“No real dialogue is possible between somebody and a nobody.”– Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out
“PLAY AT YOUR OWN RISK.”
Such a warning could be suitably placed alongside many of the participatory artworks of recent years. Indeed museum goers were understandably unprepared for the meals that Rirkrit Tiravanija offered, the playful environments of Carsten Höller, or the sometimes awkward encounters curated by Tino Sehgal. As a style or a movement, these works are notoriously difficult to categorize. Often associated with Nicolas Bourriaud’s influential text Relational Aesthetics or the titles “participatory art” or “art and social practice,” this tribe of artists has managed to expand creatively on the legacy of the performance art and the conceptual art of previous generations. Despite garnering large, curated exhibitions at leading museums and infiltrating the major biennials, the perceived novelty and broad appeal of this movement has been harshly scrutinized by critics like Claire Bishop and Hal Foster.
The artworks of Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-96, Cuban born, American), however, have managed to outlast the unchecked enthusiasm of relational art and sustain a broad audience of critics and scholars many years after his death. While his paper stacks and candy spills –undoubtedly his most well-known bodies of work–cannot escape easy associations, these works bear as much or more connection to minimalism and conceptual art as they do to relational works. Like many artists associated with the movement, Gonzalez-Torres invites forms of participation from his audience, but these modes of engagement are but one of the many layers within the matrix of references and allusions within his work. Gonzalez-Torres stands out from this generation because the participatory encounter is merely a means and not the end. For this reason, his works offer something more–something beyond a fresh reorientation of the gallery as a public space, something more tender and human.
Perhaps the least considered of his works, the beaded curtains evoke this ‘more’ with eerie resonance. In all his works, we find an unlikely humaneness embedded in the most everyday objects, but the curtain works provide a particularly poignant example of his humanizing touch. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ curtains present a generative form of hospitality unparalleled among contemporary artworks, and their novel hospitality evidences a dual character: at once, generous and confrontational. The work remains open but not empty, humble but not self-defeating. Through the curtain, we encounter a somebody rather than a nobody.
As a specific set of works, the beaded curtains have a singular and moving antecedent evident in his “Untitled” (Loverboy), which was first exhibited as a part of the momentous rotating show “Every Week There Is Something Different” at Andrea Rosen Gallery in 1991. Consisting of simple curtains of sheer blue fabric covering the windows of a gallery or museum space, “Untitled” (Loverboy) showcases the exquisitely soft touch of his sculptural forms. Primarily an accessory for the space, this installation refuses to dominate its environment. Rather it nestles into the existing features of the room. Like his wall portraits or candy spills, the curtains merely map onto the structures already present. Perhaps if the windows can open, then the curtains can respond to that feature of the space. By resisting dramatic displays of size or color or shape, they transform such spaces through negation–announcing what’s not there.
Adjusting the space in such small, restrained increments, Gonzalez- Torres’ work creates a profound mood in the room and invites stillness and reflection. Simple and unassuming, these curtains can be overlooked by an impatient gallery visitor. Whereas some of his works necessitate a consumer, this piece merely calls for a witness–some presence to feel the absence it reflects. As the air catches these faint sheets of fabric, the forms shift in that everyday way that we normally ignore.
Held with fresh attention, the movements of these curtains appear alien, and in stark contrast to their lifeless suspension, as sails on the breeze they give tangible form to the emptiness of the room for a few, brief moments. When the wind changes, they resume their delicate vigilance, and we are more aware of the space’s void. We are left with our solitude.
Why curtains? Why make emptiness perceptible with these forms? A few answers could be given. We could probe Gonzalez-Torres’ reliance on the strictures of minimalism or the appropriation tactics of the readymade, but perhaps the emotional resonances of the work are more central. Curtains are emblems of domesticity; they invoke a sense of home, a place of rest, like a bedroom or its surrogate in a hotel or a hospital. These curtains merely suggest such associations without dictating anything, but if they are there, then what should we feel? Should we feel an acknowledgement of loneliness? Do we find here some room for grieving–for feeling our losses and mourning them?
This, it seems, is the very invitation he offers.
As something of a landmark piece in his production, “Untitled” (Loverboy), 1989 remains perhaps the most recognizable example of what numerous critics have described as the “elegiac” character of Gonzalez-Torres’ artworks. Beyond merely a material or structural resemblance, however, their connection to the beaded curtains is imaginative and poetic. Most of all perhaps, the somber mood conveyed by the blue sheer curtains helps to balance and steady the inherent playfulness of the beaded curtains and in that way protect the less playful associations that the artist allows in them.
