I first glimpsed the installation piece, "Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)," at the Art Institute a few years ago. In those big, blank galleries full of austere, serious contemporary artworks alluding to death or sex or violence (take your pick), "Untitled" stood out as something different. Secluded in one corner, the installation consisted of an sparkly, colorful pile of wrapped hard candies that you could actually take from ... and, like, eat! Now, this is participatory art.
Like other works in minimalist artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres' ouevre, "Untitled" is created with ordinary, everyday materials that pose questions to the issue of temporality. Over time, all the candies in "Untitled" will get taken. It is meant to be replenished — that is, the museum or the owner of the artwork is responsible for replacing the candies that patrons take. The pile of candy is meant to be maintained at a certain weight: the weight of the eponymous Ross, the artist's boyfriend who died of AIDS in 1991 (the same year as the artwork).
The taking of the candies, its progression from a big, fantastical pile of sweets to a few leftover lonely lozenges in a corner, represents the process that Ross went through from the incurable disease. His body grows thinner and thinner, just as the pile of candy slowly diminishes over time. With "Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)," Gonzalez-Torres has essentially replicated the dying process of his lover, set it up to happen again and again on a continuous loop into eternity (even, as it turns out, past his own death a few years later in 1996).
Every time I look at this piece, I feel very bittersweet. On one hand, it ties together something so innocent and jovial (candy!) with something that's darker and more terrifying (uh, death). There's also the question of participation. If I partake in the candy, then I'm also contributing to the pile's demise. Should I even be indulging my sweet tooth? Another question I wonder is why Gonzalez-Torres chose to name this work after his lover. I always thought that by doing so, he was defining Ross by his death, not so much by his life.
But having said that, I should also mention that whenever I see "Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)," it's really not that complicated. What first strikes me is not the eventual diminishing of the pile, but the collective beauty of the multi-colored candies wrapped in plastic, glistening under the gallery lights. I'll never fail to enjoy a piece of candy. What I'm left with is the sweetness of the sentiment.
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I'm a curious foodie, a devout fashion gawker, and an unrepentant print nerd. I work at one of the last mainstream commercial magazines that's still printing. Other things … more
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Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991, multicolored candies, individually wrapped in cellophane. Variable, ideal weight 175 lbs. The AFt Institute of Chicago, Extended loan from the Howard and Donna Stone Collection. 1, 1999.