Death in Venice, Part II

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In the LA Times today, Christopher Knight feels the same way that I did in Time a few weeks ago about the wisdom of having a dead artist, even a good one, representing the U.S. at the Venice Biennale. The artist of course, is Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who died of AIDS-related causes in 1996, when he was just 38.

Here’s what I said in Time.

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 plane crash in 1973, was the U.S. representative nine years later. All the same, the choice of a dead artist denies the important Biennale spotlight to a living one. Before and after his death, but especially after, Gonzalez-Torres’ work was widely circulated around the museum world. But it was a brief life, a relatively small output, and it’s been seen quite a bit. So there’s no sense of surprise or discovery in this show, a big part of what makes any other pavilion exciting. (Assuming it’s exciting at all.) Inevitably, the Gonzalez-Torres show feels sealed off and commemorative.

Knight has the same problem, and makes the useful additional point that when Robert Smithson was chosen for the posthumous honor, he was an artist not much known beyond the world of other artists, so that at least his Biennale show served to consolidate his reputation. Here’s Knight:

Gonzalez-Torres is in a wholly different category — an influential superstar who has been the subject of retrospectives in the U.S., Europe and South America. His highly prized work has fetched seven-figure prices at auction. He hardly needs Venice to secure his reputation. Other artists do.

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To give the Gonzalez-Torres show a little freshness, the curator, Nancy Spector of the Guggenheim, also decided to have fabricated a piece that before his death Gonzalez-Torres had developed only to the point of preparatory drawings. Called “Untitled”, it consists of two low, shallow circular white marble basins that touch at a point on their perimeter. Water is supposed to flow almost imperceptibly from one to the other — a metaphor for human intimacy (and fluid exchange).

Knight has the misgivings that a lot of people have had, myself included, about the idea of realizing a work that an artist never brought to completion in his lifetime. But the problem here is worse — the piece doesn’t appear to function in the way that Gonzalez-Torres hoped, at least not at any time I stopped by to see it. I visited the U.S. pavilion several times during my week in Venice, and though there was water splashed all over the outdoor courtyard where the work has been placed, I could never see even the slightest flow from one basin to another. That work simply wasn’t working.

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