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Jacques Derrida spent much of his late career pointing out the relations between the words “response” and “responsibility.” The late Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ installation “Untitled” (Placebo), currently on view at the Williams College Museum, inspires similar musings. A 1200 pound mass of candies individually wrapped in shiny silver arranged into a soft-edged rectangle sparkles in the middle of an otherwise barren and dimly lit gallery. Viewers are encouraged to eat the candy on the spot, take some home for later or share it with others. There’s plenty of candy for all as the pile of lemon flavored sweets is constantly replenished. This work from 1991 is representative of the kind of work for which the artist became widely known.

In the late eighties and early nineties, Gonzalez-Torres emerged as a major force in post-Minimalist art. Taking Minimalism’s emphasis on sparseness and understatement and combining it with politically inspired conceptual import, Gonzalez-Torres created a powerful body of work through which he memorialized the passing of his lover to AIDS, which the artist also died of in 1996.

The Minimalists of the sixties conceived of sleek factory-made objects hewn in simple shapes and placed in otherwise empty rooms as the new paradigm for an anti-expressive, direct and stunningly simple aesthetic. Post-minimalists, like Gonzalez-Torres, revised the Minimalist approach by focusing not only on the work’s objecthood, but equally upon the subjectivity of its viewer. Gonzalez-Torres ironic appeal to “tastes” has the effect of transforming the art viewer’s role from that of the traditional passive spectator into an active participant who generates the form and meanings of the work.

But this interpretive freedom is sharply curtailed once you read the wall label. Knowing that the work is a direct and very personal response to the AIDS crisis significantly re-writes the innocent act of eating candy. Now it starts to click. The eating of candy comes to symbolize the eating of the artist’s body of work. Benign eye candy suddenly becomes food for thought.

In the AIDS scare driven culture of the eighties and early nineties, Gonzalez-Torres dared his audiences to take candy from a stranger with AIDS, to trust the Other and to reach out across sexual and political divides. The passage of time has not softened his work’s profundity, inventiveness, timeliness, or its beauty. It’s still calling for the artworld to respond to the AIDS crisis and to reflect on the responsibility this entails.

Williams College Museum of Art

"Felix Gonzalez-Torres "Untitled" (Placebo)" is on view December 1, 2007 - March 23, 2008 at WCMA.

All images are courtesy of the author and Williams College Museum of Art

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