Drink Freely: "Drinking: A Love Story" / "Clean & Sober"





"The problem with self-transformation is that after a while, you don’t know which version of yourself to believe in, which one is true. […] For years my therapist said to me, “Sit with the feelings. What happens when you just sit still, by yourself? What happens when you just sit with the feelings?” I suppose he was trying to get at those very questions: What kind of person was I, really? What was I afraid of, angry about? Who was I when I didn’t have other people to cue into? I couldn’t answer, of course, because I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t sit still for ten minutes without a drink, without the anesthesia; I really couldn’t."

"One of the first things you hear in AA—one of the first things that makes core, gut-level sense—is that in some deep and important personal respects you stop growing when you start drinking alcoholically. The drink stunts you, prevents you from walking through the kinds of fearful life experiences that bring you from point A to point B on the maturity scale. When you drink in order to transform yourself, when you drink and become someone you’re not, when you do this over and over and over, your relationship to the world becomes muddied and unclear. You lose your bearings, the ground underneath you begins to feel shaky. After a while you don’t know even the most basic things about yourself—what you’re afraid of, what feels good and bad, what you need in order to feel comforted and calm—because you’ve never given yourself a chance, a clear, sober chance, to find out.

Alcohol offers protection from all that, protection from the pain of self-discovery, a wonderful, cocooning protection that’s enormously insidious because it’s utterly false but it feels so real, so real and necessary."

"The movie Clean and Sober is a somewhat simplistic look at addiction and recovery but there’s one very vivid scene, about midway through, when Michael Keaton comes home from rehab and spends his first night alone in his apartment. He scrubs the place until it gleams, light from halogen lamps glinting off the chrome furniture, and then he sits. Sits on one chair for a few minutes, then gets up and sits on another. He’s restless and edgy and you can tell from the way he keeps getting up and sitting down that he feels completely at sea, clueless about how to comfort himself, or entertain himself, or just sit there comfortably in his own skin."

"I saw the movie in 1989 when it was released, and during that scene I flashed onto the various apartments I’d lived in by myself over the years, and I squirmed. One of these days that’s going to be me, I thought, forced to figure out how to live alone, without the armor."

"The armor, of course, is protection from all the things we might actually feel, if we allowed ourselves to feel at all. Although he doesn’t quite claim that abstinence from alcohol led directly to the depression he documents in his 1990 memoir, Darkness Visible, William Styron vividly describes what happens when a drinker is suddenly left without the armor, left without the self-constructed wall that stands between the self and acute self-awareness: 'Suddenly vanished,' he writes, 'the great ally which for so long had kept my demons at bay was no longer there to prevent those demons from beginning to swarm through the subconscious, and I was emotionally naked, vulnerable as I had never been before.' Without liquor, which had 'turned' on him suddenly, Styron felt numb and enervated and fragile, subject to 'dreadful, pounding seizures of anxiety.'"

"Over the course of my last years of drinking, I lived in another studio apartment, this one in Boston’s North End, New England’s version of Little Italy. On nights when I had no plans, I’d stop on my way home at the Prince Pantry, a convenience store on the corner near my building, and pick up a bottle of white wine. The store had next to no selection—a cheap Italian Soave and a couple of overpriced California Chardonnays—but there was something about buying wine in a convenience store, as opposed to a fully fledged liquor store, that helped me feel like I wasn’t really shopping for booze, just picking up a little something on the way home, the way you’d pick up a quart of milk or a box of cereal for breakfast. The wine would be my primary staple for the evening, but during those last few years I began to understand that a single bottle wouldn’t quite suffice, wouldn’t quite do the trick, so I’d usually pick up two beers while I was there as well. Not a whole six-pack, just two lone bottles of Molson Golden, which always looked perfectly innocent sitting on the counter beside the wine when I went to pay.

As soon as I got home, I’d crack open the first beer and drink it with a deep relief. In ways, I acknowledged that my little stockpile of booze was an ally, just as Styron described it: a defense against my own subconscious, against the demons that threatened to swim up from wherever they hid inside. Sometimes I’d actually think about that scene from Clean and Sober, about the way Michael Keaton just sat there in his apartment, restless and staring. My place was modern and high tech the way his was, with halogen lamps and cool gray carpeting, and I’d understand that the beer, and the one after that and the bottle of wine after that, served a very specific purpose: it kept me from that piercing consciousness of self, kept me from the task of learning to tolerate my own company." 

"Without liquor I’d feel like a trapped animal, which is why I always had it. Without liquor I didn’t know what to do with myself, and I mean that in the most literal sense, as though my thoughts and my limbs were foreign to me and I’d missed some key set of instructions about how to use them. I used to feel that way on Sunday mornings, when I’d wake up alone in the apartment with nothing before me but unstructured time. Here I am, in my apartment. Here I am, puttering through the kitchen. Here I am, washing a dish and setting it on the rack. Here I am, in my apartment. Here I am, puttering through the kitchen. Here I am, washing a dish and setting it on the rack. Here I am . . . conscious of being alone, conscious of my own breath and my own skin and my own thoughts; here I am, waiting waiting waiting and if I keep doing this, if I don’t find some way out of my own head, I’ll die of boredom or go insane or explode at any moment."




The World of Lisa Frank




"There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
       The earth, and every common sight,
                              To me did seem
                      Apparelled in celestial light,
               The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
                      Turn wheresoe'er I may,
                              By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.


