Without the public these works are nothing. I need the public to complete the work. I ask the public to help me, to take responsibility, to become part of my work, to join in.
(Felix Gonzalez-Torres in N. Spector, Felix Gonzalez-Torres (cat.), Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1995, p. 57)
A call to action doesn't often occur in the art world, yet this call to the public for their involvement in the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, is fundamental to understanding a large part of the oeuvre of this artist. The invitation to physically participate either by removing a piece of paper from a stack of standarized papers, or taking a candy, unwrapping it, and savoring its flavor, was a hope that the artist had of his viewers. These simple gifts that Gonzalez-Torres offered without expectation may be seen as gestures in attempt to meld the public and the private spheres, as well as a way for individuals to begin to explore the work of this artist.
Like the Minimalist artists before him, Gonzalez-Torres was interested in the conceptual as well as the aesthetic, yet unlike his predecessors, the artist did not alienate his audience by distancing them physically from his works. Instead of merely contemplating his pieces from afar, audiences are offered the choice of physically changing the nature of the work, therefore participating in its metamorphosis.
"I don't necessarily know how these pieces are best displayed. I don't have all 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. Give yourself that freedom. Put my creativity into question, minimize the preciousness of the piece. It is much easier and safe for an artist to just frame something."
(Felix Gonzalez-Torres in N. Spector, Felix Gonzalez-Torres (cat.), Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1995, p. 191)
The precision of vision and intention inherent in the art of the Minimalists remains in the work of Gonzalez-Torres, but the rigidity to which the aesthetic rules are to be followed does not. In other words, Gonzalez-Torres encourages personal interpretation through the participation of his viewers. A stack or a candy piece for example, were given approximate height or weight dimensions by the artist, yet Gonzalez-Torres understood that through the participation of others, these dimensions would change, as the works would not remain stagnant entities.
The physical act of taking a candy from "Untitled" (Blue Placebo) brings into question the transience of art, and even the impermanence of life as one perceives the pile of candies diminishing. Yet simultaneously, the continuous replenishing of the candies offer us a clear message of hope and the perpetuity of life. The participation of the viewer isn't limited to only the physical act of re-creating "Untitled" (Blue Placebo). Participation in this sense also encourages viewers to make other associations, whether they are to other works of Gonzalez-Torres, such as the stack pieces, or connections to the candies as a material, or our memories of candies, as well as to the title of the work, "Untitled" (Blue Placebo).
The medical field uses the term placebo in reference to clinical trials of potential drug treatments. During such trials, the patient doesn't know whether they are ingesting the possible therapeutic drug or the placebo. Like many of Gonzalez-Torres' other works, "Untitled" (Blue Placebo) refers to the existence of an illness, yet within that reference there lies a glimmer of hope, as the placebo might offer the cure. Others have compared the ingesting of candies to the ritual of communion, emphasizing the spiritual side of the experience.
Much of the beauty in the work of Gonzalez-Torres lies in the fact that as an artist he had the assurance to share more than just his vision with his audiences; he had the confidence to offer his works to be disseminated and re-interpreted, acknowledging the faith he had in visitors themselves. As spectators, we are drawn to the rich and sparkling carpet, the sea of wrapped candies in "Untitled" (Blue Placebo). Light reflects and shimmers on this blue landscape, as it passes through the varied surfaces of the candies themselves. The use of the color blue itself, brings to mind various connotations, from the natural world, the blue of the sky or the sea, yet the color also evokes a sense of masculine identity by using blue as code signifier. (A. Iannacci, "Felix Gonzalez-Torres", Artforum, New York, December 1991, p. 112)
Gonzalez-Torres utilized the term placebo in two other pieces, "Untitled" (Placebo), 1991 and "Untitled" (Placebo- Landscape for Roni), 1993. Both works are candy floor pieces, using silver candies and gold candies respectively. "Untitled" (Placebo) is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art and in this context, the contrast between the permanence of sculpture and the ephemeral quality of this ever changing work is made clear.
The generosity of the vision of Felix Gonzalez-Torres is evident throughout his work, and it seems to know no bounds. From his ability to surrender sole ownership of the works he created, allowing and celebrating the participation and creativity of others, to the sharing of his personal fears and hopes, his experience as a friend, partner, human and artist.