In his short lifetime, conceptual artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres created a body of work so significant, that it continues to influence contemporary artists today. His legacy is re-imagined in an ambitious three-part exhibition, staged concurrently across three European cities and sensitively curated by his long time friends and artists, Julie Ault and Roni Horn.
The London instalment at Hauser & Wirth focuses on a specific body of work within the artist’s oeuvre, namely his series of jigsaw puzzles from 1991. The year 1991 not only represented social and political upheaval at the height of the global AIDS epidemic but also meant personal tragedy for the artist after the recent death of his partner. These sentiments are echoed in the reproduced imagery of the puzzles, where personal photographic mementos are juxtaposed with appropriated newspaper prints and excerpts from handwritten correspondence between the lovers. Here, the personal becomes very much political.
Upon entering the front gallery, a single blue-hued mirror is encountered, returning the viewer’s gaze. As a solitary object, its position opposite the entrance feels direct and almost confrontational. Throughout his practice, Gonzalez-Torres used the vernacular of the habitual and the readymade in his minimalist sculptural installations. Light bulbs, clocks and stacks of foil-wrapped hard-boiled sweets feature prominently as recurrent themes. These simple installations seem underpinned with melancholic undertones, however, through their economy of gesture. The pairing of objects and the use of the double is another common leit-motif. Inferred as a double portrait of the artist and his lover, this device intimates a personal relationship between the objects themselves.
Turning the corner into the second gallery, the floor length double mirrors of ‘Untitled (Orpheus Twice)’ solemnly stand. Opposite, in ‘Untitled (March 5th)’, two dimly-lit light bulbs are suspended from lengthy, intertwined extension cords against the gallery wall. The proximity of each bulb expresses a quiet intimacy, so much so that it almost feels intrusive to publicly witness it.
In previous works, the act of public participation has been central to the realisation of the concept. With installations, such as ‘Untitled (Placebo)’, the public is invited to take a sweet from a carpet of foil-wrapped sweets. With this process, the audience is distributing the artwork and assimilating the concept into public consciousness. In some circumstances, the objects are replenished. In others, each selection contributes to the gradual destruction of the artwork.
In the larger gallery space at Hauser & Wirth are two series of eight puzzle works. Each jigsaw is displayed from behind a transparent plastic bag, allowing only for the work to be observed. Certain poignant phrases leap from the texts - ‘I am lonely’, ‘you are not so near’, ‘the courage to fight off the pain’. I wondered whether the artist had originally intended for each puzzle to be plucked away by anonymous individuals for their own consumption? Was it his wish for the very personal sentiments glimpsed here, to be shared and distributed? Whatever the artist’s intention, this exhibition provides a privileged insight into the life and loves of Felix Gonzalez-Torres.