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Felix Gonzalez-Torres was born in Guáimaro, Cuba, in 1957. He earned a BFA in photography from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, in 1983. Printed Matter, Inc. in New York hosted his first solo exhibition the following year. After obtaining an MFA from the International Center of Photography and New York University in 1987, he worked as an adjunct art instructor at New York University until 1989. Throughout his career, Gonzalez-Torres's involvement in social and political causes as an openly gay man fueled his interest in the overlap of private and public life. From 1987 to 1991, he was part of Group Material, a New Yorkbased art collective whose members worked collaboratively to initiate community education and cultural activism. His aesthetic project was, according to some scholars, related to Bertolt Brecht's theory of epic theater, in which creative expression transforms the spectator from an inert receiver to an active, reflective observer and motivates social action. Employing simple, everyday materials (stacks of paper, puzzles, candy, strings of lights, beads) and a reduced aesthetic vocabulary reminiscent of both Minimalism and Conceptual art to address themes such as love and loss, sickness and rejuvenation, gender and sexuality, Gonzalez-Torres asked viewers to participate in establishing meaning in his works.
In his "dateline" pieces, begun in 1987, Gonzalez-Torres assembled lists of various dates in random order interspersed with the names of social and political figures and references to cultural artifacts or world events, many of which related to political and cultural history. Printed in white type on black sheets of paper, these lists of seeming non sequiturs prompted viewers to consider the relationships and gaps between the diverse references as well the construction of individual and collective identities and memories. Gonzalez-Torres also produced dateline "portraits," consisting of similar lists of dates and events related to the subjects' lives. In Untitled (Portrait of Jennifer Flay) (1992), for example, "A New Dress 1971" lies next to "Vote for Women, NZ 1893."
Gonzalez-Torres invited physical as well as intellectual engagement from viewers. His sculptures of wrapped candies spilled in corners or spread on floors like carpets (such as "Untitled" (Public Opinion) , defy the convention of art's otherworldly preciousness, as viewers are asked to touch and consume the work. Beginning in 1989, he fashioned sculptures of stacks of paper, often printed with photographs or texts, and encouraged viewers to take the sheets. The impermanence of these works, which slowly disappear over time unless they are replenished, symbolizes the fragility of life. While in appearance they sometimes echo the work of Donald Judd, these pieces also belie the Minimalist tenet of aesthetic autonomy: viewers complete the works by depleting them and directly engaging with their material. The artist always wanted the viewer to use the sheets from the stacks—as posters, drawing paper, or however they desired.
In 1991 Gonzalez-Torres began producing sculptures consisting of strands of plastic beads strung on metal rods, like curtains in a disco. Titles such as Untitled (Chemo) (1991) and Untitled (Blood) (1992) undercut their festive associations, calling to mind illness and disease. In 1992 he commenced a series of strands of white low-watt lightbulbs, which could be shown in any configuration—strung along walls, from ceilings, or coiled on the floor. Alluding to celebratory décor—in the vein of the charms of outdoor cafés at night—these delicate garlands are also a campy commentary on the phallic underpinnings of numerous Minimalist creations, particularly Dan Flavin's rigid light sculptures. Also in 1992, Untitled (1991), a sensual black-and-white photograph of Gonzalez-Torres's empty, unmade bed with traces of two absent bodies, was installed on 24 billboards throughout the city of New York. This enigmatic image was both a celebration of coupling and a memorial to the artist's lover, who had recently died of AIDS. Its installation as a melancholic civic-scaled monument problematized public scrutiny of private behavior.
Gonzalez-Torres received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1989 and 1993. He participated in hundreds of group shows during his lifetime, including early presentations at Artists Space and White Columns in New York (1987 and 1988, respectively); the Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1991); the Venice Biennale (1993); SITE Santa Fe (1995); and the Sydney Biennial (1996). Comprehensive retrospective exhibitions of his work have been organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (1994); Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1995); Sprengel Museum Hannover, Hanover, Germany (1997); and Biblioteca Luis ngel Arango, Banco de la República, Bogotá (2000). Recent exhibitions include a retrospective at the Hamburger Bahnhof–Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin (2006–07) and a survey of his work, Specific Objects without Specific Form, which was organized by Wiels, Centre d'art contemporain, Brussels (2010), and then traveled to the Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel (2010), and the MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main (2011). In 2007, Gonzalez-Torres was selected to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale in the exhibition Felix Gonzalez-Torres: America. He died in Miami on January 9, 1996.