Photostats: Felix Gonzalez-Torres
(Siglio Press, 2020)
Throughout his career, Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957–1996) created work that evokes our humanity: objects that serve as corporeal analogues, symbolic reflections of our bonds and desires, art exposing our contradictions and complications, and sometimes reflections of our actual selves. I am not comfortable making glib or facile comparisons to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and ’90s and the global pandemic resulting from COVID-19. Gonzalez-Torres’s life was cut short by complications of AIDS, and by proxy, our government’s negligent and cruel response to that pandemic; the same can be said for many of the over 200,000 people whose deaths have been documented as having resulted from complications of COVID-19 since March 2020.
I imagine Gonzalez-Torres noticed then, as I notice now, that there continues to be a repeated erasure and lack of empathy for people who are disproportionately affected by the disease—the poor, the nonwhite—in favor of those who might appear more sympathetic like celebrities or healthy white people from suburbs. These parallels connecting past and present make the publication of Photostats: Felix Gonzalez-Torres refreshing and timely as we consume the work in the context of our memories of “shelter-in-place” and the relentless din of ambulance sirens, keeping death shrouds ever present in the background.
Made as the AIDS crisis in the United States was at its peak, the photostats—a series of fixed works with white serif text on black fields that are framed behind glass—reflect the contradictions inherent within human beings. The texts Gonzalez-Torres uses in these works—suggestive lists of cultural, social, and political references punctuated by dates—are restrained, and avoid pedantic phrases or wry polemics to disrupt the ways in which we consider time, make meaning, and set priorities.
The book, designed as a red clothbound volume featuring all 13 works in the series, should be read from both its front and back covers. From the front, the photostats are presented as images of their physical form on glossy paper to encourage looking. The final image in the sequence features a woman looking at “Untitled” (1992), her face reflected in the glass as she contemplates its text:
Head Start 1965 L.A. Olympics 1984 Willie Horton 1988 Civil Rights Act 1964 War on Poverty 1964 Trickle Down Economy 1980 L.A. Rebellion 1992 Freedom Summer 1964 Montgomery Bus Boycott 1955 Watts 1965 EuroDisney 1992
The flip side of the book is printed on matte paper with the photostats bleeding fully to the edge of each page. Here, the focus is on the text, but once again ends with an installation image of a viewer reading one of the framed works, “Untitled” (1987), as it hangs from a gallery wall.
Alabama 1964 Safer Sex 1985 Disco
Donuts 1979 Cardinal O’Connor 1987
Klaus Barbie 1944 Napalm 1972 C.O.D.
In other photostats, Gonzalez-Torres juxtaposes the movie Robocop (1987) and the Communist totalitarian leader Pol Pot with the television game show Wheel of Fortune, and makes connections between various weapons of war such as the B-2 Stealth Bomber, the Stinger anti-aircraft missile, the Maverick missile, and the film Dirty Harry (1971). The references, functioning like a kind of historical shorthand, challenge us to go beyond the surface and discover the untold stories these signifiers might hold.
In between each side, the book contains new writings by the poets Mónica de la Torre and Ann Lauterbach, both of whom expand upon the images surrounding their words. De la Torre reflects on Gonzalez-Torres’s uncanny ability to make new connections to historic events through just a few words and references. She considers the artist’s own history: as a transplant born in Cuba, raised in Spain and Puerto Rico, but who called himself an American; as a gay man; as a politically active and socially conscious being. She creates her own version of photostats, recalling defining moments during Gonzalez-Torres’s life and the world at large. In one, she reflects on Attorney General William Barr’s invocation of the Insurrection Act that sent 2,000 military troops into the streets of Los Angeles after the 1992 acquittal of LAPD officers who brutalized Rodney King and its use again in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd and draws through lines between Hans Haacke’s artwork exposing Guggenheim museum trustee connections to the 1973 coup that deposed Chilean president Salvador Allende, and the Gonzalez-Torres exhibition that would open there in 1995, the year before his death. Lauterbach, by contrast, ruminates on time, pondering how events are assigned a place in history, and asking other existential questions on the nature of meaning, “thing-ness,” and the significance assigned to particular events or actions. Her poem also embeds the writings of others, such as William Carlos Williams, Emerson, Deleuze and Guattari, and George W.S. Trow.
The quiet contemplation and implied poetry of Gonzalez-Torres’s photostats make their re-emergence in this moment of worldwide reckoning on racial justice and equity, alongside a global health pandemic, like a call to action. While our collective culture has seemingly forgotten the impact of the massive and multiple losses during the AIDS crisis, Photostats encourages us to remember our duty of care to the most vulnerable. We are each other’s keeper.
Through a shorthand of historical events marked by dates, movie titles, political and cultural leaders, words, and phrases, Photostats is a timeless social commentary on the difficult and ongoing work that lies ahead to create a more just world. This volume is gorgeous in its simplicity and profound in its form, invoking multiple reads and multiple meanings upon each view.