“Untitled” (Double Portrait) 1991 comprises printed sheets, of which there are, conceptually speaking, ‘endless copies’, that are placed in a stack directly on the gallery floor. As with other such works by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, it is intended that visitors are able to take away the sheets, which are periodically replenished so that although the artist specifies an ideal height to be maintained, in practice the form and volume is in constant flux. The work can be regarded as a commentary on the language of minimalist sculpture and its emphasis on inert mass, which is contrasted with Gonzalez-Torres’s foregrounding of mutability and ephemerality. Thus “Untitled” (Double Portrait), which is fabricated for each display, is comprised of both the physical stack of printed sheets and its animation through interaction with visitors.
The sheets carry an abstract double ring design in gold ink, in which the rings touch very slightly. This is closely related to a similar, wall-based work by the artist in which two rings made of brass are shown side by side. In both works these rings could be seen as matching wedding bands, referencing the use of both the circle and the figure eight form as symbols of eternity or enduring love. This motif, or that of two identical circular objects (such as mirrors, clocks, metal rings and light bulbs), occurs frequently in Gonzalez-Torres’s work as a sign of ‘perfect lovers’, representing two people, their bodies and consciousness, which are united. In its use of exact symmetry, it also alludes to homosexual love.
The title of this work follows the format that Gonzalez-Torres established for the majority of his work. He gave all of his works (with only one or two exceptions) the same basic title, “Untitled”, which always appears in speech marks; this is frequently followed by an individual title which always appears in parentheses. In this case, the title emphasises the symbolic nature of the twinned rings as standing in for a portrait, which is simultaneously private, as no particulars are revealed, and universal, since these forms can be read as anyone, depending on the viewer. The work parallels the tradition of pendant portraiture, though in a highly abstract manner, which is usually associated with the depiction or commemoration of the union of a couple, their mutual love and dependency. This work embodies Gonzalez-Torres’s tendency toward extreme formal economy, yet it also demonstrates his practice of loading minimal structures with highly charged personal, emotional and/or political meaning. It is also, perhaps, a commentary on the absence of such meaning in minimalist art. “Untitled” (Double Portrait) is typically restrained, and yet combines this with a flourish of extravagance in the use of gold ink.
Gonzalez-Torres was one of the most influential artists of his generation, exemplifying both the emergence of so called ‘neo-conceptualism’ and the pursuit of a political and ethical exploration of the everyday. He joined the artists’ collective Group Material (with Doug Ashford, Julie Ault and Tim Rollins) in 1987, the year he received his Masters in Fine Art from the International Center of Photography in New York, although he always worked independently at the same time. His works in a variety of media embrace themes including identity, desire, intimacy, mortality, metamorphosis, contamination, the public or social and the private, loss and renewal. Working in series he originated forms of sculpture and sculptural installation – which have acquired the status of signature works – that involved the participation of the curator, the viewer, or both, including stacks, candy spills, light strings and ‘portraits’. He is perhaps the most prominent Cuban émigré artist, who lived and worked in the USA, having grown up in Puerto Rico. Yet Gonzalez-Torres is also notable for the efforts he made to complicate or subvert expectations of what a Hispanic or Latino artist should be. He is one of only two artists who have been chosen to represent the United States posthumously at the Venice Biennale (in Gonzalez-Torres’s case, this took place in 2007).
“Untitled” (Double Portrait) is an example of one of Gonzalez-Torres’s signature series, the stack. His stacks usually carry a text message, image or other symbolic or poetic design. This example dates from a period when Gonzalez-Torres created different iterations or variations of these forms. The work was created in the same year as the multiple “Untitled” (March 5th) #2 1991 (Tate T13764), which also illustrates Gonzalez-Torres’s use of coupling, twinning or doubling within his work in its use of two light bulbs to stand in for entwined lovers, united by their shared illumination. “Untitled” (Double Portrait) was included in major solo exhibitions in 1994 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC, and in 1996 at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.
Julie Ault (ed.), Felix Gonzalez-Torres, New York and Göttingen 2006.