Untitled, 1989 / 2019

Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Untitled, 1989
Public Art Fund / Sheridan Square, New York
04.06.19 – 28.07.19

In the explosion of public art that took place across advertising spaces in the 1980s, perhaps one of the best remembered is Felix Gonzalez-Torres for his sly and melancholic odes to queer life. He is possibly best remembered for his unmade bed billboard, but his first foray into the field in 1989 remains a class, and it reappeared in its original location last June, joining the citywide acknowledgement of the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and the thirtieth anniversary of the billboard’s installation.

For an artist who allowed so much openness – his word – in the interpretations of his work, it is perhaps an unexpected move, simply to present the work as it was first seen, given the plethora of advertising space in Manhattan and its neighbouring boroughs. Of course, the sense of commemoration and monumentality marking both occasions of the work’s presentation make sense – Stonewall at twenty in 1989, and fifty in 2019. To understand what it means to see the work again, we have to do a tricky thing with Gonzalez-Torres: examine his intentions. This is tricky because, despite the deep insights in the few interviews he gave and the richness of the scholarship on him, the openness of his work and how it has been posthumously interpreted present a certain blockage in how we might even situate his intentions.

Public Art Fund’s archival records provide a helpful starting point, in seeing the artist’s intentions in the planning stages. When Gonzalez-Torres designed the billboard, he envisaged it as addressing a ‘silent and invisible community’. Emblazoned with white text on the lower third of a black background, much like his early photostat works, the billboard read: ‘People With AIDS Coalition 1985 Police Harassment 1969 Oscar Wilde 1895 Supreme Court 1986 Harvey Milk 1977 March on Washington 1987 Stonewall Rebellion 1969’. As we would learn with his later dateline works, these running captions were highly specific, and also subject to interpretation. Yet in this corner of the West Village, Gonzalez-Torres’s address was loaded. ‘I can assume that many in this area of town, or in the Gay and Lesbian community, can make connections between the functions of the Supreme Court, the fate of Oscar Wilde… and the need for the formation of the PWA Coalition in response to the AIDS epidemic and the lack of Government action, and in response to institutionalised silence.’1 That is to say, in 1989 the queer of the West Village would be able to see this intervention in advertising space as an address to them, a monument to the achievements of the queer community, especially in moments of crisis.

‘Monumentality’ is a word that gets thrown about a lot in relation to Gonzalez-Torres’s work, his candy spills viewed as ephemeral monuments to moments and loved ones, his partner Ross Laycock especially. This monumentality likely lurks behind the intentions to stage the work on another anniversary, but to stop the reading here is ultimately too convenient, and inconsiderate to the difficulty of Gonzalez-Torres’s intentions.

As the billboard’s text runs, there is a push and pull between moments of triumph and moments of defeat, and a certain melancholy undergirds the whole text. ‘People With AIDS Coalition 1985’ connotes both organising and the tragedies of AIDS. By positioning the billboard in public space, Gonzalez-Torres undoubtedly announces the visibility of queer life. This is not, necessarily, a good thing. Consider the citation of ‘Supreme Court 1986’, ostensibly addressing the Bowers v. Hardwick case of the same year, which upheld Georgia’s anti-sodomy laws and would not be repealed until 2003. Bowers v. Hardwick at once announces the recognition of homosexual lives by governments, but shows recognition as a means of discrimination, of making some lives lesser, and showing that the private affairs of consenting bedroom intercourse were, in law, criminal.

This might paint Gonzalez-Torres as a pessimist, but that would be wrong. At his core, he was an artist invested in the possibilities and complications of democracy. To broadcast this ‘monument’ to queer life in advertising space at Pride is a gesture of generosity, it interrupts Bacardi and Camel ads, and centres the corner on a less capitalist version of queer life. At the same time, it shows the inherent compromise of any definition of public, showing it as space that is bought and sold.

In conjunction with the billboard, Gonzalez-Torres produced a poster edition of the work, which was meant for indoor display. The running text was identical, save for the date next to Oscar Wilde’s name. On the billboard, it referred to 1895, which Gonzalez-Torres identified as the year Wilde ‘decided to stay in London to face prosecution on charges of sexuality’. The small edition, meant to be ‘a more private and personal object’, displays 1891, referring to ‘a photograph of Oscar Wilde in the prime of his life, happy and flamboyant’.2 Again, public/private take on different connotations.

‘Public’ was a complicated term for Gonzalez-Torres. In interviews, he would frequently espouse variations of the statement ‘For me, the world, my world, my public, was always just one person.’3 The frequent dedications in the artist’s work inscribe what Élisabeth Lebovici says is ‘the possibility – or the desire – to survive the silence by reappropriating a future that can open up unforeseeable spaces’.4 Public Art Fund Archive records note that at one point in the production of the work this billboard was dedicated to Laycock. While Gonzalez-Torres was cagey about many things – he was rarely photographed for a mass public – the simple fact of his affection for Laycock was not one of them.

