Felix Gonzalez-Torres created an array of beautiful objects, simultaneously simple and complex, over the course of his career. In “Untitled” (Last Light), an example of his well-known and elegant series of light string works, twenty-four illuminated white light bulbs create an aura of softly glowing light. When the work is exhibited with the bulbs on, they radiate the tangible warmth of a softly burning candle; the string of bulbs infuses the pristine atmosphere of the gallery space with a delicate radiance. While the the life cycle of each bulb is finite—they inevitably burn out—the artist intended for the bulbs to be replaced promptly as they burn out over the course of any exhibition of these works. Set at six-inch intervals, the repetition of the bare bulbs evokes a Minimalist rigor while its utilitarian simplicity calls to mind the art of Marcel Duchamp and Dan Flavin’s ephemeral use of light. Created in 1993, “Untitled” (Last Light) can be interpreted in many ways; as a reference to the waisting away of the body from disease, the inevitable passage of time, or a celebration of life’s fleeting moments of joy. It explores the major themes that can be found throughout the artist’s best works, making it a brilliant example of his ability to imbue ordinary objects with joy, tragedy, and timeless beauty. Several museums retain examples of this work in their permanent collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres created his first work that incorporated the light string materials in 1991. This sculpture consisted of two bare bulbs suspended from their entwined power cords and titled “Untitled” (March 5th) #2 in reference to Laycock’s birthday. Over the course of his career, Gonzalez-Torres created twenty four light string works, with “Untitled” (Last Light) being a prime example. Cascading down the wall or pooled upon the floor, the installation of the lights can be arranged in any configuration according to the exhibitor’s preference. In “Untitled” (Last Light), the simplicity and elegance of the softly-glowing bulbs is contrasted by the multitude of complex meanings that a viewer can bring to the work. Infused with potent memories of childhood celebrations, of twinkling holiday lights set aglow by the fireside or flickering in the dark, the simple string of lights can evoke the nostalgia of lost youth and the warmth of shared human experience.
Perhaps nothing in the artist’s oeuvre better exemplifies the quiet elegiac nature of his projects,” writes curator James Rondeau, “than a series of sculptural works made entirely of illuminated strings of light.” (J. E. Rondeau, “Untitled” (Last Light), 1993 by Felix Gonzalez Torres,” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, vol. 25, no. 1, 1999, p. 84). Indeed, “Untitled” (Last Light) can touch upon the themes of nostalgia, loss and the importance of a life well lived that run through Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s work like a beautiful golden thread.
One of the hallmarks of Gonzalez-Torres’s work lies in its ability to straddle the lines of Minimalism and Conceptual art while forging an intimate bond between the work of art and its viewer. Gonzalez-Torres merges the formal austerity of Minimalism with metaphorical associations derived from his own personal narrative and socio-political circumstances of his time, which ultimately allows him to re-write the parameters of art making and art viewing. In work that energizes and activates the hushed rigor of Minimalist sculpture while invoking the viewer’s own body and allowing his forms to gradually change their shape as time wears on, Gonzalez-Torres has been described as Post-Minimal. “I don’t necessarily know how these pieces are best displayed,” the artist has said. “I don’t have all of the answers—you decide how you want it done. Whatever you want to do, try it. This is not some Minimalist artwork that has to be exactly two inches to the left and six inches down. Play with it, please. Have fun” (F. Gonzalez- Torres, quoted in Felix Gonzalez-Torres, exh. cat., Solomon R, Guggenheim Museum, New York 1995, p. 191).
“Untitled” (Last Light) is one of two light string works that the artist published in an edition. Gonzalez-Torres created twenty-four light string works; the parenthetical portions of the titles refer to specific places or events in the artist’s life but can be understood to carry any meanings that a viewer might associate with them. While some of the references are obvious, indicating place, others are more oblique, imbued with esoteric references known only to the artist himself. In the present work, the viewer is left to puzzle over the evocative phrase “Last Light.” Could this be the last dying breath of a beloved companion? Or perhaps the dying sunlight as it fades beneath the horizon? Both are valid readings of “Untitled” (Last Light)—the full meaning of this poignant work accrues over time as it is considered by new audiences.