Many art museums might describe their offerings as a “treat” for their patrons, but the Barrick Museum of Art at UNLV means it literally. For the next year-and-a-half, visitors to the Barrick will find a large pile of individually wrapped green candies on the gallery floor, and they are encouraged to take a piece. Far from an accidental spill or promotional gimmick, the candy pile is one of the more famous works by artist Félix González-Torres, titled simply “Untitled” (L.A.)
“Anyone who knows González-Torres is going to identify this as one of his works as soon as they see it,” wrote Deanne Sole, publications editor at the Barrick, in an email. “The series it belongs to doesn’t have a formal name, but his pieces like this are usually referred to as ‘candy spills’ or ‘candy piles.’ … Each separate piece has a preferred type of candy. … But the parameters he laid down for the works don’t tie you to those preferences. One of the other museums that exhibited “Untitled” (L.A.) used orange candies and that was fine. Flexibility is one of his strategies. He collaborates posthumously with his curators.”
González-Torres was a Cuban-American artist who rose to prominence in the ’80s and ’90s before his death in 1996. His minimalist sculptures—making use of everyday materials like light bulbs, curtains, pieces of paper, and, indeed, candy—often explored themes of ephemerality and loss by the impermanent nature of the media itself. In this case, the candies are meant to be taken and shared until the pile is almost gone, at which point it is replenished.
“He’s someone who looked at the work of the minimalists, with their interest in permanent shapes and immortal, objective objects, and borrowed their aesthetic language without subscribing to all of their ideas,” wrote Sole. “Our current version of ‘Untitled (L.A.)’ looks like a shining green geometric shape, which suits a minimalist aesthetic, but it’s clearly not unchanging because visitors are invited to take parts of it and eat them. It’s not an object that exists in and of itself. It makes itself vulnerable. It has a story, a personal context for the artist (the ‘L.A.’ in the title alludes to this).”
An openly gay man in the height of the AIDS crisis, González-Torres ostensibly created “Untitled” (L.A.) in homage to a personal loss—that of his long-time partner, Ross Laycock, who succumbed to the disease the year the piece was created in 1991. Five years later, it claimed Gonzalez-Torres himself. Many of his pieces with “L.A.” in the title refer to a time and place when he and Laycock lived happily together.
“It would be easy to focus solely on the idea that this piece is a memorial for Ross,” Sole wrote. “There’s plenty of things you can refer to if that’s the route you want to take. Ross died in the year that it was made—at the beginning of the year, in January—and it’s emotionally moving to imagine the artist in his grief creating this immortal communion wafer that dissolves on your tongue and gets replenished. Ross is dead but nothing will kill the candy pile.”
Indeed, the ideal weight of the candy pile is supposed to hover around 50 pounds—the reported weight of Laycock’s body when he died. However, when deciding how best to introduce the Barrick’s patrons to both this piece and González-Torres’ legacy, Sole thought it best to avoid a strict interpretation of “Untitled” (L.A.) as having only one specific subtext.
“When I created the text for the exhibition, I deliberately avoided loading everything onto Ross,” Sole wrote. “I created several collections of texts around various themes and made them available in separate booklets or brochures so that people could come to Felix from a different perspective, depending on the brochure they were reading. Art Bridges (the foundation that loaned us the work) cautions against reading Felix in a narrow way, asking you not to emphasize only one part of him, so I took that to heart.”
Making the highly conceptual piece more accessible to the public has been an ongoing challenge for the staff of the Barrick since it first arrived in September of last year.
“We usually just tell them the story behind the piece and a little bit about the artist himself,” said Paige Bockman, the Barrick’s exhibition manager. “Our job is not to, you know, convince someone that it’s art, it’s just to give them this information, and if they want to have a discussion on whether or not this is art, we are always welcome to that.”
Engaging patrons in conversation about the piece and González-Torres’ life has led to some memorable interactions, Bockman said.
“A lot of times, little kids come in and they’ll see that it’s candy and they run towards it, and you have parents, like, ‘no, don’t touch the art,’” Bockman said, adding that parents are often unaware, in the moment, that this was exactly the artist’s intention.
Still other guests are moved by González-Torres’ dedication to Laycock and view the piece as a touching memorial. Others who are members of the LGBTQ community recognize it as a solemn reminder of the AIDS epidemic, which was stigmatized as a “gay disease” and its victims often mistreated or overlooked by society through fear or outright homophobia.
“I actually had a conversation with one student whose parents were alive during the AIDS epidemic and talked about how everyone was so afraid during the AIDS epidemic and how he was relating that kind of fear that we were all feeling with COVID-19,” Bockman said. “We had a great quote from him that we wrote down, where he says, ‘There’s no greater illness than fear. It makes us forget that we’re human.’ And he really felt that this piece was a great reminder of the humanity and the connection between all of us.”
“Untitled” (L.A.) then, is perhaps most interesting to the general museum-going public in the way that its mundaneness obscures infinite, and sometimes contradictory, interpretations of its meaning—an idea expounded upon by the artist himself in a 1993 quote that appears next to the installation:
“Above all else, it is about leaving a mark that I existed: I was here. I was hungry. I was defeated. I was happy. I was sad. I was in love. I was afraid. I was hopeful. I had an idea and I had a good purpose and that’s why I make works of art.”
“Untitled” (L.A.), the 1991 “candy spill” piece by Felix González-Torres, is making its Nevada debut at UNLV’s Barrick Museum, where it will be on view through September 2023.
Cover photo: Kris Vagner