The Public Art Fund is presenting the iconic billboard “Untitled”, 1989 by Felix Gonzalez-Torres (American, b. Cuba, 1957-1996) to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising and WorldPride in New York City this June.
The project in 1989 when Gonzalez-Torres first installed this work on the 20th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion was initially described in 1989 as site and date specific. Thirty years later, the work is installed in its original location: Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village, above Village Cigars and across from the historic Stonewall Inn bar. Gonzalez-Torres’s iconic billboard work, “Untitled”, 1989, is on view June 4 – 30 and is presented in collaboration with The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation with lead support by Google.
This is a visual reference, an architectural sign of being, a monument for a community that has been ‘historically invisible – FGT
This billboard by Gonzalez-Torres has two lines of white text that run across the bottom of a black background which read: People With AIDS Coalition 1985 Police Harassment 1969 Oscar Wilde 1895 Supreme Court 1986 Harvey Milk 1977 March on Washington 1987 Stonewall Rebellion 1969
In 1989, an estimated 100,000 – 200,000 participants in the Gay and Lesbian Liberation Day March passed in front of this billboard by Gonzalez-Torres. Since 1986, the artist’s practice included a significant body of date pieces, which consisted of works with black backgrounds with lines of white text. In part, the nature of these pieces is about disrupting the hierarchy of chronology as well as the perceived distinctions between public and private histories. And while those works range in their subject matter, “Untitled”, 1989 has more specific references to the AIDS crisis and the struggle for gay rights. This work was the first in the body of billboard works by Gonzalez-Torres. Essential to the nature of the billboard works overall is that they exist in the public realm and that no labelling or signage dictates to a viewer that the billboard is an artwork. Gonzalez-Torres had a deep belief in the right for individual viewers to experience and interpret the work on their own terms.
The artist described the work as “a visual reference, an architectural sign of being, a monument for a community that has been ‘historically invisible’.” In his 1989 artist statement about the work, Gonzalez-Torres wrote: “The letters running across the lower part of the billboard suggest a long caption, capable of sustaining the projection of many images. The size of the letters is rather small for such a large space. This is not an ad; I don’t expect it to be readable while speeding down Seventh Avenue to the Holland Tunnel. I hope the public will stop for an instant to reflect on the real and abstract relationships of the different dates.” The Stonewall Uprising took place in June of 1969 at The Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street. Following a police raid on the bar, six days of demonstrations and civil uprisings ensued around the bar, sparking similar movements in cities across the country and triggering further activism in response to human rights injustices and the lack of government action surrounding the AIDS epidemic. This historic incident ignited the modern LGBTQ movement and is a salient reminder of the social and civil rights injustices in the United States and around the world against which the LGBTQ community continues to struggle. In 2016, President Obama named The Stonewall Inn a National Historic Landmark.
“Felix Gonzalez-Torres stands among the most significant and influential artists of his generation. Direct public engagement is fundamental to his artistic practice, which expanded the possibilities for creative expression both within and beyond the museum walls,” says Public Art Fund Director & Chief Curator Nicholas Baume. “His integration of personal and political content that can bring about both awareness and action in the viewer has continued to inspire artists and audiences. 30 years since Public Art Fund first presented this iconic work and on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, we celebrate the enduring power and relevance of his art.”
“As a longtime resident of downtown New York, I remember and admire Felix’s arresting, provocative work as it appeared around the city. While “Untitled” was first shown in 1989, it still has personal meaning and political impact – perhaps even more so now, given that it’s the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, arguably the modern day beginning of the LGBTQ civil rights movement. On behalf of Google, I am proud to partner with Public Art Fund in presenting this iconic work at such a critical time,” says William Floyd, Google, Director of Public Policy.
To commemorate the struggle for LGBTQ rights in celebration of Pride Month this June, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is exhibiting Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled,” 1991, which was created by the artist in collaboration with Public Art Fund to benefit the first installation of the billboard. Gonzalez-Torres created an edition of 250 silkscreened prints; 89 of the framed prints sold, and the artist combined the remaining 161 signed copies into a single, permanent sculptural stack, which is now in the Guggenheim’s collection and features the near-identical text of the billboard “Untitled”, 1989.
Throughout his career, Gonzalez-Torres’s involvement in social and political causes fueled his interest in the overlap of private and public life. From 1987 to 1991, he was part of Group Material, a New York-based art collective whose members worked collaboratively to initiate community education and cultural activism. His aesthetic project was, according to some scholars, related to Bertolt Brecht’s theory of epic theatre, in which creative expression transforms the spectator from an inert receiver to an active, reflective observer and motivates social action. Employing simple, everyday materials (stacks of paper, puzzles, candy, strings of lights, beads) and a reduced aesthetic vocabulary reminiscent of both Minimalism and Conceptual art to address themes such as love and loss, sickness and rejuvenation, gender and sexuality, Gonzalez-Torres asked viewers to participate in establishing meaning in his works.
During his lifetime, Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996) was the subject of several important museum exhibitions, including Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Traveling (1994) at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C. and The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, and a retrospective organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (1995), which traveled to the Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea, Santiago de Compostela, and ARC-Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. In 2010-11 Wiels Contemporary Art Center, Brussels; Fondation Beyeler, Basel, and Museum fur Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt hosted the six-part retrospective Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Specific Objects without Specific Form. His works have been included in hundreds of curated group shows worldwide. Gonzalez-Torres represented the United States at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007.