Where: Room 208 on the second floor of the Museum of Modern Art
What do you see? Two identical clocks hanging on the wall, set in synchronized manner at the same start time, operating with identical batteries. The clocks touch while showing the time which is running out. Inevitably, at some point they will stop; one of them will stop ahead of the other. Part of the meaning of this work is in the title, the other part is in the action—it can represent two heartbeats. Some may interpret this that one of the heartbeats will stop before the other, leaving one of the lovers on his/her own. But the clocks can also be reset at any point and then the artwork can be interpreted as two perfect lovers who will stay together infinitely.
Background: After finishing “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers), Gonzalez-Torres said: “The piece I made with two clocks was the scariest thing I have ever done.” He created this artwork during a time that his partner Ross Laylock was suffering from AIDS. The political and personal reality fueled the art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, as he watched his partner fall victim to the unchartered territory of AIDS. Ross died in 1991.
Gonzalez-Torres was born in Cuba, but after immigrating to the United States at age 11, he became an American citizen. His art can be interpreted as a reflection of both the appreciation and limitations of his rights as a U.S. citizen. It became the expression of both his personal drama and political convictions. But Gonzalez-Torres was careful to not impose a certain meaning to this artwork, allowing viewers to interpret it in their own way.
AIDS epidemic: The peak of Gonzalez-Torres’ creativity coincided with the peak of the AIDS epidemic, the disease which at that time (the 80’s) was not only covered by fear and mystery, but also largely neglected by politics. The word “AIDS” was not mentioned by President Ronald Reagan until the Third International Conference on AIDS in Washington, D.C., in 1987. At that time 21 thousand people already had died from the disease which, by then, had spread to 113 countries.
Other works by Gonzalez-Torres: The experience of Gonzalez-Torres’ partner suffering from AIDS, inspired Felix Gonzalez-Torres. “Untitled” (Passport) 1991, is a stack of countless sheets of plain, white paper, which the audience can take some sheets from. The stack typically gets replenished, though the exhibitor may also decide to not replenish it anymore at some point. It can be interpreted as a passport with nothing written in it, reflecting a world without borders. While Gonzalez-Torres did not specify how he wanted people to interpret his art, it makes many viewers feel a bit uncomfortable. Instead of feeling his art, the viewer is informed and moved to action.
Who is Gonzalez-Torres: Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996) was an American artist. He was born in Cuba but fled his native country at the age of 11, in the turbulent year of 1968. Some of his artistic ideas can be foregrounded by his biographical experience (like being a refugee and gay), though he never intended for his works to be solely read through a biographical reading. He considered it to be extremely personal, even saying: “I can’t separate my art from my life.” Not having a studio of his own, he worked often with simple, ordinary objects turning them into sculptures or installations, breaking many conventional norms while doing that. The breakaway was mainly in the meaning given to those objects, as they acquired their new, artistic forms. It was not an easy message for viewers to digest.
Legacy: Since his passing in 1996, progress has been made in the United States and other parts of the world regarding the treatment of minorities. The art of Gonzalez-Torres is a contributing factor to this progress. Together with artists like David Wojnarowicz, Essex Hemphil, and Ray Navarro, they spent their artistic lives to make a societal impact. Their art has helped museum visitors understand minorities and contemplate important societal issues.
Written by Xavier Talvela