“Untitled” and “Untitled” (Venezia) are exceptional examples of Gonzalez-Torres’ striking jigsaw puzzle pieces, which have been a staple of the artist’s practice since 1987. Gonzalez-Torres prints the chosen image on an inexpensive, unbroken puzzle board. He then hermetically seals the completed puzzle in a plastic bag. What is traditionally seen as an interactive pastime is prohibited. The overall effect is Gonzalez-Torres at his fundamental best, rousing a degree of dislocation and discomfort that ultimately compels the observer to deduce the work for oneself. Just as his friend and peer Jim Hodges’ chain spider web installations entangle the viewer if only to foreground the dilemma between yearning and entrapment, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ puzzle pieces seduce in their poetic simplicity but plainly emphasize the underlying disconnect with their inaccessibility to touch. Gonzalez-Torres creates a physical boundary between object and viewer while simultaneously developing an entirely different kind of collaboration between the two.
The chronicle of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ oeuvre is not limited to a singular idea. As with the greatest examples of Gonzalez-Torres’ conceptual projects, his works deliberately ask for expansive readings, as the artist encourages his viewers to think and feel freely through their experience of its simplicity. This conceptual notion is further underscored by the artist's choice of parenthetic titles that Gonzalez-Torres purposefully assigned to his works, intimating to the viewer that the work is theirs for interpreting. Accordingly, Gonzalez-Torres envelops us into his unique artistic dialogue, persuading us to come to terms with our own fears, hopes, and emotions. As the artist observed of his own practice, his works reflect the relationship, “between public and private, between personal and social, between the fear of loss and the joy of loving, of growing, of changing, of always becoming more, of losing oneself slowly and then being replenished all over again from scratch.” (Tim Rollins, Susan Cahan, and Jan Avgikos, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, New York 1993, p. 31)
In the same year as “Untitled” (1991) Gonzalez-Torres created 27 other jigsaw puzzle works, ranging in subject matter from serene landscapes, love notes and black-and-white family photos to more divisive topics from newspaper clippings on political and world events. “Untitled” and “Untitled” (Venezia) were made during a time when Felix Gonzalez-Torres created his most seminal and historic imagery, including "Untitled", 1991, one of the most memorable of the artist’s billboards, depicting an unmade bed with the impression of two figures' heads still fresh on side-by-side pillows. “Untitled” (Aparición) (1991), which sold at Sotheby’s in 2011, realizing the highest price for a paper stack work at auction, is among the most stunning of all Felix Gonzalez-Torres' paper stacks. Personally, and no doubt a reason for the year of tremendous output, the artist faced the loss of his beloved companion, Ross Laycock to AIDS.
Like Jim Hodges, Gonzalez-Torres’ work explores the fragility of community and the loneliness of isolation. Both artists came of age in the early 1990s, when New York’s creative community was dealing with the ruin of the AIDS crisis. Artists like Gonzalez-Torres, Hodges, Robert Gober and Donald Moffett responded with works that employed the formal precision of Minimalism but imbued a reductive vernacular with particular emotion. The sculptural work of these artists poignantly mines loss, the evanescence of life and its persistence in our memory, harnessing the symbolic associations of materials which imply this sense of ephemerality and mortality. In the puzzle pieces, there is a great vulnerability in the thin plastic sheet which bears the responsibility of protecting an easily breakable, ready-made puzzle emblazoned with relatable imagery.
The images used in the puzzle piece works are culled from family photo albums, personal correspondence and main stream media outlets. In both “Untitled” and “Untitled” (Venezia) there is no obvious explanation for the chosen images and such ambiguity is in keeping with the participatory nature of his work. We find in these aesthetically developed works, a piece is part of a much bigger whole, just as cropped images of landscapes or a group of young friends complete a much larger composition of varying personal or public meditations. This notion is not limited to just the puzzle pieces; through a variety of commonplace objects, including clocks, wrapped candy, stacks of paper and strings of light, Gonzalez-Torres achieves great success in an arena of contradictions. Despite the tragedy of his pre-emptively shortened artistic career, Felix Gonzalez-Torres created a legacy that continues to influence generations of artistic conceptual thinkers today.
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