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Gonzalez-Torres crowds out others at American pavilion

June 29, 2007|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who died of AIDS-related complications at 38 in 1996, is the second American to be posthumously represented in the high-profile American pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Unfortunately, the show mostly represents a lost opportunity for any of scores of living American artists.

When Robert Smithson was so honored in 1982, nine years after his untimely death at 35, the privilege was crucial to securing his international reputation. An underground cult hero, important to other artists but not yet embraced by the establishment, Smithson was the subject of a 1980 retrospective that toured five American museums to great acclaim. It became the basis for the triumphant Biennale show, which then toured five European cities.

Gonzalez-Torres is in a wholly different category -- an influential superstar who has been the subject of retrospectives in the U.S., Europe and South America. His highly prized work has fetched seven-figure prices at auction. He hardly needs Venice to secure his reputation. Other artists do.

There is also the troubling matter of "Untitled," a pair of low, 12-foot-wide circular basins carved from white Carrara marble, which greets visitors in the pavilion's forecourt. Described as "a never-before-realized sculpture," it was made at the direction of pavilion curator Nancy Spector.

From 1992 to 1995, the artist made five sketches for different versions of such a work, but he died before any were completed. No sculpture was ever realized. Spector is a careful, thorough curator -- she organized the Guggenheim Museum's fine 1995 Gonzalez-Torres retrospective -- and the artist often sought active curatorial participation in his art's display. But the difference is vast between a work in process and one that's finished.

Would Gonzalez-Torres choose Carrara marble for this location? Would he alter the pools' dimensions to accommodate this site? Would he display them on brick paving? Would he consider the work site-specific and destroy it after the show?

We'll never know. He didn't make the sculpture. But it's worth noting that the now-pedigreed hybrid -- a 2007 work by Spector, inspired by 1990s Gonzalez-Torres -- has already been acquired by an unidentified private collector.

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