Generous gestures 

If you haven’t already, check out Artpace’s website (artpace.org) to learn about and locate Félix González-Torres: Billboards, a Texas-wide exhibition of … well, it’s tricky to explain. Important to know: González-Torres (1957-1996) was an alum of the very first triad of Artpace Artists-in-Residence in 1995, and an internationally acknowledged important talent before his death of AIDS at the age of 38. In 2007, he became one of only two artists to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale posthumously (the other was Robert Smithson, in 1982).

González-Torres created 13 images between 1989 and 1995 — some are photographic, others text-based — which evoke a multitude of emotions and social issues (albeit with the tenderest and most sensitive of touches). These largely untitled images include a field of rumpled denim, an unmade bed, the words Es ist nur eine Frage der Zeit in white German script against a black background (translation: It’s just a matter of time), a tiny lone dark bird amidst gray clouds, and other powerfully delicate visual allusions to transience, sex, death, loneliness, democracy (note small d), and joy.

Each of these images has been mounted on Clear Channel Communications-owned billboards in four Texas cities; Houston, Dallas, El Paso, and right here in SA. No city will host all 13 images, and each image changes once a month in each city (and will appear on different billboards in different locations) through December of this year. It seems like a whole lot of algebraic variables (where’s what by the who, now?) until you see the work: soulful and mysterious grace notes of intimacy hanging out in public space, migrating through the cities like images in the subconscious. The Linda Pace Foundation made this largesse possible, as a way to simultaneously commemorate Ms. Pace, Mr. González-Torres, and Artpace’s 15th birthday.

As part of this art trifecta, Artpace asked Jim Hodges, a renowned installation artist, personal friend of González-Torres, and likewise an Artpace alum (January-April ’03), to return to San Antonio to pay tribute to González-Torres’s work and life. Hodges recently curated Floating a Boulder at the FLAG Art Foundation in New York, an exhibition of both his own and González-Torres’s work. For this special Artpace ArtTalk, Hodges created multimedia and video presentations.

Hodges’s previous body of work includes “look and see” (2005), a massive, undulating curtain of instantaneously recognizable camouflage pattern which lived initially in Battery Park close to Ground Zero, and “Don’t Be Afraid,” (2004), a collaboration with various delegates to the United Nations, in the form of an inkjet on vinyl banner 17 feet tall and 67 feet long, printed with the phrase “don’t be afraid,” in the collaborators’ handwriting, in over 69 languages. A 2004 Whitney Biennial participant, Hodges has executed a number of public collaborative works, including a 1999 installation at the Miami Art Museum in which he invited children to sign the gallery walls in the color of their choice, and at the Addison Gallery of American Art (Andover, Massachusetts) in 2003, in which Hodges collaborated with 100 high-schoolers to make a mural and sound installation.

We spoke to Hodges on Friday, the day before his presentation.

How did you meet `Félix González-Torres`?

… He wanted to buy some of my work, and `a curator` gave him my phone number. This was in ’92. And we got to be close friends very quickly. He was a really charming, lovely guy, very intense and beautiful, and smart, and sexy, and attractive.

Where I noticed him first was in that 60 Minutes segment, where Morley Safer became indignant about one of `González-Torres’s` “candy spills,” saying stuff like “It’s a pile of candy in a corner. How is that art?”

Right, this was at the Dannheisser Foundation, and `Safer` was talking to Elaine `Dannheisser`. My studio was in the basement there, so I knew Félix’s work before I knew Félix. I worked for Elaine.

I remember her telling `Safer` that not only was it art, but that `González-Torres` wanted people to take `the candy` and eat it, and she would replace it; that the work wasn’t about an object, but a relational experience between artist and viewer.

… I think `Safer` took on a role of naïve and untrusting everyman or devil’s advocate, which doesn’t actually exist. It’s perpetuated in the media, this role of not getting contemporary art. Félix believed art is available for everyone’s access, at everyone’s level of understanding and appreciation … `González-Torres` was just exercising and displaying his technique and approach, or lack thereof. … `Safer’s role` is just a stereotype, it’s not the first time we’ve seen someone say “Oh, I can do that.” … The complexity of that gesture of Félix’s, and what the work contains, if one were to approach it in a round way, in a spherical way, it’s radical. And that can’t be expressed in a short soundbite of a few seconds … it’s a live thing. Work is alive. And `the candy spills` are an easy thing, too, to laugh at. Félix was aware of `the potential for` this kind of mis-use, this kind of abuse of art or of culture, and sometimes even laughed at it, himself. He was no fool.

He’s sometimes written about in the art media as one of those ’80s wunderkinds, like Basquiat or Schnabel, which doesn’t really make sense except in time period. His work was so different.

People want to be able to put `his work` in a box or a category in order to not have to process the intensity of what Félix brought forth, to say “Oh, we’ve got him figured out.” Félix wanted his work to explode the frame; he was holding up a mirror to cultural history and the way things have always been, and smashing it. … his practice related to advances of thought, and this intersected with the advance of lots of kinds of thinking — political thinking, thinking about identity, about history. … At the time of his death, there were still anti-sodomy laws on the books in all 50 states. He was responding to that, too. Take the image of the bed: It’s bed as refuge, as fortress, a making public of what is private, where we are at our most intimate, our most creative, and yet the kinds of intimacy to be had there were legislated against. It’s absurd.

With these billboards … he evokes all these different possibilities with one image, and allows the viewer to construct their own narrative, meditate on one’s own experience, or loss. … It’s like he’s providing the raw materials for artmaking for us …

Oh, what he made, what he caused to be thought and continues to achieve, it’s so intense. Like the way he was able to incorporate mortality into the work in this profound, sublime way. It’s amazing, what he’s invented.

Invented?

Absolutely. All artists are inventors. They come up with a perfect vehicle, recipe, incantation — whatever it is, there’s a system of making that fits ideas with material and time in an exquisite way.

And this is innate?

This is rare `laughs`. And it’s an indicator of greatness. •


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