The U.S. Pavilion: Felix Gonzales-Torres

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It turns out to be something of a disappointment. Gonzalez-Torres was just 38 when he died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1996. It’s unusual but not unprecedented for a nation to be represented at the Biennale by an artist who’s no longer living. Robert Smithson, who died in a helicopter crash in 1973, was the U.S. representative nine years later. All the same, the American artists I’ve spoken to here have been a little disappointed that the important stage of the Biennale has been denied this year to a living American.

Which is a problem I think not just for the American artists who get shut out, but for the visitors to the U.S. pavilion. Before and after his death, but especially after, Gonzalez-Torres’ work was widely circulated around the museum world. Some of his legacy, especially his projects that consisted of things to be given away to the people who saw them — posters, candies — has been influential now for years among artists looking for ways to make work that viewers take part in. But it was a brief life, a relatively small output, and it’s been seen quite a bit. There’s no sense of surprise or discovery in this show, a big part of what makes any other pavilion exciting. (Assuming, of course, that it’s exciting in any way.) Inevitably the Gonzales-Torrez show feels sealed off and commemorative.

To bring something new to the show, the curator, Nancy Spector, who’s chief curator of the Guggenheim, has arranged to have fabricated a work that’s now located just outside the pavilion, one that Gonzalez-Torres never actually produced beyond sketches and plans. It consists of two shallow circular pools of white Carrara marble that just barely touch one another at a point on their outer perimeters. The intent is for water to flow almost imperceptibly from one pool to the other, a lovely metaphor for human intimacy, and a chilling one when you consider that it was conceived at the height of the epidemic. But on the day of my visit the flow, if it was there at all, was truly imperceptible.

And one of Felix-Gonzales’ most famous works, “Untitled” (Public Opinion)”, a field of wrapped black licorice candies that visitors are invited to take away, ends up I suspect for most people being more puzzling than poignant. Its association with the complexities of public attitudes in the era of AIDS is hard to convey to Biennale visitors who seemed to be treating it mostly as a candy giveaway. Which of course, it also is. So maybe Gonzalez-Torres would be pleased after all.