How Haunting Can One Guy Be?

It may be a critical misdemeanor to write about Felix Gonzalez-Torres without using the adjective “haunting.” In texts about the artist, the word occurs again and again and again.

And why not? Certainly the term is suited to the content of his work, which frequently engaged issues of death, absence, and renewal.

FGT

Even on the most basic formal level, Gonzalez-Torres’ spare aesthetic presents objects that seem tenuous, displaced, and ethereal.

FGT light bulbs

Of course, Gonzalez-Torres haunts us in a more literal sense. The renewable formats he deployed in works like his paper stacks, billboards, and candy piles are both tactile and immaterial. In an essential paradox, these works hinge on the possibility of infinite renewal, but in their very structure they address the impossibility of such a condition.

FGT stacks

Gonzalez-Torres’ use of photography is also relevant here. The confluence between photography and death has been much discussed. Susan Sontag wrote that “photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction and this link between photography and death haunts all photos of people.”

But this is true even of many photographs that do not include people. Take, for example, one of Gonzalez-Torres’ best-known and frequently staged works, his “Untitled” billboard of an empty bed from 1991. The palpable sense of absence in this particular photograph is entirely familiar to anyone who has experienced loss (although of course the piece is derived from the deeply personal pain of Gonzalez-Torres’ own experience).

FGT billboard

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes also discussed the haunting nature of the photograph: “What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.” Gonzalez-Torres leverages this quality of repeatable experience in works that couple lamentation and affirmation.

When Gonzalez-Torres represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2007, there was some debate about the production of a piece that the artist never staged during his own lifetime. While that specific curatorial choice may be questionable, is there any artist whose work is more suited to posthumous exhibition than Felix Gonzalez-Torres?

The specific historical context of his life and works shouldn’t be ignored. But the thematic and physical values of his practice ensure that his work is in some ways universal, and will endure. In this sense, this work can’t really haunt us – because it remains alive.

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