Felix Gonzalez-Torres' Billboards

Artpace, San Antonio

Closed December 31, 2010
by Leslie Moody Castro, Noah Simblist, and Andy Campbell

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      Felix Gonzalez-Torres
      "Untitled" (The New Plan), 1991
      Billboard
      Dimensions vary with installation
      Installation in San Antonio, Texas at Wetmore and Loop 410 for Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Billboards at Artpace, San Antonio, Texas, 2010
      Photo by: Todd Johnson
      © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation
      Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York

      View Gallery

      In conjunction with the organization’s fifteenth anniversary, Artpace San Antonio organized a Texas-wide exhibition of thirteen billboards created by artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres between 1989 and 1995. Developed with special permission from the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, this presentation was the first-ever comprehensive survey of Gonzalez-Torres' billboard works in the United States. The billboards were on view throughout 2010 in various locations in the cities of Dallas, El Paso, Houston and San Antonio. Major underwriting for this Billboard Exhibition was provided by the Linda Pace Foundation, with generous in-kind support from Clear Channel Outdoor.

      During the run of the exhibition, Artpace also facilitated a series of conversations between Leslie Moody Castro, Andy Campbell and Noah Simblist. This material was originally meant to serve as an educational component to the exhibition, but has remained unpublished until now. We wish to thank Artpace San Antonio and education curator Alex Freeman for making this project a reality.

      In this issue of …mbg, we are pleased to include two excerpts from the conversation about queer activism in the 1980s and how we might read Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ activist gestures today. In our February 4th issue, we will feature a second installment of this conversation, focusing specifically on the politics of display surrounding Gonzalez-Torres’ work.

      Queer Activism: Then/Now

      Leslie Moody Castro [LMC]: Why don’t we start with queer activism, specifically in the historical moment when these billboards were made. How you think that translates to the current political and historical moment?

      Noah Simblist [NS]: One thing that’s interesting to me is the state of the AIDS crisis then versus now. Obviously it’s different today because people can live with AIDS much longer, so there’s not the same kind of animosity surrounding the disease that there was during the Reagan-Bush era. But at the same time, I wonder what it means for a contemporary artist to make an activist gesture in the way that these billboards were originally conceived, as opposed to them being restaged curatorially in this exhibition. Are they still activist images? Is the activism represented in the original action that Felix Gonzalez-Torres staged; is the activism inherent in the images; or does the activism take place when these images are presented in public spaces?

      Andy Campbell [AC]: To me, I feel there’s been a real shift in the center of queer politics, so locating queerness in terms of the activist agenda is very different now. In the late 1980s, the struggle was actually mentioning—verbally discussing—people living with HIV/AIDS in any capacity, whereas now when the big political struggle is the normalization of queers (although I wouldn’t call that agenda a “queer” agenda, necessarily). I share your same question: is the curatorial restaging a blip or rupture of mainstream gay politics now, or does it reify them? Are we normalizing the billboards in the city?

      NS: It made me think of this conversation that I heard between Gregg Bordowitz and David Getsy about queerness on Bad at Sports. It was fantastic! They talk about defining queerness by making the choice “yes/and” as opposed to “yes or no,” and I think the billboard project, like all of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work, is often about that. In that sense, queerness does not necessarily have to be about the politics of sexuality. Queerness can also be the approach to questions like: what is an artwork? What is beauty and the relationship between beauty and politics, or the relationship between art and politics? All of these things can be “queered,” and this billboard project is very much doing that. I think it can also help us get outside of this “us vs. them” binary, which was very much a part of the discourse and debate of the ‘80s and ‘90s, where conservatives would lambast “those dirty people, those dirty prostitutes...”

      AC: And homosexuals.

      NS: Yes, conservatives would say that the dregs of society were getting sick because of their own actions, and that they would perform those actions in “their” spaces, but that “our” spaces were safe and pure and clean. The billboards were a total queering of that notion of “us and them,” in the way that their politics intersected and politicized “our” space. At the same time, this was done in a way that didn’t subscribe to the clichés of what “they” looked like.

      AC: I feel like the work is important in a different way in terms of queerness: that it can blend but it can also be a disruption. It’s not an “either/or,” as you said, Noah, it’s more of a “yes/and” thing. How can we aggregate these choices together rather than shutting down a radical voice that seems to be a little bit more unpleasant?

      NS: The AIDS crisis has also shifted geographically over the past 30 years. New York and San Francisco became the centers for it in the ‘80s, but now it is much more prevalent in Africa and Asia. I wonder what it would mean for these billboards to be seen in Johannesburg or a township in South Africa.

      Pluralism and Activism: Felix Gonzalez-Torres and his Contemporaries

      LMC: I know that you were interested in the relationships between Group Material and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Could you speak about that, Noah?

      NS: Group Material was an artist collective in New York that involved up to 20 people between 1979-1996. At any given time the numbers were changing, as people were joining or leaving the group. In the end the main participants were Julie Ault, Doug Ashford and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Ault and Ashford were the most consistent within the group, along with Tim Rollins. Ault recently published a book called Show and Tell: A Chronicle of Group Material, one of the best documentations of the entire project. Essentially their artistic practice comprised curating exhibitions around various political themes, like the U.S. involvement in Latin America in the 1980s or the AIDS crisis.

