The pioneering’s artist’s abstraction is brought to the forefront at the gallery, joining the aesthetic and the political into one common body
On an unusually warm night in January 1982, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and his collaborator Aleida Amador placed 200-pound blocks of ice inside the Casa Aboy, positioning them so that they just touched one another. As the ice melted, water poured onto the floor, reaching toward the viewers’ feet. The presentation, Óxido: sueños sobre una cama de hielo, or, Rust: dreams on an ice bed, used vacationing as a metaphor for colonialism on the Caribbean island. The project ultimately culminated in Gonzalez-Torres himself assuming the role of the tourist, undressing down to a blue swim thong, massaging suntan oil onto his body, and laying on the ice bed in a pose resembling that of Michelangelo’s Adam.
Gonzalez-Torres distanced himself from this early “non-work” performance as he neared his death from AIDS-related causes, at just 38 years old. Partly, this was because he was already seen as a trailblazing forefather of relational aesthetics, and one of the most important artists of his generation: Two years before his death, a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim institutionally canonized him. But now, nearly three decades later, two works he never fully realized are being presented at David Zwirner Gallery for the very first time.
Óxido: sueños sobre una cama de hielo was a precursor to this current exhibition, which embeds performance within objects. You could be forgiven for thinking its first room is a void, a space of emptiness; it is, in fact, one of the most profound double portraits in art history. It can be seen as radically related to a pioneer work of queer abstraction—modernist Marsden Hartley’s 1914 painting Portrait of a German Officer, in which he depicted his love, Karl von Freyburg, with only flat planes of symbols, military badges, numbers, and initials. Here, with “Untitled” (Portrait of the Magoons), there are no images at all—only words and dates painted high on the wall. There is no standalone figure, but rather a collection of non-chronological memories of Nancy and Robert Magoon (“Bob and Nancy 1978,” “Aspen Home 1981”), major world events (“I have a dream… 1963,” “H-Bomb 1954”), and personal memories from Gonzalez-Torres himself (“Mother 1986”), showing how our multiple selves are shaped by what can’t be immediately seen.
In the rear room of the first gallery is “Untitled” (Sagitario), consisting of two tangential, 12-foot, circular pools of water with a nearly invisible opening at a single point of contact. It recalls the life-giving moment of touch between two men, metaphorically and symbolically abstracted into the idea of doubling, coupling, or—more literally—the motif of two circles. A double self-portrait dissolves into abstract, minimalist shapes, recalling how love gives us a reason to live, but can also destroy us if we lose it. Here, we might recall Caravaggio’s queer masterpiece, of the young Narcissus fatally falling in love with the boy in the pool of water. The title poetically refers to the constellation of Sagittarius, which contains two stars closely bound together, eventually to be engulfed by two black holes that will touch and merge together. More personally, it also refers to the artist, who was a Sagittarius himself.
Gonzalez-Torres’s abstraction was a matter of survival. At the height of the AIDS crisis, it brought people together in solidarity, because it could stand for many things at once. Unlike overtly political artworks (“The Government Has Blood on Its Hands. One AIDS Death Every Half Hour”), Gonzales-Torres’s work was not easily marked as rooted in activism, and therefore could hide in plain sight amid government censorship. His two circles are code-switching, generative, open-ended, and unending. One can read them as the sign for infinity, or two wedding rings, at a time before gay marriage was legal. They ask us to approach them ethically—throwing a penny could disrupt the fragility of the work—yet they are indestructible, replenishable.
Each morning, there is more liquid exchange between the two pools—including the possibility of viral contamination through love or lust. But as the day progresses, and as the wells dry, the bond can become broken; one lover will always die before the other. Like all the other works in this exhibition—a pile of candy, words and portraits painted on the walls, billboards—the pools are manifestations of everyday material. As they appear, they can also disappear.
The work is emblematic of Gonzalez-Torres’s oeuvre as a whole: an imperceptible joining of the public and private, the artistic and the political, the aesthetic and conceptual in one common body. His practice is a powerful reminder of the fleeting nature of life. It’s the lingering memory of a joyous dream, of a hot night on the beach in San Juan, perhaps looking into the night sky, at the two stars of Sagittarius, with the one you love.