Tegan Tuesday: The Banality of Bigotry

This is a tale of heartbreak. A tale of death. A tale of perpetual life. A tale of political outreach and artistic expression. This is a mystery, as well. A famous work – a minimalist political artistic representation of grief – was briefly denied the chance to be either political or grief-inducing. While the situation has been corrected, the mystery has not been solved, and may never be. Even so, let us explore this saga.

For those who follow queer art and art news, this will probably not be your first introduction to minimalist Félix González-Torres, and his many “Untitled” works. His “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” (1991) is among his most famous and rightfully so. As I do not have the digital image rights to this work, please have a quick glance at this youtube video from the National Portrait Gallery.

As described in the video, it is an extremely simple installation of 175lbs of candy. This weight represents the ideal, healthy body weight of González-Torres’s partner, Ross, prior to his illness and death due to AIDS in 1991. As visitors are encouraged to pick a candy from the pile, the slow diminishing of ‘Ross’ represents both the disease devouring his body and the societal dismissal and diminishing of those afflicted. It’s an incredibly moving piece, made all the more so by the participation and complicity of the gallery patron. It’s far from the artist’s only AIDS related art, but it is probably his most famous. In 1996, González-Torres himself passed from AIDS at age 38.

I also cannot emphasize enough: this piece is incredibly well-known and so is the context. I’ve discussed it in classes, I’ve read articles and gushing accounts of its impact on personal lives for at least a decade, and I’ve certainly seen pictures of it all over the web.

Imagine my surprise when I came across this bombshell of a tweet yesterday:

Published on September 28th of this year, the tweet came out the same day as an equally inflammatory letter published in The Windy City Times (The Voice of Chicago’s Gay, Lesbian, Bi, Trans and Queer Community Since 1985).  Both the tweeter, Will Scullin, and the letter-writer, Zac Thriffiley, noticed that the signage for the Art Institute of Chicago’s installation of “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” had removed any and all mention of Ross, AIDS, death, memorial, or anything personal at all. There were many pointed comments on Twitter about the concept of the 175lbs referring to “the average body weight of an adult male,” and a few mentioning “ideal weight.”

I tromped all over the internet, trying to source reasons or explanations, only to discover that, hallelujah! The text had been changed yet again and now included Ross and his death as well as opening the door to more abstract interpretations.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres produced meaningful and restrained sculptural forms out of common materials. “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) consists of an ideal weight of 175 pounds of shiny, commercially distributed candy. The work’s physical form and scale change with each display, affected by its placement in the gallery as well as audience interactions. Regardless of its physical shape, the label lists its ideal weight, likely corresponding to the average body weight of an adult male, or perhaps the ideal weight of the subject referred to in the title, Ross Laycock, the artist’s partner who died of complications from AIDS in 1991, as did Gonzalez-Torres in 1996. As visitors take candy, the configuration changes, linking the participatory action with loss—even though the work holds the potential for endless replenishment.

Problem solved, yes? Well, yes and no. The first change as well as the second were implemented with no fanfare, and according to some sources, this has been on-going since 2018. (Also, for all the wall text changed, the museum’s audio description remains unchanged from 2015)

Then the work was de-installed [in 2017], and when it was put back on display in the summer of 2018, it was accompanied by a wall label that made no mention of AIDS and focused solely on the work’s aesthetic value. (The accompanying audio focuses heavily on Laycock and the AIDS crisis and has gone unchanged since 2015, according to a museum spokesperson.)
“Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s work is characterized by a sense of quiet elegy,” read the new label. “He possessed an uncanny ability to produce elegant and restrained sculptural forms out of common materials.” The text acknowledged that 175 pounds “corresponds to the average body weight of an adult male” but excluded any biographical information.

“Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” was taken down again in the summer of 2018 and reinstalled this July [2022], once more accompanied by the newer text that avoided any mention of AIDS. This time, visitors voiced their concern.

This, emphatically, does not make sense to me. Why would an incredibly famous AIDS-activism artwork be stripped of all of its context? One theory, put forth in both the article quote above and on twitter, lays the blame for this situation at the representative for the artist’s estate, David Zwirner of the Zwirner Gallery.

Well, sure, I’m always happy to think ill of the ‘men in suits’ who move the money in the art world, but I still couldn’t prove anything one way or the other, and I realized that I also had no real understanding of what could potentially be the motives from the institution side of the equation. Thankfully for me and my mystery, being in a performing arts department of a university means that I could find someone who knew.

A lovely hour-long discussion with the head of Art History at my school brought forth several revelations, if no clear answers. Firstly, the Zwirner Gallery is incredibly well-known in the art world, and there is absolutely no financial incentive or advantage to their demonstrating homophobia in 2022. Aside from museum directors, who are almost exclusively white, cis-het men, the art world is generally pretty queer. Whether it’s artists, collectors, buyers, curators, interns, patrons- many of the people in the art world just aren’t straight. The Zwirner Gallery would lose the representation of many of its artists as well as many lucrative sales or museum loans if this omission was known to come from them, so while this is possible that David Zwirner could have the influence on the wall plaque, it’s unlikely that he would have removed any mention of AIDS or of Ross.

It is also unlikely to have come from the board, or any donors of the Art Institute of Chicago. According to the professor I spoke with, the three areas of art that have censorship issues are: sex, body parts that are normally clothed, body fluids and scat. A pile of candies that is representative of the impact of AIDS hardly qualifies. It’s also unlikely to have censorship coming from the city government of Chicago in 2022. This isn’t Texas in the 1980s. Perhaps there are US galleries in communities that have such strict control over messaging that this work would be censored, but that isn’t the case here.

The likely reason for the signage change comes from one of two places, according to my source. If it’s a top-down decision, it likely comes from the family of the artist. González-Torres was Cuban-born and had strong family connections to the Cuban community in Florida. This community is often extremely conservative, extremely Catholic, and perhaps that someone in the family who is associated with the González-Torres Foundation is attempted to straight-wash the history of the artist. It is unusual that the gallery would bow to the whims of an estate on the verbiage of a wall plaque, but perhaps the visual rights could be held out of reach until such changes were made. It’s possible.

The other possibility? The poorly-received text was written by an intern, with very little oversight from a curator. Apparently writing the text for things like wall plaques is the museum version of grunt work that often gets fobbed off onto interns or Art History undergrads. This potential anonymous intern could equally have had an axe to grind about González-Torres’s representation as a gay artist who created art about AIDS (it seems unlikely that such an important thing would be changed “by accident”). And with the amount of work that is needed to put together exhibits and keep museums running, much of this grunt work is checked off as ‘done’ without much attention paid to the details by someone further up the food chain.

I guess the only way to discover the actual solution to this mystery is will be to watch González-Torres’s works in future exhibits. If the artist’s personal details continue to get lost from museum catalogs, then perhaps an outside influence like a family member is pulling some strings. If this remains a freak accident, it might very easily have been an intern’s barely-approved text getting printed. Either way, I am pleased that this story at least has a happy ending: the artist’s life details have been reunited with his art for future visitors to learn about this powerful and wonderful work. Who needs to solve mysteries anyway?

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