More Love: Art, Politics, and Sharing since the 1990s is a traveling exhibition at Cheekwood alongside Bruce Munro’s LIGHT. The exhibition brings together a wide array of art by 33 artists working within the last 25 years. Their explorations in new and traditional media may challenge some preconceived notions of fine art, and their attention to our relationships –with ourselves, our loved ones, and our broader communities –may change some of our preconceived notions of love. But when considered together, these artists and their works invite us in to a reconsideration of the essential role of contemporary art as a lens for considering the past and possibilities of the future.
After visiting the show, I was particularly keen to explore the work of one particular included artist: Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Felix Gonzalez-Torres is clearly one of the giants of his generation. Gonzalez-Torres reoriented our relationship to art. He shifted the focus from the artist to the audience, challenged accepted modes of distribution, created politically potent yet aesthetically seductive works, and encouraged time-based and performative interactions with the viewer. Through his art, he was able to engage the politics of his moment, synthesize the practices of the previous generation of artists, and anticipate the future of art by using love not just as his chosen subject matter, but also as his working methodology. Yet, despite his dedication to love as a political act and as a tool for challenging artistic conventions, its importance to his practice has been too often sublimated by critics, academics, and curators, and is generally understood as being peripheral rather than central to his agenda.
In a way, Felix Gonzalez-Torres is becoming the new Andy Warhol. Museums are making sure that if they own his work, it is displayed. Like Warhol, there is both scholarly appeal and mass appeal to his work. Gonzalez-Torres’ dealer and close friend Andrea Rosen said in response to his inclusion in the 2007 Venice Biennial that his “work has the ability to change with people’s intentions and to be read through the filter of any given moment… I think different people are going to come away with different experiences. That’s Felix’s magic.” Or even as Gonzalez-Torres said himself, there are so many readings of his work because “meaning is always shifting in time and space.” By design, there is something universal and deeply open, loving, and giving in his practice. By design, there is something universal and deeply open, loving, and giving in his practice.
His 1991 candy spill “Untitled” (Ross in L.A.) is a clear example of love as practice, as methodology, as biography, and as chosen subject matter. Tellingly, when the initial idea for this exhibition was first shared at a curators’ conference in 2009 and this work was highlighted as a primary example, two well-respected male, heterosexual curators were quick to point out that the work was about desire, not love. Yes, the pile of brightly colored Fruit Flashers can represent the illicit longing of a sexual encounter by seductively beckoning the visitor, who is able to break museum decorum, take a piece, and eat in the museum. Yet, “Untitled” (Ross in L.A.) is also a memorial to Gonzalez Torres’ lifemate, Ross Laycock. The pile of candy starts out at Ross’ weight of 175 pounds. “As people take pieces, the work slowly declines and disappears as did Ross as he succumbed to AIDS. Gonzalez-Torres said himself, “I wanted to make an artwork that could disappear, that never existed…it was a metaphor that I would abandon this work before this work abandoned me.” It was a startlingly simple and poetic way to open up a dialogue about AIDS, homosexuality, loss, and love at a moment in time when these topics elicited fear and rage. This is not sex; this is love.
But “Untitled” (Ross in L.A.) is more than Ross, AIDS, or Felix. It required the interaction or intervention of the visitor. As critic Russell Ferguson stated, “Only in the form of an authentic emotional and intellectual response would the work be complete.” ” By creating an encounter that did not dictate what one should think or feel, the work set up a situation, which purposely courted varying and unique responses. The work required an active viewer. The piece emerged from Gonzalez-Torres’ specific, individual experience but was designed to connect with our own specific experiences. As he said, “Without the public, these works are nothing; I need the public to complete the work. I ask the public to help me, to take responsibility, to become part of my work, to join in.” For him, it was not complete without the physical and emotional connection with the viewer. The work does not exist without the act of giving. His goal was to reach and connect with a large, broad audience. He did not want “[to] service an elite community of professional readers and writers;” As he said, “I want to make art for people who watch The Golden Girls and sit in a big, brown La-Z-Boy chair. They’re part of my public, too, I hope.”