                      The Rainbow comes and goes,
                      And lovely is the Rose,
                      The Moon doth with delight
       Look round her when the heavens are bare,
                      Waters on a starry night
                      Are beautiful and fair;
       The sunshine is a glorious birth;
       But yet I know, where'er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth."



You Have To Pay For Everything: Felix Gonzalez-Torres III

[ED: Feel free to contact Emilie Keldie at e.keldie@felixgonzalez-torresfoundation.org]

"TR: It’s obvious that you aren’t as interested in the battle between form and content as you are in method: how the work is made, distributed, and shared. Where did the stack-pieces come from?

FGT: It’s really difficult to say. I don’t really remember, seriously. The first stacks I made were some of the date-pieces. Around 1989 everyone was fighting for wall space. So the floor space was free, the floor space was marginal. I was also interested in giving back to the viewer, to the public, something that was never really mine to start with—this explosion of information, which in reality is an implosion of meaning. Secondly, when I got into making stacks—which was the show with Andrea [Rosen]—I wanted to do a show that would disappear completely. It had a lot to do with disappearance and learning. It was also about trying to be a threat to the art-marketing system, and also, to be really honest, it was about being generous to a certain extent. I wanted people to have my work. The fact that someone could just come and take my work and carry it with them was very exciting. Freud said that we rehearse our fears in order to lessen them. In a way this ‘letting go’ of the work, this refusal to make a static form, a monolithic sculpture, in favor of disappearing, changing, unstable, and fragile form was an attempt on my part to rehearse my fears of having Ross disappear day by day right in front of my eyes. It’s really a weird thing when you see the public come into the gallery and walk away with a piece of paper that is ‘yours.’

TR: What is the function of duplication and repetition in your work? The stacks of paper or piles of candies that through accumulation comprise a work are internal forms—each individual piece of paper or piece of candy exists as a piece on its own. But they also exist as external forms when you place identical pieces in different sites and contexts.

FGT: All these pieces are indestructible because they can be endlessly duplicated. They will always exist because they don’t really exist or because they don’t have to exist all the time. They are usually fabricated for exhibition purposes and sometimes they are fabricated in different places at the same time. After all there is no original, only one original certificate of authenticity. If I am trying to alter the system of distribution of an idea through an art practice it seems imperative to me to go all the way with a piece and investigate new notions of placement, production, and originality.

In terms of different contexts, well, that’s a very complex issue that needs to be nailed down to a more specific example. As we know, context gives meaning. The language of these pieces depends, to a large degree, on the fact that they get seen and read in art contexts: museums, galleries, art magazines.

TR: Are the works a metaphor for the relation between the individual and the crowd?

FGT: Perhaps between public and private, between personal and social, between the fear of loss and the joy of loving, of growing, of changing, of always becoming more, of losing oneself slowly and then being replenished all over again from scratch. I need the viewer, I need public interaction. Without a public these works are nothing, nothing. I need the public to complete my work. I ask the public to help me, to take responsibility, to become part of my work, to join in. I tend to think of myself as a theater director who is trying to convey some ideas by reinterpreting the notion of the division of roles: author, public, and director. Your question is more puzzling to me than I had previously thought because, yes, an individual piece of paper from one of the stacks does not constitute the “piece” itself, but in fact it is a piece. At the same time, the sum of many pieces of the identical paper is the “piece,” but not really because there is no piece only an ideal height of endless copies. As you know, these stacks are made up of endless copies or mass-produced prints. Yet each piece of paper gathers new meaning, to a certain extent, from its final destination, which depends on the person who takes it."

Excerpt from an interview with Felix Gonzalez-Torres by Tim Rollins, 1993; via orienteering.tumblr.com, originally published in Felix Gonzalez-Torres, A.R.T. Press, Ed. William Bartman, 1993




"MC: […] If public and private are so interconnected, where do you think this need to separate them comes from?

FGT: Someone’s agenda have been enacted to define “public” and “private”. We’re really talking about private property because there is no private space anymore. Our intimate desires, fantasies, and dreams are ruled and interpreted by the public sphere.

MC: You mean like on the Internet?

FGT: Internet included. The explosion of the information industry, and at the same time the implosion of meaning. Meaning can only be formulated when we can compare, when we bring information to our daily level, to our ‘private’ sphere. Otherwise information just goes by. Which is what the ideological apparatuses want and need. ‘You give us thirty minutes and we give you the world”. A meaningless one. So public life is private life. In our culture, we live in a world of interrelations. As Lenin said, ‘everything is related to everything’."

Excerpt from an interview with Felix Gonzalez-Torres by Maurizio Cattelan, published in MOUSSE No. 9




"RS: What about ideas of a puritan anti-aesthetic?

FGT: I don't want that. No, between the Monet and Victor Burgin, give me the Monet. But as we know aesthetics are politics. They're not even about politics, they are politics. Because when you ask who is defining aesthetics, at what particular point - what social class, what kind of background these people have - you realize quickly again that the most effective ideological construction are the ones that don't look like it. If you say, I'm political, I'm ideological, that is not going to work, because people know where you are coming from. But if you say, "Hi! My name is Bob and this is it," then they say, that's not political. It's invisible and it really works. I think certain elements of beauty used to attract the viewer are indispensable. I don't want to make art just for people who can read Fredrick Jameson sitting upright on a Mackintosh chair. 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.