Since 1989 – and before – the billboard has actively been a site of queer public life. In 1978 the same ad space triumphantly demanded ‘GAY RIGHTS NOW’ in white text on a red background. In 1991 it began to recognise gay money as good money, hosting the lustful image of two men ready to go on an RSVP Gay Cruise. After the Giuliani-fication of New York and decades of changes to the businesses around the billboard – save the one constant of the Village Cigars store – the site advertised Ryan Murphy’s short-lived gay marriage TV sitcom The New Normal and, just below, the hook-up website Squirt.org displayed the headless torsos of two hairless, muscled white guys. These homophile episodes are interludes in an ad space that has hosted other zeitgeist-y projects, such as Jessica Alba’s Zico campaign, SJP’s run in Once Upon a Mattress, and any number of Bacardi spots. The billboard is always a monument to the present, and the gay content at this particular spot, if nothing else, suggests the continued mainstreaming of gay life in America.

It would be easy to say that Untitled was another monument to the success of the cause of gay rights, but Gonzalez-Torres was a more rigorous artist in his politics. Most recently, the billboard has been a year-round advertising platform for Google products. If the recent exhibitions honouring Stonewall varyingly spoke to the importance of visibility, the backdrop of Google and Gonzalez-Torres’s own ambiguities about publicity point to the complexities around privacy and public life. Representation cannot just be about visibility: it must challenge the broader political context and make spaces for better futures, seeing the interconnectedness of different political forces.

Restaging Untitled in the context of Stonewall’s fiftieth anniversary is a pleasant nod towards gay rights through an icon of recent American art. But its restaging deserves the rigorous reading and attention to politics that marked its original presentation. The grimness of America in the 1980s has many similarities to the present, and it’s important that Gonzalez-Torres’s billboard not be seen nostalgically, but as a reminder of the necessity of seeing histories’ different emotional resonances and their importance to the future. Gonzalez-Torres was an excellent artist of everyday life, of the strange ways that beauty could be cut by the darkest forms of melancholy. To restage this billboard thirty years later is a marker not only of the past, but also of how necessary these images still are today, of the horizons of expectation that must be cultivated in the face of a dreary present that can still reveal glimpses of hope in the most surprising places.

1. Felix Gonzalez-Torres, ‘Artist Proposal’, Public Art Fund Archive 1966–2009, MSS. 270. Series VI, Subseries A, Box 42, Folder 9. Fales Library & Special Collections, New York University.
2. Ibid.
3. ‘Conversation with Joseph Kosuth’, in Felix Gonzalez-Torres, ed. Julie Ault ( Göttingen: Steidl ), 2006, p. 350. In the catalogue for the Rhetorical Image exhibition ( New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1990, p. 48 ), for example, Gonzalez-Torres was describing his sense of a public: ‘I have my boyfriend and he is the only public I really know, and I always want to know how he feels about my work.’
4. Élisabeth Lebovici, ‘The Dedication’, trans. Daniel Hendrickson, Accessions, 4 ( April 2018 ) <https://accessions.org/article4/accessions-issue-4-translation/the-dedication-la-dedicace/>.



译 / 梁霄

在20世纪80年代广告空间里爆发的公共艺术潮流中,也许最令人印象深刻的是菲利克斯客冈萨雷斯-托雷斯(Felix Gonzalez-Torres),因为他会意而忧郁地歌颂了酷儿生活。一张尚未整理的床铺被呈现在广告牌上,这可能是冈萨雷斯-托雷斯的作品中最使人念念不忘的一件,但他在1989年首次涉足公共艺术领域时完成的作品,仍然可以被视为经典。2019年6月,在初次亮相30周年之际,这件1989年的作品被重新安装在了它原来的位置,加入了纽约全市纪念石墙运动50周年的活动中。

对于一位在观众诠释作品时鼓励高度开放性(他的原话)的艺术家来说,简单地重现作品最初的样子,或许是一个意想不到的举动,考虑到曼哈顿及其邻近的行政区实在拥有过多的广告空间。当然,1989年石墙运动(Stone Wall Riots)30周年,2019年石墙运动50周年—作品在这两个时间点呈现时的纪念是有意义的。为了理解再次看到这件作品意味着什么,我们必须面对冈萨雷斯-托雷斯做一件麻烦的事:审视他的意图。尽管冈萨雷斯-托雷斯在为数不多的几次采访中给出了不可思议的见解,而学者对他的研究又相当丰富,但其作品的开放性以及艺术家死后观众对其作品的解读,为我们明晰他的意图设置了一定的阻碍。

