Felix Gonzalez-Torres was born in Guáimaro, Cuba in 1957. After being born, he was sent to an orphanage in Madrid until he was sent to Puerto Rico to live with relatives. He grew up in San Juan and attended the University of Puerto Rico, where he studied art. In 1979 he went to New York City on a scholarship. While in New York, he studied at the Whitney Independent Study Program where he was first introduced to critical theory, a development that would have great bearing on his future work. He also studied at Pratt towards a BFA in photography. After graduation, he traveled around Europe before returning for his MFA at NYU.
Gonzalez-Torres became known for his minimalist installations, often built around quotidian objects. However, his work transformed these daily objects, such as small hard candies or lightbulbs, into greater metaphors. As Gonzalez-Torres was HIV positive and died of AIDS related complications, many read his works as being about HIV/AIDS.
In 1987 Gonzalez-Torres joined Group Material, a group of artists combining their artistic practices with cultural activism. Other artists involved in the group were Julie Ault and Doug Ashford. Together, their first work dealing directly with the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s was an AIDS timeline at the Berkeley Art Museum.
This method is reflected in Gonzalez-Torres’ later Dateline pieces. These works intersperse dates with social and political events. The seemingly random selection of dates and events included makes the viewer question their own construction of history and memory. These radical juxtapositions of the banal and the socially and politically charged are central to the artist’s practice.
Perhaps the best example of this aesthetic and often educational are Gonzalez-Torres’ process based works. The best-known examples of these works require the participation of the viewer. The viewer is often asked to literally take part of the work with them. Untitled (Placebo), a 1991 installation by Gonzalez-Torres, is a well-known example of this type of work. The installation consists of a large six by twelve-foot pile of small silver-wrapped candies. The viewer is invited to take candy with them so that by the end of the show, the monumental installation is reduced to nothing. This work was a reflection by the artist on the AIDS epidemic and his own loss of his partner Rob. While the installation does not directly refer to this, and the viewer is allowed to make their own meditation on loss, the meaning remains. The viewer is also implicated in the loss as they, by viewing the art, are active in the works own disappearance. Over his career, Gonzalez-Torres created 19 different candy pieces. Another work using this same method is Untitled (Monuments) which consists of two different pieces, Untitled (Veteran’s Day Sale) and Untitled (Memorial Day Weekend). These two works are composed of piles of posters that contain info on Gonzalez-Torres’s own private life. Although originally displayed as a monumental block of paper, Gonzalez-Torres undermines this notion of monumentality due to the dispersible nature of these piles of paper.
One of Gonzalez-Torres’ most well-known pieces was his Untitled (billboard of an empty bed), a 1991 series of installations on billboards across New York City. This work was made after the death of Ross, his long-term partner. Untitled (billboard of an empty bed) is a testament to loss but also to the ongoing public and government silence on HIV/AIDS. It is both a personal monument but also a broader commentary on what we speak about and how we speak about it. Gonzalez-Torres’ final major series was his lightbulb series, different installations consisting of strings of lights that could be installed in a variety of ways. These works, along with his candy and poster-based sculptures, are all meditations on loss but also on rebirth. While the viewer takes them away, they can also be regenerated. Lightbulbs can be replaced and new installations revive his piles of candy.
Gonzalez-Torres died in 1996 in Miami of Aids-related causes.
Over his short career Gonzalez-Torres’ has many major shows and has continued to show posthumously. One of his best known posthumous exhibitions was the US Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale. The installation was two circular pools who touched just enough to share a small stream of water. This work, never before produced, was shown alongside other works such as his candy and lightbulb installations. He is represented by Andrea Rosen Gallery.
Untitled (March 5th), 1991
40-watt light bulbs, porcelain light sockets, extension cords in two parts.
Dimensions vary with installation, 2 parts: approximately 113 in. (287 cm) high.
"Untitled" (Welcome), 1991
Rubber mats, photographs, metal, soap, paper.
11 x 29 1/2 in. (27.9 x 74.9 cm)
two elements--silver plated brass
overall: 16½ x 33 in. (213.3 x 83.8 cm.)
each ring: 16½ in. diameter
“Untitled” (Portrait of Marcel Brient), 1992
Candies, individually wrapped in light-blue cellophane (endless supply).
Ideal weight: 198.5 lbs (90 kg)
"Untitled" (Double Bloodworks)
acrylic and graphite on canvas in two parts
overall: 14 x 26 in. (35.6 x 66 cm.)
each: 14 x 12 in. (35.6 x 30.5 cm)