Stirring image takes the museum beyond its walls and puts art in the path of everyday life.
Everybody in, nobody out. That was the powerful call to action embodied in the work of Cuban-born American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957–1996), who was committed to expanding the public function of art in order to address universal themes of love, hope, loss and impermanence and to bring about social change. This fall the Princeton University Art Museum will install one of Gonzalez-Torres’s billboard-sized works in 12 locations: on the outdoor plaza in front of the Museum and on 11 commercial billboards located throughout greater Princeton and central New Jersey.
Curated by Kelly Baum, Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Princeton University Art Museum, the installation Felix Gonzalez-Torres: “Untitled” will be on view from Oct. 21 through Dec. 16, 2013. The locations have been chosen in keeping with the artist’s desire that his images be shown in everyday locations, where people from different backgrounds who might not ever visit a museum would encounter them.
Created at the height of the AIDS crisis, this particular image—“Untitled” (1991)—is a haunting black-and-white photograph of a rumpled, empty double bed with visible indentations on the pillows, suggestive of two now-absent bodies. The image, which is accompanied by no explanatory information identifying it as a work of art, evokes the tensions and emotions associated with intimacy, grief and desire, and gains meaning when we learn that Gonzalez-Torres lost his partner to AIDS in 1991. The image also obliquely references the surrounding legal debates on the right to privacy for sexually consenting same-sex adults —as recently as 1986 the U.S. Supreme Court was upholding the legality of anti-sodomy laws—and for those living with HIV and AIDS.
“Apart from its sheer beauty, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s work invites us to consider issues of love and searing loss, and to become more aware of the meaning of private emotion and public space,” notes Museum director James Steward. “In an age in which the scourge of AIDS remains with us globally, Felix’s immersive vision remains essential, and is a potent reminder of how this disease ravaged the art world twenty years ago.”
Heir to the conceptual practices of the modern iconoclast Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), who believed that the viewer was as important to the realization of a work of art as the artist, Gonzalez-Torres merged a Minimalist aesthetic and approach—principally the serial use of everyday, reproducible materials—with his own interests in collaboration, broad dissemination, personal narrative and political engagement. A significant part of the artist’s oeuvre rejects the notion of the stagnant art object in favor of a viral-like ability to reach audiences trough non-traditional forms and spaces. “I need the public to complete the work,” Gonzalez-Torres once stated, “to become part of my work, to join in.”
Born in Cuba, Gonzalez-Torres moved to Spain and Puerto Rico as a child before arriving in the United States to study art in 1979. He graduated with a B.F.A. from Pratt Institute in 1983 and an M.F.A. from the International Center of Photography/New York University in 1987. His professional career lasted from 1988 until his death from AIDS-related complications in 1996. In addition to his billboards, Gonzalez-Torres is best known for his works that consist of stacks of paper and heaped candy spills, works that explicitly encourage visitors to participate by taking a printed sheet or an individual wrapped candy and are replenished throughout the course of an installation.
Originally installed in 24 locations throughout New York City, “Untitled” (1991) is from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Gift of Werner and Elaine Dannheisser, 1996 (180.1996).
About the Princeton University Art Museum
With collecting origins dating to the 1750s, the Princeton University Art Museum is one of the finest university art museums in the country. Formally established in 1882, its collections now feature over 80,000 works of art ranging from ancient to contemporary art and spanning the globe, making it one of few encyclopedic collections in a university setting.
Committed to advancing Princeton’s teaching and research missions, the Art Museum serves as a gateway to the University for visitors from around the world. Intimate in scale yet expansive in scope, the Museum offers a respite from the rush of daily life, a revitalizing experience of extraordinary works of art and an opportunity to delve deeply into the study of art and culture.
The Princeton University Art Museum is located at the heart of the Princeton campus, a short walk from the shops and restaurants of Nassau Street. Admission is free. Museum hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. The Museum is closed Mondays and major holidays.
Princeton University Art Museum