纽约公共艺术基金会留存的档案为我们了解艺术家在作品规划阶段的意图提供了有效的切入点。当冈萨雷斯-托雷斯设计这个广告牌时,他将它想象成一个“沉默的、看不见的社区”。对这块广告牌的处理很像冈萨雷斯-托雷斯早期的摄影作品:黑色平面的最低三分之一处印着白色文字,上面写道“艾滋病人联盟(People with AIDS Coalition)1985年警察骚扰1969年奥斯卡客王尔德1895年最高法院1986年哈维客米尔克(Harvey Milk)1977年华盛顿游行1987年石墙事件1969年”。正如我们能从他后来组合排列日期的系列作品中发现的那样,这条文字说明相当具体,也是亟待解释的对象。在纽约西村的一隅,冈萨雷斯-托雷斯诉说着他的许多关切:“我能够想象,这个地区或同性恋群体中的很多人都可以将这些事情联系起来,比如最高法院的职能、奥斯卡客王尔德的命运……还有成立艾滋病人联盟的需要,以对抗疾病的流行,政府行动的缺乏和制度化的沉默。”1换言之,在1989年,西村的酷儿们会将艺术家此次介入广告空间的行为视作对他们的致意,这是一种对酷儿群体成就的纪念,尤其颂扬了他们在危急时刻的表现。

“纪念性”体现于冈萨雷斯-托雷斯的大多数作品中,任人拿取的糖果是对所爱之人和那些甜蜜时刻的短暂纪念,尤其是为了追思他的伴侣罗丝客莱科克(Ross Laycock)。这种“纪念性”很可能隐藏在将作品呈现于另一个纪念日的意图背后,但让解读停留于此未免太轻率了,也没有考虑到冈萨雷斯-托雷斯意图的复杂之处。

广告牌上的文字在胜利和失败的时刻之间来回摇摆,并且被笼罩着一层忧郁。“艾滋病人联盟1985年”既是组织的集合,也是艾滋病的悲剧。冈萨雷斯-托雷斯将广告牌放置在公共空间中,无疑宣告了酷儿生活的可见性。但这未必是件好事。再来看看文字中对“最高法院1986年”的引用,这明显是指当年支持美国佐治亚州反鸡奸法令的“鲍尔斯诉哈德威克案”(Bowers V. Hardwick case),其判决直至2003年才被推翻。“鲍尔斯诉哈德威克案”即刻表明了政府对同性恋者的承认,但这种承认同时也意味着歧视,意味着有些人的生活将变得不那么美好,意味着在法律上,双方自愿并且发生在私下场合里的性行为是违法的。



对冈萨雷斯-托雷斯来说,公众是复杂的。他在采访中经常支持这样一种说法:“于我而言,这个世界,我的世界,我的公众,永远都只是一个人。”3在艺术家作品中频繁出现的题献应照着伊丽莎白客勒波维奇(Elisabeth Lebovici)所说的“可能性—或者欲望—通过重构一个能够打开不可预见性空间的未来,而在沉默中生存下来”。4纽约公共艺术基金会的档案说明,在广告牌制作过程中,冈萨雷斯-托雷斯本来要将它献给莱科克。虽然冈萨雷斯-托雷斯在很多事情上都相当谨慎—他很少在公众面前留下自己的照片—但他对莱科克的挚爱却不在其中。

从1989年开始(甚至更早),广告牌愈加积极地成为酷儿公共生活的空间。在1978年,同一块广告牌用红底白字胜利地宣告着“同志平权,就在此刻”;1991年,人们开始认为同性恋手里的钱是“好钱”,广告牌于是展现了两个将要前往同性恋豪华游轮之旅的性感男性。在纽约被“朱利亚尼化”(Giuliani-fication)之后,除了街角一直没变的乡村雪茄店,围绕着广告牌的商业内容在数十年间持续更替—它曾经宣传过由瑞恩客墨菲(Ryan Murphy)制作的、没活过一季的同性恋婚姻情景喜剧《另类家庭》( The New Normal),就在广告牌的下面,线上约会网站“Squirt.org”展现了两个肌肉发达且光滑的白人男子的身体。这些与同性恋有关的内容只是公共空间里的插曲,因为广告还要承载具备时代精神的其他东西,比如杰西卡客奥尔芭(Jessica Alba)的ZICO椰子水广告,莎拉客杰西卡客帕克(SJP)在舞台剧《豌豆公主》(Once Upon a Mattress)开演时的宣传,以及许多许多的百加得招贴画。广告牌永远是对此刻的纪念,而在西村这个特定地点出现的同性恋内容,即便没有展现别的,也表明了美国同性恋生活持续的主流化。



1. 菲利克斯冈萨雷斯-托雷斯,”,纽约公共艺术基金会档案馆纽约大学图书馆特色馆藏。
2. 出处同上。
3. Julie Ault ( Göttingen: Steidl )编,《菲利克斯冈萨雷斯-托雷斯与约瑟夫科苏斯对话》,2006年, 350页。在展览Rhetorical Image的画册(纽约: 新当代艺术博物馆,1990,48页)中,冈萨雷斯-托雷斯谈及了他对于公众的感受:“我有一个男朋友,他是我唯一认识的公众,我总是想知道他对我的工作有什么看法。”
4.伊丽莎白勒波维奇” Daniel Hendrickson译, in Accessions no. 4(2018年4月)。<https://accessions.org/article4/accessions-issue-4-translation/the-dedication-la-dedicace/>