Félix González-Torres

Frankfurt am Main, Germany

Museum für Moderne Kunst

Félix González-Torres, Untitled (For Stockholm), 1992/2011, First presentation by Elena Filipovic

Familiarity does breed contempt. But worse than contempt is ambivalence or disregard: knowing something so well – or thinking you do – that it no longer touches you, that the joy of the experience has been diminished, perhaps irrevocably.

In this frame of mind, I traipsed off to see the retrospective ‘Félix González-Torres. Specific Objects without Specific Form’. Was there anything left to add to the art historical canon that attends the oeuvre of the Cuban artist, who settled in New York in the 1970s and died of AIDS-related complications in 1996 at the age of 39? The piles of candy are a comment on life’s fragility; their slow diminishment is a metaphor for the process of dying… Didn’t we learn that in college?

What this compelling show accentuated is that learning by rote is no substitute for experience and that, as González-Torres posited, everything does and should change, even artworks. To this end, curator Elena Filipovic conceived each stop of this travelling retrospective as a kind of play in two acts. She always curated the first act as a chronological overview. For the second act, one contemporary artist influenced by González-Torres’ work re-curated her installation half-way through the show’s duration. Last year, Danh Vo re-installed the debut at the WIELS art space in Brussels while Carol Bove did the honours for the second stop at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen near Basel. This spring, Tino Sehgal took on the show’s third and final stop at the Museum für Moderne Kunst (MMK) in Frankfurt am Main.

Filipovic’s presentation at the MMK did precisely what an opening act should do: set the scene and let the audience get to know the main characters. Untitled (Perfect Lovers) (1987–90) appeared at the coat check: two wall clocks hung side by side, set to the same time, only to fall out of synch with their fading battery power. This installation exposed some of the artist’s concerns – the melancholy of love, the fleetingness of time, the transformation of the ordinary into vessels of emotion – and one of his most basic tenets: A work does not have to be treated as sacred, installed in a white cube and lit to perfection. Accidental discoveries – in places like the coat check where one is unprepared to be confronted with ‘museum art’ – can be more engaging.

The first room elucidated how public and private are intertwined, emotionally and politically, with works from the late 1980s including Untitled (1988). This first ‘stack’ piece is made up of a fat sheaf of photocopies identifying important political moments that had an impact on González-Torres’ life: ‘Helms Amendment 1987 Anita Bryant 1977 Cardinal O’Connor 1988‘, among others. While later stacks were put on the floor, González-Torres placed this very first one on a pedestal. Visitors were allowed to take a photocopy, but the work created an uncertainty, which was augmented by the pedestal, about what can and can’t be done in a public museum.

Subsequent rooms and works confounded American politics of the ’80s with the artist’s existence as a gay man infected with HIV. Untitled (God Bless Our Country and Now Back to War) (1989) – framed newspaper clippings – exposes the outward jingoism that González-Torres felt was a smokescreen to distract Americans from untenable situations at home, including the AIDS crisis. The combination of public and private also comes to bear in Untitled (1989), which consists of words painted in a continuous line on a wall as a frieze around a room: ‘Civil Rights Act 1964 Our Own Apartment 1976 Berlin Wall 1989 An Easy Death 1991’, among others. Some visitors might have been surprised to see ‘Obama 2008’ added by Filipovic, but the addition expressed González-Torres’ desire that his work continue to live: never static, always changing.

Félix González-Torres, Untitled (For Stockholm), 1992/2011, Second presentation by Tino Sehgal

This thought was taken to the extreme with Tino Sehgal’s intervention in the second act, which functioned as both a re-reading and a eulogy. Sehgal invited a team of art students to reposition the works continually, thus creating ever-changing connections between them, in a careful choreography. The re-installation lasted for about six hours straight; a room was ‘finished’ only to be changed again. Even individual works were arranged in a new fashion. Who knew that the candy did not have to be set up in perfect geometric shapes but could also be simply poured out on the floor? The strings of light bulbs hanging from the ceiling in Untitled (For Stockholm) (1992) were lined up on the floor or around the edges of a room; once handled, some bulbs burnt out.

The change in public response from the first act to the second act was spectacular. Silent and slightly reverential people – reading the guide, tentatively approaching works, whispering to one another – were replaced by actively engaged players, talking loudly to one another, to complete strangers and, inevitably, to the museum guards and Sehgal’s handlers. In a 1995 interview with Robert Storr, González-Torres addressed the topic of the guards, whom he also saw as his audience, and Sehgal brought this element back to life.

While the first act performed its didactic role elegantly, the second reinvigorated the exhibition with a degree of engagement unusual for a public museum. What Sehgal achieved was like a brilliant cover song of an old classic which allows you to rediscover the original all over again and gets you singing along.

—by Amanda Coulson

Amanda Coulson is a Bahamian-American writer and curator until recently based in Frankfurt. She was one of the co-founders of the VOLTA art fairs in Basel and New York and after 7 years as Executive Director is stepping down to take up the post of Director of the National Gallery of the Bahamas in Nassau.