This month when cruising the urban landscape of New Jersey, you may come upon something that stops you in your tracks. Peppered amongst the sea of oversaturated billboards advertising hotel rates, all-you-can-eat buffets and upcoming sitcoms are 12 prints depicting the simple yet stirring image of an empty, white bed, unmade and slightly rumpled.
You may pause and -- even if only for a moment -- experience the sacred stillness of a museum in the middle of the bustling city streets.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled,” 1991. Billboard. Installation view of Felix Gonzalez-Torres Billboard Project. Artpace Foundation, San Antonio, TX. Jan.–Dec. 2010. © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation/Courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery/photo Tom DuBrock
The 12 billboards prints are the work of the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a Cuban-born, American artist whose works employed everyday images to access complex and universal emotions. Whether presenting a pile of wrapped candies or two identical clocks, the Duchampian artist multiplies minimalism to imbue the simplest objects with poetic meaning that touches viewers beyond the typical museum-going encounter.
Gonzalez-Torres' billboard, left "Untitled" like so many of his works, was created in 1991, the same year Gonzalez-Torres lost his lover of eight years, Ross Laycock, to an AIDS-related illness. Gonzalez-Torres himself passed away of similar causes in 1996.
"[Laycock] was a sommelier. He was about to finish his BS in Biochemistry with a minor in English Lit," Gonzalez-Torres said in an interview with BOMB Magazine. "He did everything; he was a Renaissance man. And gorgeous too, really gorgeous. Fucking hot! But intimidating, the first time around."
The black-and-white photograph served as an elegy to Laycock. Gonzalez-Torres mounted the image on 24 billboards to commemorate the day his love died. The billboards, speckled throughout the state, occupied a ghostly realm between advertising and art, silently existing in a public space normally reserved for loud, commercialized messages.
The image of the empty bed is as innocuous as it is haunting, at once conjuring images of rest, desire, death and loneliness. The comfort and intimacy of a bedroom is replaced with a sense of isolation, with the imprints of the absent bodies still lingering. As is typical with Gonzalez-Torres' work, the personal and political, private and public, become closely intertwined.
Now, over 20 years after the original exhibition, 12 of Felix-Gonzalez's billboards rest throughout the state of New Jersey, as part of an outdoor-only exhibition organized by the Princeton University Art Museum this month. The works will remain unlabeled, inviting passersby of all backgrounds to pause and contemplate the works with no guarantee of uncovering their definitive source or meaning. Thus Gonzalez-Torres, even in death, bridges the space between art and life. They exhibition runs until December 16, 2013.
For a full map of the billboard locations, see the Princeton University Art Museum webiste.