RS: How do you think about the issue of engaging in explicitly social forms of art making with respect to your involvement with an activist collaborative project like Group Material? What's the relation between the work you did with them and what you do as an individual artist?

FGT: I always worked as an individual artist even when Group Material asked me to join the group. There are certain things that I can do by myself that I would never be able to do with Group Material. First of all, they are totally democratic entity and although you learn a lot from it, and it's very moving, it's very exacting, everything has to be by consensus, which is the beauty of it, but it is much more work. It's worth it 100%. But as an individual artist there are certain things that I want to bring out and express, and the collaborative practice is not conducive to that.

RS: Group Material's installations were generally a form of public address. How does that differ from what you've done on your own in other circumstances?

FGT: Well, if you think of the stacks, especially the early stacks, that was all about making these huge, public sculptures. When I started doing this work in 1988-89 the buzzword was public art. One thing that amazed me at that the difference between being public and being outdoors was not spoken about. It's a big difference. Public art is something which is really public, but outdoor public art is something that is usually made of good, long lasting material and is placed in the middle of somewhere, because it's too big to be inside. I was trying to deal with a solution that would satisfy what I thought was a true public sculpture, and that is when I came up with the idea of a stack. It was before people started making scatter art and stuff like that. So when people walked into the gallery at Andrea Rosen's and they saw all these stacks, they were really confused because it looked like a printing house, and I enjoyed it very much. And that's why I made the early stacks with the text. I was trying to give back information.

For example, there are ones I made with little snippets from the newspaper, which is one of the biggest sources of inspiration because you read it twice and you see these ideological constructions unravel right in front of your eyes. It wasn't just about trying to problematize the aura of the work or it's originality, because it could be reproduced three times in three different places and in the end, the only original thing about the work is the certificate of authenticity.

I always said that these were public sculptures; the fact that they were being shown in this so-called private space doesn't mean anything - all spaces are private, you have to pay for everything. You can't get a sculpture into a public space without going through the proper channels and paying money to do that. So again I was trying to show how this division between public and private was really just words."

Excerpt from an interview with Felix Gonzalez-Torres by Robert Storr, via queerculturalcenter.org; originally published by A.R.T. Press, January 1995


Unmade Beds, Felix Gonzalez-Torres II

Light the first light of evening, as in a room

In which we rest and, for small reason, think

The world imagined is the ultimate good.

This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.

It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,

Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:

Within a single thing, a single shawl

Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,

A light, a power, the miraculous influence.

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.

We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,

A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.

Within its vital boundary, in the mind.

We say God and the imagination are one...

How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,

We make a dwelling in the evening air,

In which being there together is enough.

          - "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour," Wallace Stevens



Felix Gonalez-Torres, via

"love," by lauraros, via Flickr

"These lines from a Wallace Stevens poem describe a fictive space, a dwelling place constructed from imagination. Upon rereading these words in late 1991, the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres realized that some deep memory of them lay behind his decision, earlier that year, to photograph his own empty double bed.

Closely cropped, Gonzalez-Torres's photograph, which is displayed here in the Museum's Projects gallery and on twenty-four billboards throughout New York City, is an intensely private image that recalls the intangible space Stevens described. Gonzalez-Torres came across "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour" in a book of Stevens' poetry given to him by his lover, Ross, in 1988. Between the time of this gift and the present moment lie not only years, but irrevocable loss. In 1991, Ross, whom Gonzalez-Torres has referred to in the past as his only audience, his public of one, died of AIDS. His illness and ultimately, his early and tragic death, permeate the panorama of Gonzalez-Torres's art.

Two risks are taken in introducing the topics of homosexual love and death at the outset of this discussion. First, there is a chance this work will be misinterpreted as being only about AIDS. And second, there will always be those who find in such subjects cause for discomfort. Yet the risks are intentional. For as the artist himself has said "[My work] is all my personal history, all that stuff... gender and sexual preference.... I can't separate my art from my life". In striking this intimate note, then, the aim is not to limit our perception of Gonzalez-Torres and his work, but rather to ground it in reality. It is to begin with the artist's own story about the origins of the image of this vast bed. It is also to emphasize what is really at issue here: not private revelations -- of personal history and sexual preference -- but what happens to such revelations when they are placed in a public context." [1]

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, via

"Untitled," by Susannah Hope, via Flickr

"Much of Gonzalez-Torres's art questions what we mean when we describe things as "private" or as "public." Are we referring to private lives, for example, or private thoughts? To private property or to private spaces? Are we responding to how these meanings conflict, intersect, and draw significance from their apparent opposite, that which is "public" -- public personas, public opinions, public art, public space? The artist uses diverse formal means to explore this territory; he works with billboards and books, words and images; he uses materials that range from candies and cookies to jigsaw puzzles and stacks of paper; he takes advantage of commonplace techniques such as offset printing and photography to make his art. In so doing, he creates work that can adapt, chameleon-like, to whatever a particular set of circumstances requires. One way to think about Gonzalez-Torres's art and about the questions of public versus private is to think about the conceptual and physical spaces in between things. In his "caption" or "dateline" pieces, the artist runs apparent non sequiturs such as "Pol Pot 1975 Prague 1968 Robocop 1987 H Bomb 1954 Wheel of Fortune 1988 Spud" in white type across the bottom of black sheets of paper. Here he asks the viewer to consider not only the correlations of the events or things named, but also the historical or conceptual gaps between them. In an analogous manner, Gonzalez-Torres invites people to take away pieces of his candy-spill and paper-stack sculptures, activating the literal physical terrain between audience and art object, rather than the conceptual space of history. By focusing on the public implications of a private individual's actions, Gonzalez-Torres complicates conventional distinctions between the two realms." [1]

