyed at first that I was able to actually take a piece of candy from the pile. Then the security guard told me to read the description. At this point I was in an overall happy mood, until I read the description. To sum up the description, it said that the approximate 175 pounds of candy in the corner resembled the 175 pound body of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ boyfriend who died of aids in 1991. His boyfriend, Ross Laycock weighed approximately 175 pound before contracting aids. The depletion of the candy resembled the aids virus depleting Ross’ body. As the spectator, I resembled the aids virus killing his boyfriend. This unexpectedly changed my mood from elated to grief, sorrow and yet even a sense of bittersweet. In a sense I felt the passionate, unconditional love that he felt for his boyfriend. The fact that Felix Gonzalez-Torres died in 1996 of aids brought even more sorrow to me, imagining what he could have created if he was still here today. Death is a mystical thing for us, as the philosopher and author Michel De Montaigne said in his essai about death occurring when people are approaching their peak of creative embarkings. It has happened with many breakthrough artists such as Mozart.
Born in Cuba, Felix Gonzalez-Torres immigrated to The United States in 1979 to study poetry and photography. He attended Pratt University in New York to study interior design. He was a theory-based student. He went to graduate school at New York University and studied photography. In one of his interviews he says, “you cannot find a style; you develop a style. You have a need to say something in a certain way and that becomes later what is called, your style.” If you are looking for the key to success as a creative individual in any field this quote gives it to you.
I found this interview/chat that Felix Gonzalez-Torres had with a colleague here. It is a relatively short read that really gives you a glance of his life through his lens. If you are not going to read the interview/chat then you must at least read the following exert from it:
The wonderful thing about life and love, is that sometimes the way things turn out is so unexpected. I would say that when he (Ross) was becoming less of a person I was loving him more. Every lesion he got I loved him more. Until the last second. I told him, “I want to be there until your last breath,” and I was there to his last breath. One time he asked me for the pills to commit suicide. I couldn’t give him the pills. I just said, “Honey, you have fought hard enough, you can go now. You can leave. Die.” We were at home. We had a house in Toronto that we called Pee-Wee Herman’s Playhouse Part 2 because it was so full with eclectic, campy, kitsch taste. His idols were not only George Nelson and Joseph D’Urso, but also Liberace.
If you did not get at least a chill down your spine from that reading you must be dead, but maybe you just have to read the whole thing.
This photo was taken on Jones Beach in New York around 1987-88 by Ross’ best friend Carl George.
What is so important about Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work is that is resembled the effects of the aids virus in an indirect way. You can look up art work to resemble aids from Nicholas Nixon and Rosalind Solomon to find images that disturb you. These are images of sick people, many suffering from aids. The type of art work that shows a direct image of the effects of aids is not nearly as creatively potent as Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work. One main goal for a lot of artists from the 80’s and 90’s was to bring awareness and stop discrimination of aids victims. Viewing an image of a nearly dead victim of aids does not do this whatsoever. All that does is bring even more isolation to the aids victims. Through breakthrough medication advancements and eye-opening artwork from artists like Felix Gonzalez-Torres, aids is not the same disease as it was 20 or 30 years ago. Many of my ideas originated from Kelly Keating’s post about Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ other work called, “The Absent Body”. If you want an even more in depth look into Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work I truly recommend reading Keating’s blog. (note: this is not an advertisement for his blog)
If you are too lazy to read, then watch this video that I found to describe Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work in general way.