By Elle Friedle
Usually, nothing happens when people don’t understand a work of art. They glance and walk past it. If it’s an installation, they may circle it a few times before giving up. And how they react means very little to anyone watching. I only know of one exception: Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres.
In 2015, the Chicago Art Institute installed Portrait of Ross on the second floor of its modern wing, where I encountered it just days later. It weighed nearly a hundred and seventy five pounds then: a pile of glinting, cellophane-wrapped candies, wedged into a corner. A nearby plaque tells us this pile of candy is a portrait of Ross Laycock, Gonzalez-Torres’s lover. The hundred and seventy five pounds represents Ross’s ideal body weight. This plaque also tells us to take a piece. Some people never read it. They see others retrieving candy and follow their lead, never learning that the steadily shrinking pile parallels the weight loss Ross endured before his death of AIDS. And if any of the guests are startled by this dark turn, there’s nothing to stop them from quickly walking on to the next gallery. They don’t have to take a piece, but they’ve still made a decision. Whatever anyone does around Ross has symbolic weight.
The pieces of candy come in jewel tones, like treasure spilled from a chest. Despite the modern wing’s ample natural light, a gallery spotlight also beams a single ray on the pile from above, like a fairy-tale illustration. The candy suffuses the room with gold. No wonder most guests take a piece. The plaque only explains the parallel between the candy and the weight loss, but the full implication is generally agreed upon: just as society ignored Ross and other victims of AIDS, by taking a piece, we are complicit in his allegorical death. Some, like David C. Ward, offer another level of interpretation: the act of taking and eating is a communion. We both murder and honor Ross. And isn’t that also something we do? Stay ignorant as problems unfold, only to honor the dead later, if at all? In 1995, Gonzalez-Torres said he’d never been reviewed by The New York Times, despite his multiple solo shows in New York City. Gonzalez-Torres said he was relieved by this. He was convinced any review they gave him would be negative. He got a nice one the following year, in his obituary.
Yet somehow none of Gonzalez-Torres’ work feels grim. Poignant, yes, but never grim. Maybe this is because of how he approaches us. Some artists put the full burden of interpretation on the audience, often a miscalculation that ends in shaking heads. Gonzalez-Torres communicates to us without spoon-feeding. He drew on minimalist and conceptual traditions, which is a complicated way of saying his art drew on simple objects and questions about the nature of art. These traditions are ones that stereotypically baffle and distance the public. In Portrait of Ross, Gonzalez-Torres subverts them by including us.
The Art Institute installed a choking hazard because children love the candy so much. They have no idea what AIDS is; they gleefully stuff fistfuls into their pockets when the guard’s back is turned. Cellophane wrappers lie here and there on the floor, drifting from one room to the next. Those who collect their piece of candy without reading the plaque are watched, with anxiety, by those who have. Regular visitors of the Art Institute know that the museum replenishes the pile, and these visitors can take the candy with less guilt, maybe even build a pile of their own at home. Others are unable to ever bring themselves to take a piece. Even by refusing to touch it, they’ve interacted with the work. Access is its fundamental nature. Its meaning seems to follow a law of conservation: if most visitors understand, the portrait is successful, but every visitor who walks past or simply stuffs their pockets only imbues the others with an added chill. If the entire world lost all context for this portrait except for one person, if only one person understood the significance of Ross, the chill of that significance would be magnified by the population of Earth. But we have not all forgotten, because Gonzalez-Torres understood, perhaps better than anyone else, how to marry the most austere art movements to human emotion and invite us in. He proved their value to the public, forever.