On Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Met Bruer Installation: “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)
I’m holding a piece of someone’s body in my hand. It’s round, neon blue, wrapped in cellophane. I can’t smell the sweetness, but I know it’d be there if I were to place the unwrapped morsel on my tongue. When I first saw a girl posing for a smartphone, reaching down to touch the multi-colored pile of candies, I was immediately judgmental. Seriously, you’re touching the art? But a quick glance at a docent told me that this wasn’t forbidden. Hmmm.
I rely on captions too much in art museums, but we can’t all listen to what a work has to say without interpretation. This pile of candy is called “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991, by artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Ross Laycock, the artist’s partner, died of AIDS-related illness in 1991. The whole pile, before daily Met Bruer visitors’ curious hands go to work, weighs 175 pounds: Laycock’s ideal weight while he was alive. As visitors take a pieces, little by little, the body diminishes, “decays,” like Laycock during his illness. Yet before the candy disappears altogether, museum staff replenishes the pile.
This work halted me. The nature of the installation is unusual. Touch the art. Take it. Also, odd that the artist’s hands had not actually formed the piece in front of me. I imagined a uniformed staff member pausing in her after-hours vacuuming to pour more candy on the pile. Sure, certain periods of criticism argued for art’s complete autonomy from its creator. But, nowadays, I’d say most of us hold an artist’s relationship to the work in reverence. Standing before a De Vinci, it’s incredible to think that the paint on the canvas came from a brush held by the luminary. Gonzalez-Torres left his work in the hands of strangers.
But, mostly, I was struck by my own understanding of this artwork. In the world of post-modern art that’s so hard to conceptualize and categorize, “I don’t get it” is an unfortunate but not uncommon reaction. Not this time. I get it. I feel it. Whatever it is, it’s contained and effectively conveyed in that small weight in my palm. Laycock lives in my hand. I understand the ephemeral nature of life, in my hand. I can grasp the tragedy of disease and death, in my hand. Before my eyes, by the power of many hands, I can actually witness a life rendered in art.
Was it fair for Gonzalez-Torres to do this to his partner? To trap him in the liminal yet lasting state of wasting away? Diminishing at the hands of strangers? Laycock has been fluctuating in this state since before I was born. And yet here I am, holding a piece of him.
Not him, though. Just candy. Appealing to little kids, colorful and ripe material for Instagram posts. Please take one.