When the concept that art can be subversive is first acknowledged images of overtly political or propagandistic art might form in the mind. The feminist politics of an artist like Barbara Kruger are fully apparent when viewing her work. Even her heavy handed use of stark images, limited to black, white, and red, betrays her political agenda. This overt stance is certainly the model at times, yet some artists wield the tools of contemporary art in much more subtle, if not equally effective, ways.
The late Felix Gonzalez-Torres was a master of subtle symbolism. His art is brazenly political though his complex vocabulary requires a certain degree of deciphering if one wishes to receive the messages he sought to convey. His Leftist politics exemplified the stated decline of American culture that the Religious Right vigorously battled during the height of the culture wars in the 1990s. Still, Gonzalez-Torres proved that one might have an agenda akin to something like Robert Mapplethorpe’s without visually assaulting the sensibilities of the general population (*which is not to say that ALL of Mapplethorpe’s work did this, nor to state that his photographs are not technically superb).
Though not a founding member of Group Material, Gonzalez-Torres was asked by Tim Rollins and others in the Group to join their collaborative projects in the 1980s. Their collaborative-conceptualist works were both political in content and process. The individual political ideals of the Group aligned with Gonzalez-Torres’s own and the democratic nature that defined the group process guaranteed that a more liberal agenda would be set forth. However, he continued simultaneously creating individual works because his unique perspectives were somewhat muted in the collaborative process.
Where many derided artists, casualties of the culture wars, found their opponents on the Right as nearly sub-human, Gonzalez-Torres respected their tactics. Raised Roman Catholic, strict religious systems were not foreign to him. Some residual elements of his Catholicism even influenced his work. Upon reading that the director of the Christian Coalition promoted a form of guerrilla warfare that would only be apparent to those with a liberal political agenda on election night, the artist embraced the subversive tactic. He claimed that he also wanted to be a spy—a Trojan Horse his opponents could not initially detect.
Indeed, preliminary examinations of Gonzalez-Torres’s work seem to only reveal a spare conceptualism. Rooted in minimalist forms, incorporating everyday objects as the preferred media, there is nothing on the surface to expose the artist’s larger mission. As an openly gay artist during the height of the early AIDS epidemic, it was not unusual that Gonzalez-Torres would create art that brought related topics into focus. In fact, the artist eventually succumbed to the disease, following the death of his partner, also from AIDS related complications.
If Gonzalez-Torres’s art was not explicitly about sexuality and desire (though he might have stated it was), it was certainly about relational dynamics. These relationships were both private and corporate and their blurred boundaries were a main thrust of the thematic totality. The artist questioned boundaries. Cuban born, but living mostly in the U.S., physical boundaries were only one possible reading for Gonzalez-Torres.
Works like the "stacks"—unlimited posters printed by a commercial printer and stacked in a minimalist column within the gallery—often questioned the boundaries between private freedoms and government policy or intervention. Not only were the messages printed on the posters political (i.e. concerns about federal gun control policies and the rate of deaths by gun violence), the nature of the works’ structure was a political statement in terms of art world commodification.
The stacks consist of an endless supply of identical images. Viewers are encouraged to take one. Thus, each stack is slowly diminished throughout every exhibition day. The gallery or museum staff replenishes each stack as the prints dwindle in quantity. The swelling and receding stacks mock the valuation of art. The unlimited supply, from which viewers take and do not purchase individual portions, is an affront to the gallery system and the presupposition that art is only for a wealthy, elite minority. This art is free to all.
Similar to the stacks are the "spills." Placed in corners of the gallery or in minimalist influenced rectangular "blankets" on the gallery floor, the spills are composed of individually wrapped hard candies. The Untitled (Placebo) of 1993 relates directly to the AIDS virus. As Gonzalez-Torres helplessly watched his partner slowly die from the effects of AIDS, he was acutely aware that the prescribed treatments were little more than a delusion in the face of an incurable disease.
For Gonzalez-Torres the spills represented the gradual loss of one who is dying. Little pieces of his partner were lost daily, just as viewers take pieces and literally eat away at the installation. This odd mixture of life and death, a dead body consumed by the living, has often been linked to the Eucharistic symbols of the artist’s Catholic heritage. These works are nearly alive, breathing organisms. Yet they are always diminishing, dying.
The stacks and spills mimic our relational lives. In our personal interactions we constantly take little pieces of others away with us. When those people are eventually dead and gone we still hold on to the memories, the pieces. They are not the whole of the person, but a portion. Gonzalez-Torres realized this and even defined the parameters of works by assigning them ideal weights (such as the combined weight of the artist and his partner).
This ideal is also found in Platonic philosophy. Plato’s famed "cave" relates our experiences in this physical world to shadows viewed in the recesses of a dimly lit cave. We only catch glimpses of what is real, what is ideal, in this, our current state. These installations reflect an ideal and perfect state for the artist, but they can never assume that ideal state. Even when candies are installed at this weight the piece is incomplete until viewers partake of it physically. And when they do, the fluctuation, the ebb and flow of the component parts, competes with the ideal.
This process can be likened to another concept in Christianity—the Kingdom of God as the Now and Not Yet. Jesus explained to his disciples that the Kingdom of God was here. He claimed he had fulfilled the Law of Moses so that humanity could once again dwell with God. But heaven was not yet here on earth. It was still to come at the end of time. The perfection of things that Felix Gonzalez-Torres sought through politically infused art was always just out of reach. The fullness of relationships could never be attained since we are all dying a little each day.
At the heart of these works and others is a sense of desire. This may be a desire for the other, but it is also that desire for perfection, completion. It is that desire for the "not yet." Another signature work that reflects this longing is the artist’s Untitled (Clocks). Two simple, unadorned wall clocks are placed adjacent to each other on the wall. Their sideways figure eight recalls the symbol for infinity. The clocks are set in perfect time, down to the second. They are like two people, a couple that is perfectly in sync.
But there is soon trouble in this perceived paradise. The clocks eventually fall out of rhythm. The infinite love of this united pair can fall out of step. Inevitably one clock will stop ticking. One heart will stop beating. No matter how perfect the relationship, this "now" is temporal and mortal. So we continue to seek that immortal perfection of the not yet.
The deceptively simple artwork of Felix Gonzalez-Torres continues to hold a powerful influence in the contemporary art world for more than its political power and status. For some it holds a certain importance for its message of sexual equality. For others the attention brought to certain social issues is paramount. Still, the primary reason Gonzalez-Torres’s work continues to be exhibited is that it touches on key elements of our human existence, as all great art must.