LIFE AND DEATH THROUGH THE CURTAIN
During the years 1991 to 1995, Felix Gonzalez-Torres created five beaded curtain works. Some were key pieces in major international exhibitions in the artist’s lifetime, and some were quietly shown alone in small gallery shows. While the pieces consist of simply “strands of beads and hanging device,” the aggregate effect of these curtains produces a playful but potentially disturbing impression. Consider their ambiguous titles. This class of works includes: “Untitled” (Chemo), 1991; “Untitled” (Blood), 1992; “Untitled” (Beginning), 1994; “Untitled” (Golden), 1995; and “Untitled” (Water), 1995. While the parenthetical references within these titles may suggest a more abstract or generalized theme for each piece, these curtains are no less layered with multiple meanings and allusions than the rest of his oeuvre.
Like all of his manifestable pieces, the artist provided for the future life of these works by generating specific certificates for each one. These certificates are the property of collectors and lay out the essential instructions for manifesting the piece. In the case of the beaded curtains, the certificates specify the type and size of bead to be used along with the colors and patterns in which they should be displayed. The materials for the piece should be sourced locally and easily. All curtains should hang the entire distance from ceiling to floor and not touch or drag on the floor when visitors pass through them. Gonzalez-Torres tried to keep the installation of these works as straightforward and undemanding as possible, and the end results are simple, beautiful obstacles.
The beaded curtains transform the art space in a much more direct fashion than “Untitled” (Loverboy), 1989. With these works, much of the subtlety is gone, and the artistic gesture is confrontational, even antagonistic. The most important aspect of the installation instructions, as specified in the certificates for the artworks, is the curtain’s strategic placement in the gallery or museum space. All curtains must bisect some entryway or transitional space in the gallery. To move forward, visitors must move through the curtains. In this respect, the beaded curtains remain the artist’s most confrontational work.
The color combinations and patterns represented in the actual strands of beads are more complex and considered than they first appear. For instance, in the last curtain piece “Untitled” (Water), 1995 Gonzalez-Torres did not merely select one remarkable blue bead to be used throughout, but rather the artist’s inventory lists the materials as “blue, clear and silver plastic beads.” By setting the ratio to include more blue beads, the overall look of the curtain reflects the blue of water, but patterning it with clear and silver beads creates a more lively visual impression for the participant. These patterns help to give life to the ambiguous associations in the titles. Water is referenced here not only by its material identifiers but also in the liveliness of its remarkable forms. At the same time, however, the artist’s mixture of colored beads seems to suggest an essential mixture within the thing alluded to by the beads.
The beaded curtains invite a range of responses from museum goers. Because of their placement within the space, all visitors must interact with them to some degree, but the playful appearance of the work and the material resemblance to so many doorways in 1970s homes keep many responses light and fun, perhaps mostly inconsequential. Like children, we all enjoy breaking the surface integrity of the beaded wall and feeling the strands brush across our bodies as we step through them. While all visitors can enjoy the fun of interacting with the strings of beads, others are aware of the multiple other associations with “passing through” the curtain. They are subtle but never shy about it. Passing through the gorgeous sheet of “green, clear and silver” in “Untitled” (Beginning), 1994; the viewer is invited to imagine an awakening, a renewal, a rebirth. Such are the hopes embedded in that gorgeous green curtain. As an imagined veil between life and death, the beaded curtains enact a formidable interchange of play and ritual. In this way, Gonzalez-Torres animates an empty and clichéd form with new possibilities and at the same time profound conundrums. Rather than merely contemplating loss with the mournful dance of “Untitled” (Loverboy), 1989, the beaded curtains help us enter the mourning more fully.
CONFRONTATION AND CONTAGION
Again, with these works, invitation turns to confrontation, but confrontation yields surprising gifts. Passing through Gonzalez-Torres’ curtains not only provides an imaginative passage to rebirth and renewal, as two particular pieces, the first of this series–“Untitled” (Chemo), 1991 and “Untitled” (Blood), 1992–embrace the pain of disease and death. By reversing the benignly positive experience of the other curtains, “Untitled” (Chemo) and “Untitled” (Blood) affect their participants in a completely unique way: they infect us with empathy. These contaminations issue from two related but distinct realizations. More pointed and direct, “Untitled” (Chemo) and “Untitled” (Blood) deliver encounters that we would likely resist if not for the artist’s powerful invitation.
In similar fashion to the other curtain works, “Untitled” (Chemo) presents a unique mixture of its own. Its inventory description reads, “white, clear and silver plastic beads and metal rod”–simple enough, but powerful in what it evokes. Unlike all the other curtains, this one does not provide a wall of color through which to move. Unassuming and nearly blank, the appearance of this curtain pairs well with the sterile and austere environment of the health care system and the workaday world of blithely administering deadly medicines to innumerable patients. By bracketing the majority of white bulbs with small drops of clear and silver beads, Gonzalez-Torres evokes the material qualities of the therapy itself. In this precise way, “Untitled” (Chemo) suggests the awful presence of some intruder, the unsettling thought of some hostile parasite moving almost undetected throughout the body. In no way a literalist depiction of the medical process, this curtain recalls the uncomfortable prospect of injecting poison in hopes of eliminating another poison. As an abstraction–killing the killer inside you–chemotherapy is devastating even to contemplate. Agreeing to undergo such treatment signifies a level of desperation that would cripple most people.
