Best known for his minimal installations and sculptures in which he used materials such as packaged hard candies, clocks, strings of light bulbs, or stacks of paper, Felix Gonzalez-Torres was an American artist born in Cuba. This magnificent subversion of everyday materials was used to express the intimacy-in-distance and distance-in-intimacy as a conjoined dynamic, while it spoke tales of lost love, of photographs of the sublime everyday, the Minimalist economy. It was a wonderful intersection of art, pop culture, and politics, permeated with the inevitable AIDS fears that peaked right when the artist created. Of course, there was light. Somehow, it was always accompanied by the notion of darkness, while Gonzalez-Torres thoughtfully played a tug-of-war, confronting harsh reality and the idea of some better world.
Born in Guáimaro, Cuba, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and his sister Gloria were first sent to Madrid where they stayed in an orphanage until finally moving to Puerto Rico and settling with relatives. He studied at Colegio San Jorge, where he graduated in 1976. Soon after, he began his studies at the University of Puerto Rico, while taking active participation in the local art scene. After earning a fellowship, the artist moved to New York in 1979. He was participating in the Whitney Independent Study Program in 1981 and 1983, where his development as an artist was profoundly influenced by his introduction to critical theory. In 1983, he attended the program for the second time and received his BFA in Photography from Pratt Institute of Art. He earned his Masters of Fine Arts from the International Center of Photography and New York University in 1987, and the same year he joined the Group Material (he was a member until 1991), a New York-based group of artists whose intention was to work collaboratively, adhering to principles of cultural activism and community education. Two years later, the Group was invited by the MATRIX Gallery at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive to address the issue of AIDS. Their efforts resulted in Group’s first AIDS Timeline, where the artists assembled their research into an overview, structured by year, of the circumstances under which the epidemic had turned into a national crisis. Among the objects of the investigation were events in the fields of medicine, politics, and statistics, representations of AIDS in the media, and artistic responses. They also addressed widespread stigmatization of people with AIDS, homophobia, and racism, placing these structures in a larger sociopolitical context. Gonzalez-Torres taught at the New York University and briefly at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, and was granted a DAAD fellowship to work in Berlin in 1992 (but did not participate in the artist-in-residence program), and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1993.
There are several distinctive series, with only one mutual thing between – the vast majority of the works are entitled Untitled in quotation marks, sometimes followed by parenthetical title, an intentional naming scheme devised by the artist. Dateline pieces first appeared in 1987, when Gonzalez-Torres assembled lists of various dates in random order interspersed with the names of social and political figures and references to cultural artifacts or world events, many of which related to political and cultural history. These lists, printed in white type on black sheets of photographic paper by the "photostat" process, prompted viewers to consider the relationships and gaps between the diverse references as well the construction of individual and collective identities and memories. Begun in 1992, Gonzalez-Torres’ series of light strings are exemplars of the elegant and the eloquent. The viewer’s awareness of their own subjectivity in meaning-making immediately takes place. The light strings vary in length and in the number of bulbs, as well in their installation (which is left to the curator when they are exhibited). They are beautiful, joyful and transient, and yet seem like lone pillars of light in a dark world. One other important feature applied in his installations was the idea of removing – larger part of his installation works invites the viewer to simply take a piece of the work with them, like in a series where the artist would place the packaged candies in the corner of an exhibition space, allowing the visitors to take place in a greater story of passing time and inevitable death by taking candy, contributing to the slow disappearance of the sculpture over the course of the exhibition. Due to the nature of his removable installation, Gonzalez-Torres was considered to be a process artist. Billboards were the artist idea of bringing contemporary art into the public eye and further demystifying it. The images shown on the billboards are drawn from poetic moments in the artist’s life. Opposite to the big, flashy commercials usually seen on billboards, which stand out in pretty much any environment, Gonzalez-Torres’ public pieces immediately became a part of the landscape, and a part of lives or ordinary people who had an opportunity to see them.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres died in 1996 due to AIDS. But who was really Felix Gonzalez-Torres? A Cuban? American? Gay? Artist? A man terminally ill? He was all of those things, and much more. He was an ordinary man with extraordinary abilities for expression, deeply entrenched in the world, feeling all of its darkness, pain, but also its happiness and joy. His talent was recognized during his short life and even shorter career. In 1995, he submitted a proposal for the Venice Biennale but was rejected as the US official representative. In 2007, he was posthumously selected to represent the United States at this prestigious event. With hopes of fostering an appreciation for his work among the general public, scholars, and art historians, the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation was created in 2002.