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, via

via Tumblr

"Like those of many other artists of his generation, Gonzalez-Torres's concerns extend beyond the self-contained boundaries of the art object to encompass the circumstances that surround it. At issue here is not only the artist's choice of image (his bed) and medium (photography) but also the decision of where and how to display the picture (on billboards, scattered across New York City, repeated twenty four times over, enlarged to superhuman scale). The exhibition focuses not only on the photograph's private content but also on its social context and on the inextricable connections and differences between the two. Whereas in previous works Gonzalez-Torres has taken elements from the public discourse -- newspaper snippets for instance -- and isolated them in the center of large sheets of paper, here the process is reversed. Rather than clipping something from the mass media and repositioning it within the clean smooth space of a work of art, he makes the photograph of the bed the informational fragment, and collages it into the broad and varied pattern of the contemporary urban landscape. The artist has explained that by "taking a little bit of information and displaying this information in absolutely ironic and illogical meetings," he hopes to reveal the real meaning of issues. The juxtaposition of an image that we are inclined to read as private and a space usually conceived of as public is what Gonzalez-Torres would describe as an "illogical meeting". When we call something illogical, we are essentially saying that it runs counter to our expectations. A bed, for instance, might most simply be defined as one of the smallest amounts of space that we can call our own. But the artist presents his audience with something quite different -- a bed that has been recast in a new and extraordinary form. Some of our most basic associations with this familiar piece of furniture -- its human scale, its domestic location -- are upset. In displaying this image not only within the relatively intimate space of the museum but also outdoors, the artist challenges yet another assumption. Most of this exhibition is not here in the museum -- where we naturally expect it to be -- but elsewhere. The gallery contains only keys to the whole: a billboard-scale enlargement of the photograph of the bed, identical to those posted throughout the city, and this brochure, which documents the billboards in situ and guides viewers to their sites. Museumgoers enter the gallery only to find that the artist wants to send them back out into the world. By presenting this work in twenty-four different locations, the artist shifts emphasis away from the photograph's content to its context. Through its reiteration, what becomes distinctive is not the image, but what surrounds it. The white, undifferentiated surface of the gallery wall is supplanted by the variegated features of industrial, residential, and commercial zones. Given the vitality of these places, it becomes almost impossible to keep our eyes on the photograph. This is the artist's intention. The viewer is encouraged to note the contrasts between the rich colors and textures of the local scene and the gray and white tones of the photograph. The artwork and peripheral phenomena (passing cars, architectural details, advertisements, and signs) trade places, slipping back and forth between the center and margins of our focus. Yet while city and image vie for our attention, the urban landscape serves as a colorful foil against which the photograph's absolute reticence and interiority are revealed. Set high above the street, the image of the bed is literally remote from the viewer. Thus what may at first seem to be an act of self-revelation -- the placing of one's bed on public display -- ultimately gives nothing away. Rather than being confronted, as we might anticipate, with intimate clues to the artist's presence, we are instead presented with overwhelming absence." [1]

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, via

"polar bears," by Cheyenne Sophia, via Flickr

"Absence shadows Gonzalez-Torres's work in every way. Rumpled bed sheets and dented pillows are presented both as evidence of and as a sign for two absent human bodies. Ghostly contours are all that is left of beings who are no longer there. Pasted to and inseparable from both gallery wall and billboard surface, the image hugs its supports rather than taking up space. To remove the picture is to destroy it. Awareness of this fact heightens our consciousness of the physical fragility that inhabits the work as a whole. Also absent are human touch, which is banished by the use of photography, and color, which is eliminated by the use of black-and-white film. In addition, there is no original. No "unique" art object is presented, and the "whole" of this work can never be seen all at one time. In each instance, what is visible is defined by the invisible. Presence, whether of bodies in bed or of art in a gallery, becomes only a mirror of things unseen. When Gonzalez-Torres's photograph is compared to other billboard displays, it becomes clear that something else is missing. There is no language, no logo or label. Through the omission of caption or text, Gonzalez-Torres leaves the picture's significance open-ended, responding to the varied nature of his audience -- wanderer, worker, commuter, city-dweller, all those who will pass the billboards by -- and to the wide range of associations they may bring to the work. Surrounded by the predominantly vertical structures of New York City, Gonzalez-Torres's bed is resolutely recumbent. An empty bed invites us all to "climb in," no matter who we are -- gay or straight, male or female, black or white. Thus, the artist establishes a common ground. At the same time, one of the merits of art like this is that it reminds us that no one work of art, no single image, means the same thing to everyone. Unmade beds with tousled sheets may provoke sexual fantasies for some, and evoke painful memories for others. Nearly all of us were born in beds, and many of us know people who have died in them. Between these moments of birth and death, beds are a place where we can rest. And in this city with its huge homeless population, the image of a bed reminds us of something lost." [1]