What is most astounding and overwhelming about “Untitled” (Chemo) is its pallid contingency. In contrast to the other curtains, it collaborates significantly with its surroundings. More like a screen that reflects what is already present in the space, it gives off very different effects based on the amount of light in the space along with its shape and size, and thus signals either hope or dread. There is no better illustration of this elasticity of effect than the 1994 collaboration that Gonzalez-Torres undertook with Rudolf Stingel at the Neue Galerie am Landesmuseum Joanneum, Graz, Austria. For the exhibition, the artist installed two lengths of “Untitled” (Chemo) at the entrance and exit to the rooms and corridors in which Stingel had installed his signature monochrome carpets. In this instance, Stingel elected to use pitch-black carpets through- out the installation, and in their chameleon-like way, the curtains of Gonzalez-Torres adjusted themselves appropriately. Because the lights in the space were fully dimmed and the carpets absorbed so much light in the space, the curtains simultaneously beckoned and warned visitors against entry into the ominous void. While the Baroque interiors of the Austrian museum echo with opulence, luxury, and frivolity, the installation rendered the architecture mute and recast the space as absurd and trite. The dark passage proved a superior example of the curtain’s inherent ambiguity. Reflecting on the sense of internal conflict accompanying interaction with their space, Francesco Bonami concludes in his catalog essay that the installation prompts us to recall that, “we are condemned to hope.”
Indeed, that impasse represents the full poignancy of “Untitled” (Chemo). Up to and at the very point of death, we must admit our own fragility and contingency. We resist that reality in a myriad of ways, but in a broken world such moments of painful clarity intrude on us often without warning. In his quiet way, the artist forces us to recognize our fragility. For a moment, facing the horrific uncertainty of chemotherapy is not the solitary challenge of an AIDS patient struggling to understand his disease and somehow survive the criminally slow efforts of the medical community nor is it the unlucky fate of someone with a terminal cancer diagnosis. Rather, the uncertainty recalled here is, in part, the vocation of all life. As the artist allows us to experience it in this playful but ominous curtain, every person must at some point or other consider the course of their existence. We must feel the trajectory of our lives. The fear of death or the hope for survival animate daily life, but this often goes unnoticed.
Uncovering the vulnerability of our lives is but one service that Gonzalez-Torres renders those who encounter his work. With “Untitled” (Blood) he goes further to expose us to an emotional contagion. More than any of his other curtains, this curtain makes the experiential component of these pieces veer away from a generic nobody and toward a specific somebody. What is more intimate than blood, the life force of the body? But in an age of alarm over AIDS, what appears more threatening?
In his essay “The Everyday Art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres,” the critic David Deitcher employs the term “hemophobia” to name the backdrop of paranoia and the unbridled fear of blood at the height of the AIDS crisis. Indeed, for any person having reached sexual maturity by the early to mid 1990s, contact with another person’s blood became a source of deep and almost irrational fear. As new celebrities and public figures emerged with their own lethal connections to the disease and as hopes for medical relief for the afflicted–let alone a cure–seemed out of reach, a profound malaise and even pessimism descended on generations of young Americans. The fear of blood remained at the center of that obsession. Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Blood) delivers both a confrontation with and a means of overcoming that “hemophobia.” While his cure offers no medical advantage, the personal health benefits are potent for one’s emotional life.
“Untitled” (Blood) functions like all of his beaded curtains–simple yet striking to behold, delicate but playful to the touch. With its own mixture of red and clear plastic beads, it is–like any of his curtains–barely there. The combination of colors, however, speaks to something more sinister than even the chemical make-up illustrated by “Untitled” (Chemo). The color pattern of this curtain begins with six red beaded strands followed by one clear strand and in its appearance is more striking as a pattern than what we see in any of the others. Beyond merely referencing the complex makeup of our blood (something less commonly understood prior to the onset of the AIDS crisis), the presence of clear strands alongside so many strands of red evokes a curious unease and mimics the preoccupation of so many patients keeping up with their white blood cell counts. This preoccupation is a larger theme in Gonzalez-Torres’ work and provides the basis for a number of minimally graphed drawings on paper exhibited toward the end of his life like “Untitled”(9 Days of Bloodwork–Steady Decline and False Hope), 1993. Does the presence of his clear beaded strand suggest a depleted white blood cell count hint at contaminated blood? Perhaps, but the allusions and metaphors present in Gonzalez-Torres’ work never satisfies any simple explanation. Uncertainty over the blood’s hostility is certainly part of it.
