Felix Gonzalez-Torres has emerged as one of the most influential artists of the 1990s for his seemingly simple, yet conceptually sophisticated works that continuously evolve and remain open-ended. In “Untitled” (Last Light), an example of his well-known and elegant series of light string works, 24 illuminated white light bulbs produce a softly glowing aura. When the work is exhibited with the bulbs switched 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 life cycle of each bulb is finite, 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 wasting 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 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.
Gonzalez-Torres created his first work that incorporated the light string materials in 1991, citing a memory of visiting Paris with his boyfriend, Ross Laycock, as one of his possible inspirations. This sculpture, called “Untitled” (March 5th) #2, in reference to Laycock’s birthday, consisted of two bare bulbs suspended from their entwined power cords. Over the course of his career, Gonzalez-Torres created 24 light string works, with “Untitled” (Last Light) being a prime example. Cascading down the wall or pooled upon the floor, the installation of lights can be arranged in any configuration according to the exhibitor’s preference. The simplicity and elegance of the 24 softly glowing bulbs is contrasted by the multitude of complex meanings that the viewer brings 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 evokes the nostalgia of lost youth and the warmth of shared human experience. “Untitled” (Last Light) can touch upon the themes of memory, loss, and the importance of a life well lived that run through Gonzalez-Torres’s oeuvre like a shimmering golden thread.
One of the hallmarks of Gonzalez-Torres’s work lies in its ability to straddle the line between Minimalism and Conceptualism, while forging an intimate bond between the work of art and its viewer. Although often associated with the artist’s personal narrative and socio-political circumstances of his time, especially Gonzalez-Torres’s untimely death from AIDS in 1996, the use of quotidian materials allows the viewer to insert his or her own experiences or memories into the work. The creation of meaning in “Untitled” (Last Light) is never-ending, evolving in accordance with individual viewership, historical circumstances and installation choices. Even as Gonzalez-Torres adopted formal strategies of Minimalism, he rejected its rigid austerity and authoritarianism, instead re-writing the parameters of art-making by allowing his forms to gradually change their shape as time wears on and with each new installation or iteration.
“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). By questioning his own artistic authority, he shares the creative process with the public, inviting participation and engagement through the constant mutability of form.
Although all of Gonzalez-Torres’s works are officially entitled “Untitled”, approximately three quarters, including “Untitled” (Last Light), have parenthetical additions. These portions 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 in new spaces.