Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957–1996)
“I want to make art for people who watch the Golden Girls and sit in a big, brown, Lazy-boy chair. They’re part of my public too, I hope.” 
About the artist
Born in Cuba in 1957, Felix Gonzalez-Torres spent time growing up in Puerto Rico, where he attended the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan. He moved to New York City in 1979, and continued to study of photography, earning degrees from Pratt Institute and the International Center of Photography.
Gonzalez-Torres’s work subtly combines personal experiences and ideas from art theory with political points of view. His installations of piles of paper and sweets indicate a direct connection with the Conceptual and Minimal Art of the 1960s. But by inviting museum visitors to help themselves to a sheet of paper or piece of candy, these works negate the claim to artistic autonomy that is characteristic of Minimal art by questioning the uniqueness of the artwork. Simply through their selection and arrangement, everyday items such as store-bought candies become infused with a poetic aura. His work transfers the private emotion into the public arena, making us aware of the general relevance of such themes as illness, death, love, and loss.
Untitled (Public Opinion), a 700-pound spill of black-rod licorice pieces, was made as a protest against the heightened nationalism he witnessed during the first Gulf War. For Gonzalez-Torres, the rods of licorice resembled missiles. Free for the taking and replaceable, Gonzalez-Torres’s perpetually shrinking and swelling sculptures defy the macho solidity of Minimalist form, while playfully expanding upon its ideas and materials.
In 1995 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum organized a retrospective of his work. Gonzalez-Torres died in 1996 at the age of 38.
–Adapted from an essay by Nancy Spector, Guggenheim Museum Collection: A to Z, New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2001.
1. Robert Storr, “Interview with Felix Gonzalez-Torres.” ArtPress (January 1995), pp. 24–32.
View + Discuss
1. Usually museums do not allow visitors to touch works of art on display. Gonzalez-Torres, however, was interested in making art that would encourage viewers to actively participate and created work that invites museum visitors to touch and even eat the art. Do you think Gonzalez-Torres’s way of involving the public in his work is meaningful?
2. In making work that can be replenished, Gonzalez-Torres (like Sol LeWitt) comments on the concept of originality in art. Does it matter that all of the pieces are replaceable? Is it still art if it can be reproduced? What happens to this work if the candy manufacturer stops making black rod licorice, or decides to wrap it in foil rather than cellophane?
3. How does the mass (700 pounds) and placement (in a corner, on the floor) affect the impact of this work? Gonzalez-Torres stipulated that although 700 pounds is an ideal weight for this work, the owner or curator can decide how large or small to make it. How might changing the placement or number of candies affect the work’s meaning?
4. Gonzalez-Torres’s work often deals with personal and global concerns such as AIDS, U.S. foreign policy, gun control, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Because his work can be interpreted in a number of different ways, he generally left his works untitled, with a more specific reference in parenthesis. What are some ways you can think of to link this work with its title?
Untitled (Public Opinion) is made from “black rod licorice candy, individually wrapped in cellophane.” What positive or negative connotations and characteristics come to mind in association with this material? Gonzalez-Torres has also used Baci chocolates and Bazooka bubble gum to create works of art. Is there a type of candy that has particular associations for you? Write an essay that describes all the aspects of that candy including its shape, color, smell, memory associations, and, of course, taste. If you were to use this candy to create a work of art, excluding the brand name of the candy, what would you title it? How might you use it to create art?
The words Public Opinion can be interpreted in many ways. Create a work with the title Public Opinion. What are the similarities or differences between your completed work and Gonzalez-Torres’s? What aspect of public opinion have you addressed in your work?
Gonzalez-Torres made work that dealt with personal, political, and social issues. Choose an issue of personal relevance and create a work of art in any form or combination of forms that comments on this issue.
Gonzalez-Torres’s work has challenged traditional museums and gallery spaces by encouraging viewers to dance with one another, or eat, or take away part of the art. Create a plan for a work of art that invites participation by the public. How do you want them to participate? In what? How will you let them know what they should be doing? How will the participation of viewers contribute to completing the work and making it more meaningful?
Avgikos, Jan. “This is My Body: Felix Gonzalez-Torres.” Artforum (New York) 29, no. 6 (February 1991), pp. 79–83.
“Collaboration Felix Gonzalez-Torres.” Parkett (Zurich), no. 39. (1994), pp. 24–69. Special issue with essays by Nancy Spector, Simon Watney, and Susan Tallman.
Corrin, Lisa. Felix Gonzalez-Torres (exh. cat.). London: Serpentine Gallery, 2000.
Nikas, Robert. “Felix Gonzalez-Torres: All the Time in the World.” Flash Art (Milan) 24, no. 161 (November/December 1991), pp. 86–89. Interview.
Spector, Nancy. Felix Gonzalez-Torres (exh. cat.). New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1995.