Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996) will represent the United States at the 2007 Venice Biennale. The exhibition Felix Gonzalez-Torres: America will open to the public in the Giardini della Biennale, Venice on 10 June and run until 21 November 2007.
A Cuban-born, American citizen, Gonzalez-Torres is best known for his immensely generous yet rigorously conceptual art in the form of endlessly replenishable paper stacks, take-away candy spills, light strings, beaded curtains, and public billboards. With its minimalist refinement and quiet referentiality, his work treads a fine line between social commentary and personal disclosure, equivocating between the two realms and obscuring the culturally-determined distinctions that separate them. Shifting from cultural activism to intimate, autobiographical dimensions-and subsequently eroding the boundaries between Gonzalez-Torres used the aesthetic allure of his art to stage a subtle critique of social injustice and intolerance. By creating open-ended, participatory artworks, he entrusted his viewers to engage with and ultimately activate their meaning.
Only the second artist to posthumously represent the United States in the modern history of the Venice Biennale (Robert Smithson was chosen in 1982), Gonzalez-Torres had been previously nominated for the 45th Venice Biennale in 1995, and this exhibition expands upon and rearticulates his original proposal for the U.S. Pavilion. Nancy Spector, Chief Curator of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, who organized Gonzalez-Torres's retrospective there in 1995, is the U.S. Commissioner for the 52nd Biennale.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres: America brings together key examples of the artist's work in and around the U.S. Pavilion to create a coherent installation focused on GonzalezTorres's optimistic but critical relationship to his adoptive culture. Though all "untitled," the parenthetical subtitles of his individual works function like whispered cues providing subtle guides to interpretation that only imply and never prescribe. Gonzalez-Torres's largest and final light-bulb string (comprising twelve illuminated strands), "Untitled" (America), 1994, graces the entrance hall of the pavilion and extends into its public courtyard. In one of the rooms flanking the rotunda appear two paper stacks: "Untitled" (Republican Years), 1992, with its funereal border and "Untitled," 1991, a photograph of an ocean surface cast in the blackest of light. In the gallery on the other side of the rotunda hangs "Untitled" (Natural History), 1990, a suite of twelve black-and-white, framed photographs that documents the inventory of idealized (male) attributes inscribed in tribute to Theodore Roosevelt on the exterior facade of the American Museum of Natural History in New York: author, statesman, scholar, humanitarian, historian, patriot, ranchman, conservationist, explorer, naturalist, scientist, and soldier. These images surround two paper stacks from 1989 that bear the inscriptions "Memorial Day Weekend" and "Veterans Day Sale," respectively-wry commentaries on how national(istic) holidays in the United States are commercialized and rendered utterly banal. Initially exhibited together as one work called "Untitled" (Monument), they represent Gonzalez-Torres's interest in inventing a new kind of public art, one that would remain mutable and open to interpretation. With his take-away paper stacks, the artist attempted to create a type of memorial that was anything but monumental, one that would surrender itself to the desires of its audience, one that would only intimate meaning, one that could, in time, vanish.
In the gallery to the far left of the entrance rests "Untitled" (Public Opinion), 1991, a large carpet of black licorice candies that intimates the complexities of public consensus even as it offers itself to gallery visitors, endlessly distributing itself into the world at large. This work is accompanied by a selection of Gonzalez-Torres's early Photostats--blank, captioned screens that cite political and social events in eccentric inventories of our collective consciousness. In the gallery to the far right of the entrance, an indoor billboard of a lone bird soaring through an open sky covers the long wall as a portal to imaginary states. Its only illumination is the single string of light bulbs, "Untitled" (Leaves of Grass), 1993, which, in this context, references Walt Whitman's ode to the individual spirit and its essential place in American democracy.
Because Gonzalez-Torres conceived of his art as "viral" in nature, existing both within the museum and dispersed throughout the community by means of its takeaway components, the exhibition also includes a series of twelve outdoor billboards of the same image of a bird in flight, installed throughout the city of Venice. Presented without identifying text, these billboard images exist as lyrical spaces for contemplation amid the bustle of urban life.
The exhibition also features "Untitled," 1992-95, a never-before-realized sculpture in the courtyard of the pavilion: two adjoining, circular reflecting pools, the sides of which touch just enough at a single point to share an almost undetectable flow of water. Between 1992 and 1995 Gonzalez-Torres sketched at least five variations of these pools, expanding upon his motif of paired rings. The first known sketch for the twin pools represents Gonzalez-Torres's submission to an outdoor sculpture competition sponsored by Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington in 1992. The drawing indicates that each pool should be twelve-feet in diameter, a detail that would remain constant in each subsequent drawing and description. Gonzalez-Torres returned to the motif in 1994 when planning a one-person exhibition for the cape Musee d'Art Contemporain in Bordeaux, which he postponed because of its proximity in time to his Guggenheim retrospective. Tragically, he died before the show could be realized. For the Bordeaux installation, he envisioned a pair of indoor pools flush with the floor. When outlining his ideas for the exhibition, Gonzalez-Torres also created a sketch of an outdoor version of the pools, and this is the one realized on the occasion of the Venice Biennale. Untitled and openended in terms of their possible materials, the pools presented here were carved from white Carrara marble.
Presented here as another example of Gonzalez-Torres's attempt to create a truly "public" art, a monument that relinquishes its authority to the viewer, the pools will serve as both a silent mirror on our collective culture and a beacon of hope. Open to the elements, they will reflect the Venetian skies and echo the billboard of a lone bird soaring through the clouds that simultaneously fills one wall of the pavilion and resonates throughout the surrounding city.
The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue with an introductory essay by Nancy Spector and a conversation among Amada Cruz, Ann Goldstein, and Susanne Ghez, who collaboratively proposed Gonzalez-Torres for the Venice Biennale in 1995.