The One That Got Away
Felix Gonzalez-Torres and the Case of the Disbanded Art Jury
Ellen Page Wilson, Courtesy Andrea Rosen gallery
It's a sculpture—made in white Carrera marble, the type Michelangelo used—of two shallow, circular reflecting pools, each weighing 8 to 10 tons. The pools adjoin to form a figure eight, touching so delicately that the trickle of water that passes between them is almost undetectable. This summer, thousands and thousands of people will flock to see them, and probably will turn them into a double wishing well or even a splash pool. Many of those people will also recognize another layer of intentions by the artist, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who envisioned the pools as part of a series of paired rings (mirrors, clocks) referencing gay love.
The artist died of AIDS in 1996, before he could realize the sculpture himself. He'd probably enjoy the fact that, on the one hand, the love that dare not speak its name has become a public amenity, a place to put hope and to find relief, and on the other hand (especially for an artist whose typical materials included piles of candy and paper and strings of lights), that it has been rendered in the material of classical sculpture—and celebrated as the centerpiece of the United States pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
This is the sculpture that Western Washington University rejected in 1992.
It arrived in Bellingham in the form of a drawing the artist mailed in for a competition. A commission had been funded by the construction of two new science buildings on campus. Because Western is a public university and state law mandated that half of 1 percent of construction budgets go toward buying art, the university had $105,350 to spend on a sculpture, and Gonzalez-Torres was one of 25 artists who responded to being nominated by sending submissions.
Earlier this year, news reports that announced Gonzalez-Torres as the American representative for the Venice Biennale mentioned that the centerpiece sculpture originated as a drawing for Western.
"I've been intrigued as to how people are interpreting this," said Western museum director Sarah Clark-Langager. "The way it's being talked about is that he was a finalist and he made it to the jurying process. That's not true."
Until now, that jurying process has been a mystery—but one with a paper trail.
Gonzalez-Torres was never close, Clark-Langager said. Flipping the pages in her file from that time during a phone interview, she said Gonzalez-Torres was one of 50 artists invited by a panel of jurors to submit materials expressing interest. (Most didn't send actual drawings, and Gonzalez-Torres distinguished himself by sending two, one for two reflecting pools of 12 feet in diameter each, precise materials unspecified, and one for a boxing ring, Clark-Langager said. The jurors were partial to the pools over the boxing ring, she said.)
In her version of the story, the panelists (Clark-Langager, Virginia Wright, Norie Sato, Buster Simpson, and Josine Ianco-Starrels) chose five finalists, and Gonzalez-Torres wasn't on the list. They selected Magdalena Abakanowicz, who in 1993 installed a 15-foot bronze tree that looks as if it is reaching into the sky, from her "Hand-Like Tree" series. That was that.
But documents on record at the Washington State Arts Commission, which administered the competition for the public money, thicken the plot.
There had been a previous panel.
On July 14, 1992, the first panel reviewed submissions by 25 artists and chose its final five. The notes from the meeting read: "Proposals from Gonzalez-Torres and [Meg] Webster in clear preference... Second vote broke tie between runners-up. [Mel] Chin was included to make proposal. [Chris] Burden and [Ulrich] Rückriem will be kept on alternate list."
That day, Bellingham was close to getting the Gonzalez-Torres.
But it was not to be.
In September, a letter went out to the panelists from Pablo Schugurensky, then-manager of the state's public-art program, announcing the "need to revise all actions regarding this allocation," including convening a new panel with all new members, except for Western's Clark-Langager and Wright. Wright has been the chief patron of Western's noted collection of outdoor sculpture since its inception in 1960. About half the university's sculptures were paid for out of Western's own art allowance, a handful were bought with state and federal money, and most of the rest were donated by Wright—who with her husband, Bagley, is the leading collector of modern art in Seattle.
The letter from Schugurensky cited procedural problems that are evident in the meeting notes from July. Those notes begin with the observation that the list of artists had grown shorter "than list received by panelists in May. [Patterson] Sims questioned how the list was shortened."
Questions about the priorities of the panel arise throughout the discussion: Should the choice come down to strict aesthetics or include considerations of race and gender? "Collection must move into the year 2000," remarked artist Marita Dingus.
Despite the back and forth, the final vote was taken, and the meeting was adjourned. And then everything changed. Clark-Langager remembers it as a clash between the state arts commission and the university, particularly over whether the state notified all of the artists who were nominated.
Schugurensky did not have a vote; he was the administrator. "I think the letter states that there were a variety of circumstances and opinions that brought that decision to call another panel," he said in a recent interview. "I don't feel comfortable in adding any more to that."
Some artists say they thought Wright was implicitly in charge.
"This is the sense I got—that the first round wasn't to her liking, so the second round was done," Dingus said in a recent interview. "But you know, the people who give the money, it's just what it is. I mean, I wasn't giving any money! Actually I was extremely happy that [Abakanowicz] ended up getting the commission."
Artists Buster Simpson and Norie Sato were on the second panel. Clark-Langager and Wright seemed to have an agenda for what they wanted, Simpson said. "We didn't feel like it was as open a discussion as we would have liked."
Said Sato, "I didn't feel like my arm was twisted at all, and I was happy with the outcome." But, she added, "it's almost like a private collection, and there is deference paid to the major donor—it's not like a typical public commission, where we don't feel that need."
Wright declined to comment for this story.
Gonzalez-Torres's drawings were sent back to him. Between 1992 and 1995, Gonzalez-Torres drew at least five variations of his 12-foot-diameter pools. He planned to realize them in a one-man exhibition scheduled for 1994 at the Musée d'Art Contemporain in Bordeaux, France, but that show was postponed because he was having a retrospective at the Guggenheim at the same time. And then he died, before he could see his sculpture built.
Guggenheim curator Nancy Spector proposed it for the biennale, and made the decision to use Carrera marble. It is untitled. (The drawings are not on display, but a catalog will detail the materials and notes Spector worked from.)
In the years since his death, Gonzalez-Torres's personal and political take on minimalism has proved vastly influential on younger artists. It's also popular with critics and audiences. Gonzalez-Torres continues to rise in the pantheon.
"I'm very proud that I was part of that first panel," said Patterson Sims, a onetime curator at Seattle Art Museum who's now director of Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey. "I'm fascinated that, all those years ago, I had decent taste. I don't remember a thing about what happened, but I'm sorry that first panel was disbanded."