I’m endlessly fascinated by the different ways people try to attribute “value” to art. If something looks complicated to make, then more people seem more easily willing to accept its worth. A still life, for example, or hyper-realistic drawing; things that not everyone can easily do. Then there’s the shallow judgment of the “my kid could paint that” crowd, the anti-Pollocks, operating on the assumption that because something, at first glance, appears simple that there’s no way that a deeper meaning could possibly make it more complex.
For me, the visual layer of art is just that: a layer. It’s a facet of a whole. And like any thing where that whole is greater than the sum of its parts, there is an entire other realm of art where it’s the intention and meaning, and not necessarily the immediate visual complexity, that make a piece unforgettable.
Félix González-Torres‘ “Portrait of Ross” is exactly that type of work.
This is as much a pile of candy as Warhols are pictures of soup cans and Rothkos are blocks of colour. This is a statement on the loss of love so profound that I broke into tears when I first read about it.
González-Torres was a Cuban-born sculptor and installation artist who worked in New York City in the 80s and early 90s. He was part of the “process art” movement, where the experience of creating and re-creating a work is as intrinsic a part of it as the “finished” product (part of the ideal being that, really, the piece can never be finished as its intent is to constantly re-create itself).
Ross Laycock was Félix’s partner, and when he was diagnosed with HIV his doctor set his ideal weight at 175 pounds. “Portrait of Ross” is precisely that: 175 pounds of candy set in a pile. The candy is unguarded, the purpose being for the viewer to take some of it from the mound. Each and every day, the remaining candy is removed, weighed, and more is added until it weighs exactly 175 pounds. Then it’s set back out again.
The candy is both a representation of Ross’ physical weight and a metaphor for the very best and worst of his struggle with AIDS. As the disease takes away, the person’s size may dwindle, but the weight of the spirit – the intent to remember and replenish, the power to celebrate – brings it back each morning.
To me this is meaning so pure and exquisitely expressed that I take it thoroughly personally. Being handed this sort of raw offering, Félix’s life becomes mine. I’ve been entrusted by him to help share the memory of his partner. And in doing so, my love becomes his. His loss becomes mutual. How else to try and explain to another person, who’s never met your love, the weight and importance of their being; all the things that you’d loved about them but which are impossible to relate without a universal measure that we both can adhere to?
I put myself in his place and wonder how I would possibly convert the best of things about someone I love into terms we’d both understand: the lumens of light held in their eyes; the decibles of their morning whisper; the pressure of their hand on your back; the groundspeed of their walk.
…Or their exact weight in a pile of candy. The heaviness that represents everything they are and ever were – every molecule, every scar. True, the soul is intangible and only encapsulated in the body for a time, but there’s no way to deny the meaning of the body as the vessel of all that the soul contains.
I think that here the value can be determined not by the skill it takes to pile candy in a corner – to evaluate “Portrait of Ross” like that would be intentionally small-minded. Here the value is not just in the experience shared, but in the sacrifice for González-Torres to share his most intimate pain. The immense strength of the human soul, not brush to canvas or hand to clay, is the genesis here.
I think of the holes life leaves us with and how we try to fill them. Some days we succumb to the smallest parts of ourselves and let them be filled with sadness. Some days we find the bravery to try to fill them with joy. With memories of light and moments so special and sweet that to recall them is a feeling not unlike the crinkle of remembrance, like pastel-dipped cellophane, untwisting itself within us like the opening of a piece of candy.
To me it speaks to the ways we try, and fail, to hold ourselves together. And when you need help there can be a polite request to take your own loved one and pass their memory into the collective consciousness. A never-ending public memorial. Not grand or tangible or even physically permanent in any way, just as our bodies are not, but just as our souls are: translucent, mercurial, airy, travelling. With every person who carried a piece of candy home, so went a precious piece of memory and a transferral of duty. All humans remember those who we loved who are gone. And with this work, Félix asks us to help remember them both. We remember for those who cannot.
Life is not fair, but true love is. And when we celebrate it, a moment in the pale shadow of its grace brings us together. Even strangers are more connected, and we are closer to each other and elevated to a purer version of ourselves.
Ross died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1991, as did Félix in 1996. Though I never met them, never knew of either during their lifetime, their lives have led to a story that has changed mine forever. I am different for “Portrait of Ross” having existed, and I will never forget them.