Curator's Corner

Hispanic Heritage Month: Felix González-Torres

By Karl Cole, posted on Oct 12, 2021

Of the many artists who addressed the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 90s, perhaps none approach the poignancy of the work of Felix González-Torres. His later works document different perceptions of gay relationships and love, and the loss of his longtime partner, Ross Laycock (1959–1991), to the disease. The poignancy comes from the simplicity of his works, and how, in a universal way, they inspire the viewer to contemplate the nature of love, relationships, and loss.

Installation by Felix González-Torres titled Untitled (Toronto) (1992). Doubled strand of lightbulbs attached to a wall and pooling on the floor.
Felix González-Torres (1957–1996, U.S., born Cuba), Untitled (Toronto), 1992. Light bulbs, extension cord, and porcelain light sockets, dimensions vary with installation: 42' (12.8 meters) long, with 20' (6 meters) extra cord. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift of Emily and Jerry Spiegel.  © 2021 The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, Courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York. Painting and Sculpture. (MOMA-S0613)


Lightbulbs are incorporated into many of González-Torres’s artworks. He saw lightbulbs as a symbol of life force, particularly in the aspect that lightbulbs eventually burn out, just as human beings do. In Untitled (Toronto), the string of lightbulbs is looped to present two, intertwined strings of light, symbolizing a human couple. Because this piece was conceived of after the death of the artist's partner, it can be seen as a symbol of their relationship.

González-Torres used simple, everyday objects in all of his works. They were typically arranged with a Minimalist aesthetic—often left to the discretion of the gallery—where they create one complete form. The narrative is usually not obvious, and the artist preferred for the viewers to form their own conclusions.

Throughout his career, González-Torres drew on the influences of Minimalism and Conceptualism to create a group of artworks that function as reflections on both personal and political ideas linked to the human being. Born in Guáimaro, Cuba, he received his first set of watercolors from his father at the age of seven. He also lived in Puerto Rico and Spain before moving to New York permanently in 1979.

González-Torres earned a BFA from the Pratt Institute in New York in 1981 and an MFA from New York University in 1987. As early as 1981, he was involved with the artists cooperative Group Material, a New York City-based organization of artists dedicated to the creation, exhibition, and distribution of art that increases social awareness. The group created installations, performances, and discussions about issues involving peace and social justice in the U.S.

Questioning the idea that a work of art must be a unique, individual, and unchanging object, González-Torres wanted his work to be disseminated and exist in multiple places at one time. This demands the participation of the viewer, which the artist viewed as a monumental collaboration with the public.

The work Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) from 1991—a tribute to Laycock—is a pile of candy from which viewers were invited to take a piece. The depletion of the pile of candy, replenished regularly, was a symbol of the wasting away of his partner's body from AIDS.


Correlations to Davis programs: A Community Connection 2E: 9.1; Beginning Sculpture: Chapter 7; The Visual Experience 4E: 11.1, 11.5, 11.7