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, via

"Restless," by ciderandrye, via Flickr

"For Gonzalez-Torres, the bed suggests not only personal and social realities, but another reality, which is the law. To him, one of the most important meanings to be attached to this work returns us to the question raised at the start: what do we consider public and what do we deem private? While most of us might prefer to think our beds are private, the artist insists they are anything but, and the law concurs. In the 1986 case Bowers versus Hardwick, the Supreme Court determined that the zone of privacy -- that area which in principle we can call our own ­ does not encompass a private individual's right to engage in certain sexual acts. This decision frames Gonzalez-Torres's perception of the bed: for him it stands as a legislated and socially contested zone. For him private space no longer exists. This said, Gonzalez-Torres is uncomfortable with the label "political," fearing that the larger meanings of his work will be impoverished. Yet his art is far from political in the limited sense of the word. It does not simply illustrate a programmatic message at the expense of form. It is not, in other words, about politics. If anything, it seeks to act as politics, to trigger action of some sort, any sort, inspired by the artist's fundamentally romantic desire to "make this a better place for everyone". Action for Gonzalez-Torres is not an abstract matter. Nor need it take place on a grand scale. Everything begins with the individual, in this case with the museum visitor who leaves, ready to cast a fresh eye upon her or his surroundings. What is important is the idea of passage, from museum to street, from the personal (the loss of a loved one) to the political (the loss of privacy), from private to public, and then back again. Also at issue are notions of change and renewal, the idea that meanings are not static but shift according to who we are and where we are at any given moment. These billboards will remain in place only through the end of June. Twenty-four in number, they commemorate the date of the death of the artist's lover, Ross. At the end of June, they too shall pass, torn down to make way for new images, new messages, new meanings. In the photographic print from which they were generated, however, lies the potential for hope. A photograph promises the possibility of replication, of reemergence in a different time and different historical circumstances, a moment when this poignant image of "a dwelling in the evening air" may come to mean very different things." [1]

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, via

via Tumblr



A Selection of Snapshots, Felix Gonzalez-Torres I

[ED: Ten-thousand thanks to Sam McKinniss for discovering and scanning every photograph herein; zero thanks to Emilie Keldie at the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation for informing me that these images were "inaccessible/largely non-existent."]



"Ross Bleckner: What kind of students come to your Saturday night session, your art class?

Felix Gonzalez-Torres: I have no requirements. My requirements are very lax.

RB That’s very generous, but you must have some requirements.

FGT Vaporize. That’s it. (laughter) Actually, Saturday night is a very quiet night for me.

RB What do you mean?

FGT Saturday night is one of those nights when I just don’t do anything. I love Sunday mornings now, the flea market on 26th Street.

RB That’s become popular. I went to one in Massachusetts. In two hours, I was so irritable. It was July; it was dusty. The place must be the size of Central Park. Everybody whose store you’ve ever gone into in New York you see up there, because that’s where they get it all. Brinfield, it’s called.

FGT I can’t deal with ones that big because I know I’m going to miss a deal.

RB You have to be very enterprising and foraging.

FGT I like flea markets, their sense of mystery; I always wonder, always make a fantasy about who owned it, who lived with this thing. As you know, I collect things: I collect props and toys.

RB I saw a picture of your toy collection. Lots and lots of toys.

FGT Hundreds. Plastic and rubber toys with big eyes. And things that have been left unplayed with by kids.

RB You like big eyes?

FGT Big, buggy eyes. Because I have terrible problems with insomnia.

RB Why don’t you take a sleeping pill?

FGT I was telling you this story, because 1990 and 1991 were very rotten years for me. I went to a flea market during this time and was looking through a bag of toys, and the woman said—I was looking at a Mickey Mouse—”You can have them all for five bucks.” I brought them home, and they made me feel very good. So I figured if I had more, I’d feel better. It didn’t really work that way.

RB It usually does work that way, when you find something that makes you feel good. It’s like drugs. People take drugs to feel good. If drugs didn’t work, people wouldn’t take them.

FGT I took drugs, and I liked them. But not anymore."

"RB Me neither. But they still work. Anyway, why were you so upset, so miserable in 1991?

FGT I was very lost. It was the end. The world was just closing in. And I was taking sleeping pills the way you take candy. Not just at night.

RB Why?

FGT I wanted to sleep for five days, six months, a year. I just wanted to sleep.

RB Before I knew you I saw something . . . You know what I’m going to say?

FGT I dedicated a piece to Ross.

RB Exactly. I thought, this is so sweet, I want to meet him. He dedicated this thing to me and I don’t even know him. (laughter) It put me in the best mood. And then someone said to me, “You idiot, why would he dedicate something to you? It’s his boyfriend.”

FGT (laughter) There’s not too many people with that name, Ross. Where does it come from?

RB Me? It comes from my grandmother whose name was Rose. Where did it come from for your Ross? What was his last name?

FGT Laycock.

RB How long were you together?

FGT Eight years.

RB What did he do?

FGT He was a sommelier. He was about to finish his BS in Biochemistry with a minor in English Lit. He did everything; he was a Renaissance man. And gorgeous too, really gorgeous. Fucking hot! But intimidating, the first time around.

RB Obviously you grew more comfortable, hopefully, in six or seven years . . .