      The latter was something that Felix Gonzalez-Torres also addressed in his own work, particularly after the death of his lover Ross. I think that he had various ways of mediating the experience of mourning. There are many ways that he used to ritualize mourning, both physically and visually in space. This was something that he needed to do for himself, while at the same time realizing that the personal act of mourning had a communal implication. I think that he was also very aware of the fact that his public mourning had a political implication.

      LMC: So he’s dealing with being a homosexual male in public, mourning in public, openly stating that this work is created for Ross while fully aware of the consequences, all amidst the beginning of the AIDS crisis in which the art word is literally dying. There was no advocacy; there were no clinics; there was no knowledge being disseminated to stop this and deal with this issue.

      NS: Yes, and the context of the 1980s is so interesting. This is this moment when Reagan had been elected and a wave of conservatism emerged from the country. There were people like Jerry Falwell who were becoming very powerful and acting against perceived subversives who were against patriotism and Christian American values. AIDS was a health crisis affecting a particular segment of the citizenry of the U.S. that was deemed immoral, and so it was ignored. It was ironically an antidemocratic action to ignore it and to pretend that this thing didn’t exist. I think that there were a lot of activists that became very much engaged in reversing silence, in becoming very loud and reversing this erasure by becoming very visually bold. In addition to Group Material, groups like ACT UP with people like Gregg Bordowitz were very much engaged in starting the conversation. I find it interesting that in his solo projects Felix Gonzalez-Torres would take an angle that was so political and bold, by transferring something that is as private as a bedroom, like “Untitled” (1991), into the public space of a billboard. But at the same time he did this using an image that isn’t explicitly provocative.

      LMC: Well there is that quote of his: “Two clocks side by side are much more threatening to the powers that be than an image of two guys sucking each other’s dicks, because they cannot use me as a rallying point in their battle to erase meaning.”

      NS: But I believe in a kind of pluralism for those different activist approaches. I feel that it is very interesting to have Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio (1978) and ACT UP and Felix Gonzalez-Torres working at the same time. Because that communicates a kind of diversity that subverts the conservative idea that all homosexuals and artists and intellectuals are communist perverts. It gets away from that kind of universalizing so that you can say that there are lots of different kinds of “perverts!”

      AC: And there were many that actively embraced that label of “pervert.” At least those in the kink communities were used to being labeled as perverts by broader gay and lesbian communities by the ‘90s. I think of Catherine Opie’s Self Portrait/Pervert (1994), where she’s got the word carved in gorgeous type across her chest. It’s cutting, sure, but from a kink perspective it’s downright erotic.

      LMC: All this pluralism in sexual and activist expression gets away from this very contradictory idea of hegemonizing the other—if that’s even possible. So another thing that I was going to ask you about is the tone of his work. So many activist organizations have so much anger around them, and so much of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work is so quiet that it almost becomes meditative. There is an absence of anger in mourning, which is one of the processes of coping. Do you see any anger in his work?

      NS: Along with the rest of Group Material, he would choose artists that were very angry—not that he was personally constructing angry images, but through the kind of discourse that he was involved in with Julie Ault, Doug Ashford, and everyone else that was involved, and through the discourse of the artists that they would invite to participate in the Group Material exhibitions. He would choose artists along with the rest of Group Material that were very angry, like in the AIDS Timeline in 1990 for instance. That same notion of pluralism that we were talking about before also has to do with one’s own reaction to a crisis. So while Group Material gave him the outlet for rowdy anger, I think that his work was able to be more meditative, slow and quiet—it provoked more questions than it necessarily gave the answers to.

      AC: I agree with Noah, but I think that openness allows for anger. Even the elegiac stacks and spills hold some anger for me. I get angry looking at it, touching it and taking home, as much as I get sad. Nevermind that half the time I get angry because there’s an overt surveillance of the work—take one piece but no more!—that I think is a disgrace to the legacy and generosity of the work. But that’s a different reason to be angry!

      Leslie Moody Castro is the visitor services manager at Arthouse at the Jones Center, and a former graduate intern at Artpace San Antonio. She graduated with her Master's Degree from The University of Texas at Austin in 2010 in Museum Education, and worked at the Blanton Museum of Art while earning her graduate degree. Moody Castro has also curated exhibitions at Women and Their Work, Mexic-Arte Museum, and is a co-founder of Co-Lab, Austin.

      Noah Simblist is an Associate Professor of Art at SMU and a PhD student in art history at the University of Texas, Austin. His most recent curatorial endeavor, the group exhibition Out of Place, is on view at Lora Reynolds Gallery in Austin through March 5.

      Andy Campbell is a PhD student in the Department of Art History at the University of Texas in Austin. He is currently writing about gay and lesbian leather communities and visual cultures in the 1970s. He is co-curator of the group exhibition SUBstainability, which opens on January 20 at the Texas State University Gallery in San Marcos.

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