The following piece was written by guest contributor, Brian Leahy, exhibit curator and graduate student in Art History.
Félix González-Torres, born in Cuba in 1957 and raised in Puerto Rico, came to New York City in 1979. He participated in the influential Whitney Independent Study Program, where he began a sustained engagement with European critical theory. A member of Group Material, an experimental collective of artists interested in politically-engaged art and experimental exhibition practices, González-Torres actively engaged in political questions through affective, poetic, and physical interventions into the everyday. His artworks used ordinary materials—candy spills, billboards, jigsaw puzzles, timelines, light bulb strings, and paper stacks—to construct seductive, seemingly mundane situations that also express powerful political statements.
Any installation of a González-Torres work tests institutional assumptions about authorship, viewership, and display practices. While his work today is most often seen in museum environments, this specific manifestation occurs in—and asks questions of—the library. Just as books are made of bound sheets, “Untitled” (The End) comprises a stack of paper; more specifically, unbound sheets that are 28 by 22 inches, which are then ideally assembled to a height of 22 inches. Each has a thick black border printed around its four sides. Visitors can take a sheet away with them, and the institution must decide whether to replenish the work, or to allow it to diminish over time.
González-Torres’s works explicitly engage the history of art and particularly the legacy of Minimalism. In his use of common, mass-produced materials that appear in groupings or sequences, González-Torres refers to canonical Minimalists such as Donald Judd and Carl Andre. However, works like “Untitled” (The End) use Minimalist-like forms to introduce other questions—especially around death, dying, loss, and collective responsibility—into institutional settings. Along the same line, González-Torres’s works can be understood as disruptive actors within art world mechanisms of sale, ownership, and maintenance, since the owner of a work like this one must also agree to continually give it away.
Likewise, questions of institutional responsibility come to the fore in any iteration of a work like “Untitled” (The End). In this installation, the work is proximate, not only to the Northwestern University Art Library and to special collections, but also to a replica of a Gutenberg press created for the Cuneo Press exhibit at the 1939—1940 New York World’s Fair, later donated to the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections. The placement of the work in a library leads to a few questions. How does this piece intervene in the history of printing and the printing press as arbiter of knowledge? What differentiates this stack from the books on the library shelves? How does the work illuminate the institutional priorities of the library? What kind of research methods does “Untitled” (The End) engage in? How does it comment on practices of looking and reading? What does it tell us about the politics of preservation?
In this particular version, the sheets of paper in “Untitled” (The End) will not be replenished. While libraries strive to make information available, letting physical material leave—never to return—is typically antithetical to a library’s mission. “Untitled” (The End) questions these institutional commitments, freely distributing paper that, while lacking textual information, perhaps circulates a different sort of knowledge. González-Torres’s strategies of generosity, dissolution, and diffusion allow for intimate connections in public space; his paper sheets remind us both of our fragility and our links to one another. The artist himself expressed the strangeness of this strategy of dispersal after the death of his partner Ross: “This is how I started letting the work go. Letting it just disappear. People don’t realize how strange it is when you make your work and you put it out to be seen and say, simply, ‘take me.’”
–Brian Leahy, Curator