FGT Like he said once to me, I’m a strange bird—I guess he liked that. He had these boyfriends who were Calvin Klein models and stuff like that.

RB Calvin Klein models? (laughter)

FGT Yeah, the boyfriend before me was one of the biggest models . . .

RB It’s nice that people get bored with those kind of guys and go for strange birds, isn’t it? Artistic types, if you know what I mean.

FGT I saw a picture of this guy and I said, “Oh my God! Do I have to compete with that?” I look like a fucking snot with a jacket next to him. He was gorgeous.

RB What did you think you looked like? A knot?

FGT S-N-O-T . . .

RB (laughter) Felix, you’re funny!

FGT I always tell my friends, I feel like a snot walking down the street with a jacket on. I’m very insecure when it comes to looks.

RB Well, a lot of people are . . . Listen, anything can work to your advantage or to your disadvantage. You have to make these feelings work to your advantage.

FGT That’s how I always work: take your limitations . . .

RB And make them your strengths.

FGT I was telling my students, “Your limitations should be your strengths.” When I first started making art in 1987, I had no money. I had a little tiny studio smaller than this kitchen.

RB The size of the studio is not particularly relevant to the work you do, Felix, is it?

FGT That was a studio apartment, not my studio.

RB I started out in a studio apartment as well, but I have fond memories of it now.

FGT I’ve never been so happy in my whole fucking life."

"RB Me too, absolutely. I had a studio apartment with lots of furniture and over a period of about a year—this is when I was 20—every stick of furniture went out the door and that’s how I became a minimalist. (laughter)

FGT People would say, “Can I come to your studio?” And, I’d say, “Sure, but my studio is underneath my bed.” I had one of those ugly captain’s beds with drawers. Everything I made had to fit under that bed. I told my students, I made two bad decisions and it worked.

RB Let me just get something straight, here. You started at the University of Puerto Rico as an art student and then you went to Pratt?

FGT Right, to study interior design.

RB So that’s why you love going to flea markets now, that’s a part of you.

FGT I go to the flea market because it is full of small, hidden histories. Pratt Institute is the most banal, empty-minded, crass place you could think of.

RB I’m sure they’re going to want to look you up after they read this and get you to do a promotional.

FGT They know. Spend your money on a car but don’t waste it on Pratt.

RB So you got rid of Pratt and then you went to the Whitney Program, where you were inspired by all of that theory. Except it paralyzed you for a number of years. So in those years when you re-evaluated everything, did you still want to be an artist or had you abandoned that idea?

FGT In 1984, I went to the International Center for Photography at NYU Graduate School. I still wanted to be an artist, but I wanted to make . . .

RB Let me guess, you didn’t want to make objects.

FGT No, I wanted to know why I was making those objects; I wanted to know why I was going to take those photographs. At Pratt, they tell you to find a style. But you cannot find a style; you develop a style. You have a need to say something in a certain way and that becomes later what is called, “your style.”

RB (someone enters) This is Moses, say hello. This is Felix Gonzalez-Torres. So look at his eyes, Felix.

FGT Beautiful eyes. Where are you from?

Moses Israel.

RB Felix is having a show at the Guggenheim at the same time as me.

M He’s an artist?

RB Well, of course, what else would he be doing having a show at the Guggenheim?

FGT Well, I could be a designer.

RB Could be doing a musical.

FGT Some kind of performance or something.

RB That’s true; I’m sorry.

M See.

RB You asked a good question Moses; maybe you should help with the interview.

FGT Ross, I hate interviews.

RB Felix. This is not an interview; trust me.

FGT Did David Seidner tell you how freaked out I was when he went to take my picture?

RB David Seidner? You looked fabulous. Freaked out? I couldn’t believe it! That picture in Harper's? That must be your favorite picture of you of all time.

M My grandma ripped it out of the magazine and put it on her wall.

RB You looked like a sex god.

FGT I wanted to cancel the article, because I’m shy, and it freaked me out.

RB You’re not so shy; don’t kid yourself.

FGT David said something about hands that stayed with me. He showed me a book of 17th-century portrait painting, and it’s all about the hands.

RB Your work has a melancholy to it. But you also have a humor in your work that I love.

FGT I take my work seriously. I don’t take myself seriously. Sometimes you have to look back and say, “Fuck, how was I able to make that shit?” And laugh about it and then move on. And then destroy the work. I’ve destroyed a lot of work; I’m not afraid of mistakes. I’m afraid of keeping them.

RB Why are you afraid of keeping mistakes? What are you afraid is going to show? Everything’s about mistakes in life.

FGT Every time I have a show, I think it’s the worst ever.

RB After awhile, you stop being insecure, you get used to it. I’m used to my insecurities.

FGT People ask me, “Are you happy with your show?” And I say, “I don’t know.” I need six to eight months to digest this work.

RB Are you happy with your Guggenheim show?

FGT I don’t know.

RB I think you are.

FGT No, I really don’t know. I have to . . ."

"RB Have you accomplished anything in your life so far, as an artist?

FGT That’s a very tough question. In a way, ‘yes;’ in a way, ‘no.’

RB Tell me in what way ‘yes’ and in what way ‘no.’

FGT I think with the stacks and with the candy spills and the light streams, pushing certain limits, like the limits of editions, the limits of the inclusion of the viewer, the collector, other people in the work. I feel very good about that.

