Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Selected Press

"It is a sacrilege," bell hooks wrote in a 1994 essay about the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, "to reserve this beauty solely for art." The latest exhibition of his work, and the first at David Zwirner Gallery, arrives on the occasion of the artist's longtime gallerist and estate executor Andrea Rosen's recently announced co-representation of Gonzales-Torres's estate with David Zwirner. The exhibit offers a tidy summary of Gonzalez-Torres's formal vocabulary (including his work in billboards, with five additionally installed around the city) and draws out the urgent beauty hooks described in his art.

In conversations about the artist–who was also a member of the art-activism collective Group Material–critics and scholars often assign this urgency to the political conditions related to Gonzalez-Torres's biography as a queer Cuban-American living with HIV. Much has changed since the artist's death during the epidemic in 1996, and yet here we are today, with Rose Garden overtures to the Religious Right at the White House last month and debates, fiercer than ever, over our health care system. The exhibition seems occasional, too, for this political return, summed up in the title of one of the paper stacks on view, "Untitled" (Republican Years) (1992), a paper cenotaph for the victims and destruction of the Reagan-Bush years.

Each of the galleries elicit reverence, as if one were entering a chapel upon entering each room. The spare arrangement of works throughout focuses attention on individual pieces, to be appreciated in isolation as well as in relation to specific works, and emphasizes the volume of space surrounding and between each piece, insulating and enhancing their soft vibrations.

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"My work cannot be destroyed," artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres told curator Nancy Spector in 1995. "I destroy the work before I make it." Between permanence and impermanence, the fleeting now and the heavy forever, where does art reside, and how does a work survive? This isn't only a question propelling Gonzalez-Torres, but one that hangs over an elegant and contemplative exhibition at David Zwirner, transforming the cold majesty of the Chelsea gallery space into an airy cathedral charged with the work and spirit of an artist who, since his death in 1996, has achieved a near-mythical status.

Gonzalez-Torres was born in Cuba in 1957 and moved to New York in 1979, graduating from both the Pratt Institute and the Whitney Museum's ISP program a few years later. Although trained as a photographer, he became known for installations that infused the stolid machismo of Minimalism with something it always seemed to lack: life force, generosity, humor. Rather than molten lead or bricks or polished steel, Gonzalez-Torres used candy, beads, and posters to create certain of his sculptures, and he invited his audience to take part by taking them. "Untitled" (Placebo-Landscape for Roni), from 1993, is composed of a long stream of gold-foil-wrapped hard candies lining the seam between the gallery's floor and wall; two stacks of paper ("Untitled," 1989/90)–one printed with the words “Somewhere better than this place,” the other “Nowhere better than this place”–lie side by side on the floor. This is all there for the taking; as mandated by Gonzalez-Torres, the gallery restocks the art as needed. It's a beautiful performance: art slowly atomizing into the world, disappearing and then regenerating, unable ever to be lost or destroyed.

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In an artist statement from 1988, Felix Gonzalez-Torres described his work for a show at the New Museum as "panoramas in which the fictional, the important, the banal and the historical are collapsed into a single caption." Gonzalez-Torres, who was born in Cuba but came to define the New York art world in the 1980s and '90s before dying of AIDS in 1996, considered himself excluded "from the circle of power where social and cultural values are elaborated." He rejected "the imposed and established order."

There is, then, a strange pleasure in seeing the artist's survey, on view now at David Zwirner Gallery in New York, one of the largest commercial dealers in the world. For the show, the gargantuan exhibition space on West 20th Street appears mostly devoid of physical objects, but so full of meaning that it feels as if the walls might burst. There are two small clocks installed side-by-side on one wall, ticking in unison. On the floor against one wall is a mound of candy in gold wrappers that viewers are invited to eat from freely. Another room contains two stacks of paper resting on the floor, also available to take. Scattered throughout all five boroughs of the city are public billboards featuring an image of a bird flying across a cloudy sky. They are installed at unassuming locales, as if in secret–a gas station in Brooklyn, an intersection in Queens, beneath a similarly sized "Kars 4 Kids" billboard on Staten Island. Their presence seems to saturate these bland locations with an eerie, foreign beauty.

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