Magazine article Artforum International

The Uses of Disorder: Joe Scanlan on the Art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres

Magazine article Artforum International

The Uses of Disorder: Joe Scanlan on the Art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres

Article excerpt

REMEMBER FELIX GONZALEZ-TORRES? The question isn't meant to be facetious. Rather, it's meant to point out how much the workings of politics and culture have changed since his first exhibitions in the late 1980s--and to start a debate on the role his work has played, if any, in our experience of those changes. I say start a debate because, to my mind, Gonzalez-Torres's work has never really been challenged: It never had to convince skeptics over an extended period of time that it was worth looking at, thinking about, or participating in. In retrospect, it seems that his billboards, light strands, paper stacks, and candy spills were so ingenious and viscerally affective that they could only be embraced, almost immediately and without question, as a kind of egalitarian salvation. Most exemplary in this regard were the untitled paper and candy works, stacks and piles from which anyone could take a piece away without diminishing the firsthand experience of anyone else. At the same time--and in apparent contradiction with that reception--this possibility was a welcome panacea for a ruling class in need of a mechanism by which it could create the appearance of public generosity without having to disturb the supply chain of power. Despite their unusual structure, the works continued the smooth flow of everyday objects into prestigious museums and private collections, a flow that began with the first readymade. Since the inception of Gonzalez-Torres's practice, then, rosy scenarios of democracy, generosity, collective authorship, and empowerment have dominated our discussions of it. Over time, this has collapsed the work's uncomfortable contradictions and intellectual toughness into the charming sculptures we know today. With a major Gonzalez-Torres survey currently on view at the Wiels Contemporary Art Center in Brussels, we are prompted to revisit the work's legacy and ask: Whose memories, whose records, inflect his work now and will in the years to come? Those of the museums that administer his eternally mutable sculptures? The unnamed viewers who experience them and set them in motion? The generation of artists eating cucumber sandwiches in his cool, conceptual shade? Or the millions of avid constituencies scattered across the globe, oblivious to the travails of Gonzalez-Torres and not concerned about institutional access or cultural politics at all?

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I never met Gonzalez-Torres, but it seems obvious from his artworks, his activism, and his words that he despised facile thinking. It could be said, in both praise and disdain, that his works are "perfect," that they are so formally and conceptually airtight as to be unassailable, even that they anticipate their amnesiac embrace today. Gonzalez-Torres himself played a significant role in manufacturing that force field by being his own most vocal critic, demonstrating not only confidence in his own thinking and respect for serious debate but also exceptional skill at massaging public opinion. His critical intensity pretty much precluded anyone else from questioning his motives or the political economy of his work; dissenters, if there were any, kept their opinions to themselves. And yet despite this hermetic environment, I can't help but wonder what he would think of the ease with which his artworks are administered today, or how he would feel about the assumptions that have ossified around them. If his work is going to remain vital and relevant, then it is time for those assumptions to be vigorously challenged, and for the works' "dark side"--their affinity with social control, finance, and private property--to be discussed. (1)

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I like to think that the ambition of Gonzalez-Torres's work was, in fact, to promulgate a beautiful confusion in the art world and in the forms and durations of its property, insisting that our private desires be fulsome enough to change social relations a little more than the other way around. …

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