RB I think your show is going to look beautiful. I saw the little teeny, weeny installation.

FGT Only at the Guggenheim, only these people. When they told me that the show was going to be you and me, I thought that’s a very good combination—a painter with someone who does installation. It can be pretty tough for people to go from one area to another, but at the same time . . .

RB Well, that’s not our problem, is it? That’s number one. Do you think everyone’s going to say, “This is the Guggenheim going fag?”

FGT No, ’cause no one has ever said “This is the Guggenheim going straight.”

RB No, but they will say that it’s going gay.

FGT I think people are past that.

RB Oh really! They won’t write it but they’ll say it. You know what I mean? They’re politically correct until they get home.

FGT The way it works is that the press tells you there’s going to be an art show at the Guggenheim and that’s all they say because it’s a straight, white male show. But if it’s somebody else, some other, it’s a show with two gay artists at the Guggenheim. And that is very damaging because when someone is labeling you it’s for the purpose of justification which is always defensive. I’m gay. But I don’t make work about being gay . . .

RB You don’t make work about being gay?

FGT No. You just include it . . .

RB I don’t either. Although you make work about being . . .

FGT In love with a man . . .

RB In love with a man, what it means to be alive today, what you think, how you feel . . . Do you think that gets at all sentimental?

FGT Not at all. On the contrary, it’s very political. Because you are going against the grain of what you are supposed to be doing. You are not supposed to be in love with another man, to have sex with another man.

RB Do you think that anybody cares about that at this point?

FGT Walk down the street holding hands with another man and I’ll tell you a story. We’re talking general culture.

RB Yeah, but we’re not talking about the general culture. We’re talking about artists.

FGT No, we are talking about our own culture because artists come from the general culture, and the public is the general culture.

RB That’s true. More so than we imagine.

FGT That’s what I’ve been doing with the work, and you have been doing that with your work, too, being an infiltrator.

RB Do you think your work is sentimental?

FGT It is sentimental, but it’s also about infiltration. It’s beautiful; people get into it. But then, the title or something, if you look really closely at the work, gives out that it’s something else.

RB Oddly enough, I think that my work does have a certain sentiment to it, but I am not sentimental at all.

FGT All great art has sentiment.

RB And all great work has ruthlessness. Not that I’m saying your work or my work is great. Just in general, great work has sentimentality and ruthlessness in the appropriate balance.

FGT I see it more as a heroic gesture. And I’m not talking about size, it could be a small gesture. But it has to be totally extreme to be heroic. Something about ideology and about shows that are always labeled . . .

RB By giving it a label, by saying “gay artists,” it’s a way of being dismissive . . .

FGT It’s also a way of keeping us bogus by giving the center such an importance. Because that center is always there, it’s art by straight white males.

RB Do you love them?

FGT Some of them I do.

RB Which ones?

FGT I love Robert Ryman, Carl Andre . . .

RB You do? I can understand why you love Carl Andre, but let me ask you something about him.

FGT I don’t know anything about him. I never met the man.

RB I’m not talking about the man. But I’m very interested in an idea about the work. I noticed that he was recreating a piece that he made in 1964 for a recent show. But he hasn’t done anything since that piece.

FGT He has. There’s always some new work at the back of Paula Cooper.

RB His work has basically not moved or changed. Nor has Flavin’s, nor has a number of those minimalists’. Nor has Robert Mangold’s.

FGT Well, I respect that. They were signature works.

RB I love their work, by the way, but I want to know how come, if your work or my work doesn’t change, everybody is hysterical. These guys keep making one little tile piece on the fucking floor for forty years; everyone thinks: genius. You tell me what that’s about.

FGT Waiting lists.

RB That’s from the market point of view, but I don’t think so.

FGT These artists are very dedicated. I really think this is all about survival and life-time dedication to finding some answers in a very narrow niche. They go for that, and they investigate that. Carl Andre has many permutations of those pieces. Ross, most artists only have one great idea and then they keep doing it. One I can think of with a few great ideas is Jeff Koons.

RB He has different ways of working. In the end, the idea might all be the same, Felix, we don’t know that, yet.

FGT His work is brilliant, brilliant. That’s what I call different bodies of work—I always think, “Who made it? It’s like five people, which he probably does have helping him. But it’s true, if you and I don’t change every six months, if we don’t produce the new spring collection or the winter collection, if there’s no difference, people think, “Oh, they sold out; they’re just lazy people.”

RB Have you been reviewed in the The New York Times?

FGT Never.

RB How many shows have you had?

FGT In New York? At least five one-person shows.

RB And you’ve never been reviewed?

FGT In the Times, no; I’ve been very lucky.

RB If you were reviewed at the Times who would you least like to talk about your work?

FGT That’s a very awkward question to answer, Ross."

"RB I love it! Let’s put it this way, now that you’re having a show at the Guggenheim the chances are highly likely . . .

FGT That they will bash me.

RB Which writer do you think would do the least bad job.

FGT The least damage, I think would be done by Carol Vogel.

RB I like Holland Carter because he’s sweet and soft. But Carol Vogel is basically the person I would like, as well, to do reviews.

FGT As we know, every fool that flies into town and has a show gets six, eight inches of the Times.

RB I think that the art writing, to put it mildly, is slightly out of touch. And I would say that’s generous.

