Félix González-Torres

gigatos | January 30, 2022


Felix González-Torres, born November 26, 1957 in Guáimaro, Cuba and died January 9, 1996 in Miami, is an American artist of Cuban origin, influenced by minimalism and conceptual art.

He grew up in Puerto Rico before moving to New York in 1979 where he made his mark on the American art scene in 1990. He was also presented by the Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York, Jennifer Flay in Paris, until his death from AIDS in 1996.

While studying in New York City, he studied photography at the Pratt Institute and art at the Whitney Museum of American Art. He discovered a major work, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility by Walter Benjamin, which would influence his work and artistic process “I was always very interested in Walter Benjamin”s writings, especially around 1981-83 when I first read him after leaving the Whitney Museum”s free classes. I was very influenced by his writings, by their relevance to our culture today, and I wanted to make work that took some of his ideas into consideration.” Indeed Gonzalez-Torres” work demonstrates an economy of means in the process that is observed through the recurrent use of industrial and reproducible objects or processes. It is in this way that he is in line with the minimalists.

However, in his works, Felix Gonzalez-Torres subtly combines personal experience, reflection on the history of art and political positions. Thus he questions the theories of minimal art that deny conveying symbols or metaphors through their works, and prefers neutrality. The difference lies in the autobiographical character of his works. It is not uncommon for him to portray the different facets of his situation as a homosexual artist of Cuban origin. When Gonzalez-Torres talks about the conception of his creative process, and the levels of meaning in his work, he often quotes “the memory of blood” a concept borrowed from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. For him, the artistic expression must reflect the complexity of a lived experience and must be the sum, the synthesis of a certain quantity of events (that they are significant or trivial). These are then digested or sometimes even forgotten in appearance, but are integrated, mark the memory and thus the body of the artist (the blood) inexorably, before reappearing under a new form, without loss of meaning.

At the end of the twentieth century, in the 1980s, the notion of beauty is in crisis “Seen more and more as a futile value linked to the past (…), it seemed to embody since the beginning of the 1980s the elitism of the Western society.” Already in the 1960s the conceptual art begins a new approach, privileging the concept and the idea in favor of the aesthetics of the work of art. “In a climate of generalized suspicion, beauty thus slowly made retreat, leaving place at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s to multiple approaches, then to a kind of “political” art which grants more price to the subject than to the aesthetic.” In this period of rupture where the artistic process seems to find a different direction, Gonzalez-Torres is part of a new generation of artists “(…) affirming his commitment to content without sacrificing aesthetics (…) evoking such strong themes as loss, death, AIDS, politics and the health care system.”

“It is a short work (1986


Between 1987 and 1992, he produced 64 photographs mounted on puzzles and exhibited in their plastic packaging. “In contrast to the photograph protected by its frame, the puzzle designates the image as a close, intimate, playful and fragile object that one must try to maintain in its entirety if one wants to enjoy or play with it. In this work, the artist touches on his past: a childhood in Cuba before the revolution, the separation from his parents at the age of nine when he was entrusted to the Church in Spain, his adolescence in Puerto Rico, the exploration of his sexual identity, the difficulties it posed, the loves he experienced… His memories filter through the whispered subtitles of his works: Perfect Lovers, March 5th, Revenge… They materialize in the photos of his childhood that he transforms into puzzles. Threatening to scatter, these puzzles signify a fragility; the memory becomes the recognition of absence or loss. But this process also allows him to follow the line of minimalist and conceptual artists in an economy of means, by the use of industrial objects, and in fact, reproducible. In particular, he uses photos taken from the Mass Media to reveal, not without irony, the hypocrisy underlying our culture. Untitled (Klaus Barbie as a family man), for example, presents the apparently harmless portrait of a family. But the man in the center, surrounded by his children, is in fact the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, who fled his trial and was found in Bolivia in the early 1970s. This kind of social punishment permeates all of González-Torres” work.


In parallel to the puzzles, he starts in 1987 the photostats. It is a system of reprography, used for the reproduction of documents. In Gonzalez-Torres” work the photostats take the form of “Black screens, framed, under glass, with a printed text in reserve evoking subtitling, Gonzalez-Torres” photostats are precipitates of television.” Some of his pieces, juxtaposing a name and a date, refer to events that resulted in large-scale violence: Napalm 1972, Pol Pot 1988, “(…) the formal solution adopted to denounce injustices was (…) based on the use of the specificity of denotation.”

Advertising signs

From 1989 Felix Gonzalez Torres develops a reflection on public art and the monument. In his work with billboards he invests the public space, as a place to share his private life and his ideals. “The contents treated with a scrupulous but very incisive economy that, (…), reveals a respectful connection with the minimalist and conceptual movements.” In 1992 the MoMA Museum of Modern Art offered him an exhibition. He declined the offer and asked the museum to rent him 24 advertising panels. For this work Felix Gonzalez Torres uses an industrial support seen and accessible to all in the street. He displays a black and white photo that shows the imprint of two heads on pillows in an empty bed. “The works of Felix Gonzalez Torres exhibited on public signs are an exemplary case of the creative tension between the two domains” private and public. It is indeed a very personal remembrance, a testimony to his deceased lover. The posters unlike advertising slogans are silent “(…) he chose a connotative and polysemous iconography, whose images were clean and simple but which, as a result, became abstract and enigmatic, a character further accentuated by the absence of a title and by the accompaniment of a frequent contradictory subtitle making diversion.” Thus the uninformed passerby makes a personal interpretation in front of the mute image.

Moreover by this process, Felix Gonzalez Torres, takes advantage of his position of artist to carry a debate and to denounce certain facts of society in particular the homosexual rights, the access to health on the public scene, the street. However the more personal violence is expressed in his piles of paper.


The piles are public sculptures. In the tradition of minimalist artists, Felix Gonzalez-Torres appropriates certain models of this vocabulary, such as the plinth or the flat sculpture, which refer to the work of Robert Morris or Carl Andre.

He puts in place a lot of objects of the everyday life (mainly leaves, and candies) which attract the spectator. This one is entitled to appropriate the work by taking of the sculpture. Each spectator, by taking, causes the degradation of the sculpture, but at the same time it “saves” it by appropriating it and dispersing it indefinitely. In his work “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in LA) the pile of candy for the audience to help themselves to is a metaphor for the spread of the AIDS virus in the gay community. Having admitted that there is no moose in his work, he uses the value conferred by technical reproducibility, that is, the ability to take and own what he exhibits. It is a work of seduction, of baiting the spectator, and also a political tool.

In 1990, Untitled (Death by gun) reproduces on a sheet of paper the photo, the name and a brief summary of the circumstances of some 464 people who have died by firearms in the United States alone during one week. The artist does not add any commentary; this terrible inventory is enough in itself to plead for the control of the sale of weapons.

In 1991, he presented an installation composed of some 315 kg of licorice candies in the shape of projectiles, thus questioning the legitimacy of public opinion in the United States in its stance on the first Gulf War. In an interview Felix Gonzalez-Torres says: “It”s a metaphor. I don”t claim to have created anything other than that. (…) I give you this little sweet thing, you put it in your mouth and you suck on someone else”s body. In this way, my work becomes part of countless other bodies. It”s very exciting. For a few seconds, I put something sweet in someone”s mouth and I find it very sexy.” After the death of his partner, Ross Laycock, of AIDS, as in some of his works, he represents this same death in a reflexive way: The Work is dying. Félix González-Torres has made art and his position as an artist the expression of the reality of his own life within society.

External links


  1. Félix González-Torres
  2. Félix González-Torres
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