Like his other curtains, visitors are required to pass through “Untitled” (Blood) in order to reach the other side. By design, the artist prevents visitors from avoiding the confrontation. For those who want to connect the experience of his lighthearted and playful curtain with the network of meanings it embodies, the invitation goes out broadly. For those who recognize the distinctive works of this artist, the whole story is there–a big, open story that Felix Gonzalez-Torres invites us to hear again and again. Rather than a political accusation or social indictment, we must face the bare facts–an artist’s dying of AIDS after losing his partner to the same disease. The awkward confrontation, leads to a surprising gift: renewed empathy. Here, we break the wall of beaded colors and cross the threshold of hospitality. We transgress the wall that separates the faceless, suffering stranger from the familiar, accepted beloved. Like making introductions between new friends, the gift of “Untitled” (Blood) is a fresh confidence for meeting others in their profound dignity and difference.
On more than a few occasions, Gonzalez-Torres explained in interviews how the particular con- tours of his practice were about resisting a direct representation of the AIDS sufferer. The characteristically soft touch of Gonzalez-Torres’ work must be seen in contrast to the injuriously controversial or the painfully didactic art of other contemporary artists addressing the AIDS crisis–artists like David Wojnarowicz, Robert Mapplethorpe, Gregg Bordowitz, or Nan Goldin. In conversation with the artist Ross Bleckner, he explained himself this way, “What I’m trying to say is that we cannot give the powers that be what they want, what they expect from us. Some homophobic senator is going to have a very hard time trying to explain to his constituency that my work is homoerotic or pornographic, but if I were to do a performance with HIV blood— that’s what he wants, that’s what the rags expect because they can sensationalize that, and that’s what’s disappointing.” The particular show in mind was the three part exhibition “Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Traveling,” which spent time in Chicago, L.A., and Washington D.C. In the nation’s capital, the artist made sure to display his most poignant beaded curtains “Untitled” (Chemo) and “Untitled” (Blood). They were never shown together before nor since that time.
Since the artist’s death in 1996, little has changed with respect to the beaded curtains. They are still a favorite of many visitors. Recently, all five curtains have been a part of a special exhibition entitled “Passages: Felix Gonzalez-Torres” at the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that continues through January 2015. Interestingly, the sequence for displaying the curtains seems random and unconsidered. The order of their showing was “Untitled” (Beginning), “Untitled” (Golden), “Untitled” (Water), “Untitled” (Blood), and “Untitled” (Chemo), which feels anachronistic and lacks a clear theme or narrative. The seemingly arbitrary choices behind this special exhibition beg the question: Beyond their mass appeal and enjoyment factor, what is the enduring value of the beaded curtains?
Here, I return to the late priest and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen for guidance. With a somewhat surprising turn in his classic Reaching Out, Nouwen describes authentic and meaningful hospitality as both receptivity and confrontation. By confrontation, he means the assertive presence of a some- body rather than an indistinct, supposedly neutral nobody. He explains, “Confrontation results from the articulate presence, the presence within boundaries, of the host to the guest by which he offers himself as a point of orientation and a frame of reference. We are not hospitable when we leave our house to strangers and let them use it any way they want. An empty house is not a hospitable house. In fact, it quickly becomes a ghost house, making the stranger feel uncomfortable.” This balance of receptivity and confrontation, as Nouwen helpfully clarifies, is the essence of hospitality’s risk, and without such risks, how could hospitality ever prove itself?
Indeed, the artworks of Gonzalez-Torres are not “empty houses.” They are invitingly spacious and roomy, yet never vacuous. The imaginative empathy of the artist is surely there, but he leaves plenty of room for visitors to take part on their own terms, with their own concerns. With their strangely captivating blend of pretty playfulness and somber mourning, the beaded curtains showcase the artist’s witness to the power of personal hospitality like no other. Even devastating delights like “Untitled” (Chemo) and “Untitled” (Blood) invite us to inhabit, for at least a moment, the story of someone else–a someone defined, just as we are all, by love and loss. In one of only a few talks given by the artist during his tragically brief life, Felix Gonzalez-Torres pleaded with his fellow avant-garde to resist the traps of sensationalism and find more humane modes of communication. He made this plea in hopes that, “Maybe in this way, our voice of opposition will be a more complex voice–less easy to dissect and categorize.” It is safe to assume that his voice resonates so deeply because he was able to harness the most powerful and effective weapons of opposition: empathy, shared experience, and hospitality.
Thanks are due to the Center for Faculty Development at Union University and their generous support in providing a Pew Research Grant to undertake the research represented here. Also, special thanks are due to Emilie Keldie and the staff of the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation for their amazing hospitality and remarkable assistance in this research project.