FGT We’re strong enough to be generous. If you’re weak, pussy-footed, you cannot be generous. You have to be very constricted and constipated about everything you own. But if you’re generous it shows you’re strong.

RB Exactly. So are you in love now?

FGT I never stopped loving Ross. Just because he’s dead doesn’t mean I stopped loving him.

RB Well, life moves on, doesn’t it, Felix?

FGT Whatever that means.

RB It means that you get up today and you try to deal with the things that are on your mind.

FGT That’s not life, that’s routine.

RB No, it’s not.

FGT Oh, yes, it is.

RB A lot in life is about routine, and hopefully we can make our routines in life as pleasurable as we know how. Because we connect to our work in a way that’s satisfying and we have some nice relationships. After that, how much more can you ask?

FGT That’s why I make work, because I still have some hope. But I’m also very realistic, and I see that . . .

RB Your work has a lot to do with hope; it’s work made with eyes open. That to me is very important. Work made with eyes open.

FGT It’s about seeing, not just looking. Seeing what’s there.

RB Do you look to fall in love? Do you need that as a situation? Does it inspire your work?

FGT How can you be feeling if you’re not in love? You need that space, you need that lifting up, you need that traveling in your mind that love brings, transgressing the limits of your body and your imagination. Total transgression.

RB You feel like you had that with Ross?

FGT A few times over.

RB How long were you with him?

FGT Eight years, more or less.

RB How long into the relationship did he get diagnosed?

FGT The last three years.

RB Did he know he had HIV?

FGT No, the year before he got the diagnosis of AIDS he had his appendix removed and they tested the blood and it was HIV positive. But he was a fucking horse. He was 195 pounds, he could build you a house if you asked him to. It’s amazing, I know you’ve seen it the same way I’ve seen it, this beautiful, incredible body, this entity of perfection just physically, thoroughly disappear right in front of your eyes.

RB Do you mean disappear or dissipate?

FGT Just disappear like a dried flower. The wonderful thing about life and love, is that sometimes the way things turn out is so unexpected. I would say that when he was becoming less of a person I was loving him more. Every lesion he got I loved him more. Until the last second. I told him, “I want to be there until your last breath,” and I was there to his last breath. One time he asked me for the pills to commit suicide. I couldn’t give him the pills. I just said, “Honey, you have fought hard enough, you can go now. You can leave. Die.” We were at home. We had a house in Toronto that we called Pee-Wee Herman’s Playhouse Part 2 because it was so full with eclectic, campy, kitsch taste. His idols were not only George Nelson and Joseph D’Urso, but also Liberace.

RB That’s a very nice combination.

FGT Love gives you the space and the place to do other work. Once that space is filled, once that space was covered by Ross, that feeling of home, then I could see, then I could hear. One of the beauties of theory is when you can actually make it into a practice.

RB What do you mean by the beauties of theory? What kind of theory are we talking about?

FGT We talk about Marxist theory. We talk about Brecht.

RB Your basic Whitney Program reading list.

FGT Which is a great reading list.

RB So Felix, I’m curious to what degree the involvement with your work and with gay life, having a lover who’s died—I know that’s effected your work tremendously in the billboards.

FGT It’s also about inclusion, about being inclusive. Because everyone can relate to it. It doesn’t have to be someone who is HIV positive. I do have a problem, Ross, with direct representation, of what’s expected from us."

"RB Why?

FGT What I’m trying to say is that we cannot give the powers that be what they want, what they are expecting from us. Some homophobic senator is going to have a very hard time trying to explain to his constituency that my work is homoerotic or pornographic, but if I were to do a performance with HIV blood—that’s what he wants, that’s what the rags expect because they can sensationalize that, and that’s what’s disappointing. Some of the work I make is more effective because it’s more dangerous. We both make work that looks like something else but it’s not that. We’re infiltrating that look. And that’s the problem I have with the sensational, literal pieces. I’m Brechtian about the way I deal with the work. I want some distance. We need our own space to think and digest what we see. And we also have to trust the viewer and trust the power of the object. And the power is in simple things. I like the kind of clarity that that brings to thought. It keeps thought from being opaque.

RB And deluded.

FGT I was visiting in Miami where I saw this beautiful video about someone dying. There was an image of someone swimming underwater and the sound was this very heavy-duty breathing, like someone couldn’t breathe, actually. And that for me would have been more than enough. But then of course they will not trust the strength of that imagery, the combination of imagery and sound. They had to add text to it and flack it up.

RB You know what I want to ask you? How long do you think you’re going to live?

FGT That’s a very rude question. I want to live until I do all the things that I want to do.

RB So you don’t know the answer to the question.

FGT It’s not about time. It’s about how life is lived. I have had a very good life. I have lived this life well. Very well. And I’m an atheist. I’m 100% atheist. How many years, I don’t know. I want to experience a few other things . . . I want to go back to Paris and I want to go back to London.

RB How long do you think all of this would take?

FGT I have no idea. Whatever it takes. Maybe a year, two years, six months. One month. That’s what I want to do.

RB So you would be happy.

FGT I want to be on the runway for Comme des Garçons.

RB Oh, really? Is that an ambition of yours?

FGT I’m just kidding. You did it. That was fun, huh?

RB I like everything.

FGT Ross, rephrasing the question—how long did it take you to make those new paintings?

RB All my life."