Turn the Other Cheek

In 1992, Félix González-Torres created “Untitled” (America #1) an installation of light bulbs, porcelain light sockets, and an extension cord. Like most art, it’s a personal opinion to express how you feel about the work of an artist. Or should I say to understand the creation or maybe not. Frankly, Torres’ work did nothing for me. It only made me think of outdoor summer parties with tiki torches and colored lights wrapped around the fashionable outdoor umbrella set, and the smell of Corona, barbecue and the smoke of someone’s cigarette. I just could not wrap my mind around the purpose of the work. I remember seeing the work with a few teenage kids I taught at the Harlem School of the Arts in New York City. The kids laughed and were convinced they could have recreated Torres’ work. “That’s art?” became the topic of conversation. How do you explain to teenagers how light bulbs, porcelain light sockets, and an extension cord laying on the floor of a gallery is art? Or explain the integrated relationship between art, politics, aids and homosexuality in 1992 to these young minds? To me, it was so complicated then. The critics did not find it complicated. They raved about this contemporary, minimal display of light and the political message of Torres’ work. I found, I could not find the connection on my own. I needed the help of Torres’ critics and their reviews to help me make sense of the work.

I recently went to the New Museum to see the “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star” works of art made and exhibited in New York over the course of that one year. The show included Félix González-Torres’ Untitled (Couple). It was one of his various installations of light bulbs, porcelain light sockets, and extension cords. This one hung from the ceiling in room that was exceptionally large in scale.  The installation was juxtaposed several other artist work. Together those works pushed me into a state of emotion. In that moment I turned the other cheek. I got it. I got Torres’ intention. The worked unexpectedly moved me to tears. 

1993 reminds me of being fresh out of college. This instillation made me reflected on where I was and what I was seeing all around me in the 90’s. The aids crisis affected the art world on so many levels. There was a mad rush to make a statement about it. Gay men were scared and dying from this disease. Crack in combination with aids devastated black communities with more broken homes, incarceration and death. Homelessness and crime were out of control in NYC, and world politics and war consumed the airways. Sometimes simplicity speaks volumes. Torres managed to sum up so many of these issues by literally shining light on them.

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