Nothing can quite prepare you for the sound that echoes inside the new Felix Gonzalez-Torres exhibit at David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea. The space is the definition of discrete, offering up lots of blank white walls to help the viewer to focus on the rich layers of Gonzalez-Torres’s massive, minimalist installations. Except for the far-away rumble of never-ending construction in the city, it’s as silent as one would expect from such a venue.
But there is no chance that you can get lost in reverie for too long when, every four minutes or so, a cacophonous wave of applause rumbles throughout the entire gallery. The sound is taken from a live recording of Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” but it is cranked up so high it becomes a shuddering blanket of white noise, like something out of a David Lynch movie.
It is clearly of a piece with Gonzalez-Torres’s entire oeuvre: common materials, whether it’s lightbulbs, pieces of candy or a recording of handclaps, transformed into something visceral, emotional and surprising. The late artist’s work demands engagement, while leaving plenty of space for interpretation and internalization. It’s not contradictory that one person’s thunderous applause is another’s jump scare: it is, as with most things Gonzalez-Torres, achieved through rigorous design.
The sound is part of “‘Untitled’, 1994-1995,” one of two never-before-realized pieces featured in the new exhibit, which opened last week and will be on display at the Manhattan gallery through the end of February. There are eight installations altogether in the gallery, comprising the second Gonzalez-Torres solo exhibit at David Zwirner since it joined Andrea Rosen Gallery in co-representing the artist’s estate.
This installation, set inside a cavernous room on the far east side of the gallery, features two freestanding billboards, each bearing a black-and-white image of a bird. The billboards are placed next to each other, their surfaces facing opposite directions. Bright theatrical lights aimed at each photo give the birds an unearthly pinkish glow. Then noise overtakes the room, the lights shut off and everything turns to black.
The piece touches on several recurring themes of Gonzalez-Torres’s work, including the boundaries between private and public space, and the role of the performer. (An accompanying audio text by Bill T. Jones expounds on this aspect). It poses a challenge to the audience, forcing them to question their own voyeuristic relationship to art and consider how they, too, are participating in its existence. While it carries many of Gonzalez-Torres’s calling cards, it is also an unusual piece for him: of the approximately 300 works that Gonzalez-Torres created, this is one of only three to incorporate externalized sound.
Despite only creating work for a relatively short period of time in the late ’80s and ’90s, Gonzalez-Torres has become a towering figure in conceptual art. A core member of the pioneering New York collective Group Material, he created art that encourages public interaction and identification, whether it’s achingly romantic, reflecting on the queer experience, or a meditation on death. Among his most famous works are several recurring installations made of candy, which allow the viewer to pick up a piece if they want. His word portraits, three of which are featured around David Zwirner Gallery as “‘Untitled’ (Portrait of the Magoons),” pair significant phrases and dates that hold unique meaning to the stager. His large-scale outdoor billboards have been placed around NYC at various times, as recently as 2019, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising.
He continues to be hugely influential, with over two dozen posthumous exhibitions staged at prestigious institutions throughout the world. He even served as the United States’ official representative at the Venice Biennale in 2007, over a decade after his death from complications related to AIDS.
New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz has called Gonzalez-Torres “one of the greatest artists of the late 20th century.” Saltz noted that for people who weren’t around during his heyday, this Zwirner exhibit is “as close as younger audiences may ever get to seeing a ‘new’ work by this trailblazing master.”
Andrea Rosen, president of the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation and Andrea Rosen Gallery, says it’s a testament to Gonzalez-Torres’s core tenets — the concepts that guide his work and allow for it to be reinterpreted without losing his intentionality — that his art remains so vital.
“This is an artist who died 27 years ago, but there’s something about Felix’s work that always feels like it is in the present — that it is about now, that it is reflecting the now, that it is in response to the now,” Rosen said. She suggests that because he knew he was likely to die, his lover and muse Ross Laycock having died of AIDS-related illness in 1991, he devoted himself to conceptualizing his art so that it could be reproduced and restaged without his physical presence.
“I’ve never seen an artist so dedicated to creating a very specific body of work, but also how to get to the essence of every piece,” Rosen said. “And I think in relation to the knowledge of death, there was this idea of not only a desire for the works to be present, but what are the core aspects of these works, what is the bare amount that’s necessary for this work to exist, and what do I not need to determine?”
Because he knew he wouldn’t be around for their staging, his work involves a huge amount of trust between the exhibitors, the people producing the pieces, and the audience. An example of this can be found at David Zwirner in “‘Untitled’ (Public Opinions),” which features thousands of black candies in clear wrappers, laid out carefully in a pristine rectangular shape. For the viewer, the work produces a tension between the desire to pick up a piece of candy and the fear of disrupting the artwork’s shape or disturbing its stillness.
“Felix was really interested in using generosity as, for lack of a better word, a trick, because once you take that piece of candy, you realize that your rights are very closely related to your responsibilities,” Rosen said. “The openness of his work is really a call for responsibility. He gave up a huge amount of control over how they’re actually realized in order to place that trust in others.”
In addition to the billboard/sound piece “‘Untitled’, 1994-1995,” the other centerpiece of the Zwirner exhibit is “‘Untitled (Sagitario).” Gonzalez-Torres fully conceptualized both pieces before his death in 1996. They were originally meant to be displayed in 1995, but that exhibition was rescheduled and ultimately never occurred, making this the first time the works are being staged as he intended.
“‘Untitled’ (Sagitario),” located in the opposite corner of the gallery from “‘Untitled’, 1994-1995,” consists of two identical 12-foot circular reflecting pools embedded in the floor. The shape and implied intimacy of the pools, which are almost touching, recalls one of his most famous pieces, “‘Untitled’ (Perfect Lovers),” in which two battery-powered clocks are hung side by side, in perfect sync.
Although they are distinct works, “‘Untitled’ (Sagitario)” was always intended to be staged near “‘Untitled’, 1994-1995,” because of the latter work’s unusual sound element of the latter piece.
“There was a note that even though these two works are quite separate, the sound of the billboard work should be so loud that it could potentially shake the water in the pools,” Rosen said.
The success of the piece is the ultimate testament to Gonzalez-Torres’s rigorous design, as well as his trust in his collaborators.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres is on display at David Zwirner Gallery at 525 West 19th Street through February 25. Get more info here.