Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Always to Return

October 18, 2024 - July 6, 2025

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and Archives of American Art will present “Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Always to Return,” the largest presentation of the artist’s work in Washington, D.C., in 30 years. With no formal start or end point, “Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Always to Return” unfolds at the intersection of Gonzalez-Torres’ groundbreaking engagement with portraiture, the context of two Smithsonian collections and the historically significant setting of Washington. The exhibition is co-curated by Josh T Franco, head of collecting at the Archives of American Art, and Charlotte Ickes, curator of time-based media art and special projects at the National Portrait Gallery, and it will be on view Oct. 18 through July 6, 2025. A press preview with the co-curators will be held Thursday, Oct. 17.

Focusing on the artist’s deep engagement with portraiture, historiography and the construction of identity, “Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Always to Return” will present a broad array of significant works by the artist alongside other portraits at the National Portrait Gallery and Archives of American Art (also home to the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Correspondence Archive) and at other downtown locations. While considered one installation, the artist’s light-string work “Untitled” (America) (1994) will be on view across three locations: the facade of the Old Patent Office Building, which houses the Portrait Gallery and Archives of American Art’s Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery; outdoors along Eighth Street N.W. near the museum, in partnership with the Downtown BID; and on the first floor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library of the District of Columbia Public Library.

Gonzalez-Torres (1957–1996) was born in Giugiaro, Cuba, and lived primarily in New York, as well as in Madrid; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Los Angeles; and Miami, where he died from AIDS-related causes. In the 1980s and 1990s, he rose to prominence to become one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Posthumously, he represented the United States at the 2007 Venice Biennale. Gonzalez-Torres radically expanded the horizon of what portraiture could be beyond a genre often seen as a static representation of individuals. The artist created frameworks that could foster questioning about how people perceive themselves, how those understandings are fluid and how people are fundamentally entangled with a changing world.  

Through forms, processes and materials not always associated with portraiture, Gonzalez-Torres’ approach to the genre highlights the complexities of identity, representation and how history is made and by whom it is told. For example, the artist’s word portraits physically manifest as a list of events and corresponding dates installed directly onto a wall at “frieze height.” To make these works, the artist asked the subjects of the portraits to share formative events and dates that shaped their lives. Gonzalez-Torres then edited this list, rewording, rearranging, deleting and incorporating additional events and dates to create the initial version of the portrait. Gonzalez-Torres intended for owners of these works to create new versions on an ongoing basis, allowing the portraits to be responsive and exist in multiple versions across time and space. In the artist’s words, “We are not what we think we are, but rather a compilation of texts. A compilation of histories, past present and future, always, always, shifting, adding, subtracting, gaining.” On view will be three portraits from this remarkable body of work: “Untitled” (1989), “Untitled” (Portrait of Robert Vifian) (1993) and “Untitled” (Portrait of MOCA) (1994). Each work’s owner granted the co-curators the right to make new versions for this exhibition. Including these, “Untitled” (1989) has accumulated over 40 versions, all of which are the work.

Also on view and exemplary of the artist’s conception of portraits that evolve across time and space will be “Untitled” (Portrait of Dad) (1991) and “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) (1991), which are manifested as candies. While these two works have ideal weights of 175 pounds of candy, each can be installed in different configurations with an endless supply of candy sourced by the museum. Visitors can choose to take and potentially consume, shifting the relationship between portrait subject and viewer. Throughout the exhibition, these works will change if visitors choose to interact with them and as museum staff fulfill their rights and responsibilities to make decisions about maintenance, replenishment, configuration and location. Other non-figurative works by Gonzalez-Torres will be in conversation with traditional likenesses of historical figures such as Ronald Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt, Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman and others in the Portrait Gallery’s collection.

On view in the Archives of American Art’s Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery will be artworks and correspondence that animate the artist’s relationship to appropriation, source material and the photographic medium. For the first time in the United States, and only the second time internationally, the ‘complete set of individual puzzles’ consisting of all 55 of the artist’s editioned puzzle works, created from 1987 to 1992, will be on view. Alongside the puzzles will be correspondence between the artist and friends and curators, including snapshots, which the artist often mailed to recipients with notes inscribed on the back.

“Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Always to Return” will include loans from major institutions, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The exhibition will be accompanied by two publications.

“Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Always to Return” is presented with generous support from the Fisher Arts Impact Fund and the Latino Initiatives Pool.  For more information on the presenting institutions, visit the Archives of American Art and National Portrait Gallery’s websites.

To RSVP to the press preview Thursday, Oct. 17, email obusekge@si.edu.

Note to editors: For more information on the exhibition’s two accompanying publications, reference the publication fact sheet.

Archives of American Art

The Archives of American Art is the world’s preeminent research center dedicated to collecting, preserving and providing access to primary sources that document the history of the visual arts in America. Connect with the archives at aaa.si.edu and on Facebook, Instagram, X and YouTube.

National Portrait Gallery

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery tells the multifaceted story of the United States through the individuals who have shaped American culture. Spanning the visual arts, performing arts and new media, the Portrait Gallery portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists whose lives tell the nation’s story.

The National Portrait Gallery is located at Eighth and G streets N.W., Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Information: 202-633-1000. Connect with the museum at npg.si.edu and on Facebook, Instagram, X and YouTube.

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