I have a fond, reverent remembrance of the first time I encountered Felix Gonzalez-Torres' "Untitled" (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) at the Art Institute nearly a decade ago. I was encouraged by a nearby guide to take a piece of candy from a dwindling pile on the floor, only a few inches deep, and I did so, smiling at what I assumed was a playful gimmick. But that amused curiosity quickly dissipated as the guide turned my attention to the descriptive plaque beside the installation that read:
"This installation is an allegorical portrait of the artist's partner, Ross Laycock, who died of AIDS-related illness in 1991. The 175 pounds of candy can be seen to correspond to Laycock's ideal body weight. Adult visitors are invited to take a piece of candy; the diminishing pile parallels Laycock's weight loss prior to his death. The museum can choose to replenish the pile, metaphorically ensuring Laycock's perpetual life, or to let the pile disappear over time."
As a gay man myself, the installation took on far greater significance than I had initially given it credit for, and I soon began taking visiting friends and family to see the installation whenever it was available to share this profoundly moving experience with them.
So you can only imagine my shock and disappointment when I visited the Institute this weekend only to find that the description had been changed, removing any reference to HIV/AIDS and Gonzalez-Torres' homosexuality. The plaque now reads:
"Felix Gonzalez-Torres's work is characterized by a sense of quiet elegy. He possessed an uncanny ability to produce elegant and restrained sculptural forms out of common materials. "Untitled" (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) consists of commercially available, shiny wrapped confections. The physical form of the work changes depending on the way it is installed. The ideal weight of the work, 175 pounds, corresponds to the average body weight of an adult male. As visitors choose to take candy from the work, the volume and weight of the work decrease."
How can the Art Institute engage in such a brazen act of queer erasure? By removing any reference to HIV/AIDS and queer sexuality, the curatorial staff and the Institute, as a whole, have stripped the work of its personal resonance and political power for the many, many visitors not already familiar with the work. This erasure comes at a time when books with LGBTQ+ themes and characters are being challenged and banned more than ever before and lawmakers across the country have introduced over 160 anti-LGBTQ bills at the local, state, and federal levels.
For many years now, I have loved coming to the Art Institute to see works and installations that made me feel seen as a member of the queer community, where I could see the works of artists like Gonzalez-Torres and feel intimately connected to the past, present and future of this community as well as with all its associated pain, trauma, anger, joy and love. How could a place that has long made me feel so safe and welcome seek to erase these connections and memories? I left the Art Institute yesterday feeling, for the first time, profoundly empty and alone.