at the Renaissance Society, through November 6

One of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s pieces at the Renaissance Society consists of two stacks of posters. In one stack the posters read “Somewhere better than this place”; those in the other stack say “Nowhere better than this place.” A gallery visitor can consider these two piles, choose between the two posters, roll one up, stick it under his or her arm, and take it home. Over time the stacks dwindle, the gallery adds more posters, and the process begins again.

Cycles of production, distribution, and consumption, the poetics of cut-rate merchandise, the absence of the body, and the ghosts of memory are all subjects registered in Gonzalez-Torres’s work. Yet many of the pieces in “Traveling,” a retrospective that’s made its way around the country and is now lodged at the University of Chicago, have a hard time meeting the expectations of political resistance raised by the series of art-historical references they contain. By reducing the experience of art to an act of literally “getting it”–consuming the artwork either by taking it home or by swallowing it–Gonzalez-Torres ends up affirming, more than he intended, our culture’s insatiable drive to consume.

Gonzalez-Torres’s art is positioned in the gray area between the personal and the political, though he might challenge the idea that any gray exists. “There’s no such thing as a private versus a public sphere,” he remarked in a recent talk at the School of the Art Institute. “There’s only private property.” The motto “the personal is political” grew out of the feminist and civil rights movements of the 60s. During the Reagan era, Barbara Kruger revised this phrase to read “your body is a battleground.” Of course, this latter-day formulation had great resonance for advocates of abortion rights and also for the gay-rights movement.

Clearly both these periods of American cultural history have great significance for Gonzalez-Torres, as times of activism in the truest sense of the word. However, he rejects the tactics of political art, like that of Barbara Kruger, as “redundant.” Instead he favors the view that artistic creation is inherently ideological. The coordinating hues of his Renaissance Society installation, the freshly painted industrial pale blue walls and the white curtains, seem to speak to the more traditionally “artistic” concerns of color and form, but these are concerns that Gonzalez-Torres sees as the optimal carriers of political meaning.

Gonzalez-Torres’s nostalgia for the 1960s and, perversely, for the Reagan years is communicated in his deep commitment to certain artistic trends of the 60s and New York art of the 80s, which his work neatly ties together. Take the untitled 1991 piece (“Revenge”) that consists of a rectangular sea of hundreds of aqua blue candies, piled neatly in the central gallery space. The piece mixes aspects of process art of the 1960s as practiced by arte povera artists in Italy and by Joseph Beuys in particular, who also formed piles on gallery floors, with aspects of 80s commodity art by New York artists Haim Steinbach and Jeff Koons, with their celebration of mass-produced tchotchkes. It’s reminiscent of the food-as-icon theme in American pop art by Claes Oldenburg, Wayne Thiebaud, and James Rosenquist, artists who also pictured consumerism as ingestion. Gonzalez-Torres’s 1993 untitled work that’s a string of light bulbs and extension cords, mounted on a wall in the Renaissance Society hallway, is a kind of low-tech answer to Dan Flavin’s fluorescent-light reliefs. Another work (displayed in a curiously casual manner above an office desk), called “31 Days of Bloodwork,” is a series of almost identical gridded sheets of paper resembling medical charts. The reference here may be a personal one–Gonzalez-Torres has lost many friends to AIDS–but this work also reminds you of Agnes Martin’s great minimalist drawings and Ronald Jones’s abstract sculptures that double as three-dimensional models of the HIV virus. My point here is not to pinpoint what and who came first, since artistic originality is now an obsolete issue for many artists, but to emphasize that Gonzalez-Torres consistently refers to two eras.

The most sobering moments in “Traveling,” and in my view the most powerful, come from the subtle elegiac quality to be found in some of these works, such as “31 Days of Bloodwork” and “Revenge.” Other versions of the latter piece referred to the body weight of Gonzalez-Torres himself, or to that of his late lover: the individual’s weight would determine the number of pounds of candy in these abstract “portraits.” The body is inscribed in these works in terms of its absence, sometimes caused by death; the “monument” itself is shifting and impermanent. Another untitled piece (1989-1994) consists of sheer white curtains installed at the windows throughout the galleries. Puffs of wind fling the curtains about dramatically–the windows in the main gallery are kept open–catching and making visible one of the most fleeting things imaginable, a breeze. Gonzalez-Torres is at his best when he uses mundane materials and objects to catch the elusive flow of time and to reflect upon mortality.

Unfortunately for us, Gonzalez-Torres’s larger-scale public works are not included in the Chicago exhibition. Over the years he’s installed a number of billboards at various locations in New York City (incidentally, something that Barbara Kruger has also done). One of Gonzalez-Torres’s billboards was what he calls a “nonphallic monument,” installed in 1989 across the street from the Stonewall bar on Christopher Street to commemorate this historic site of gay resistance. More recently one of his billboards featured a black-and-white photograph of an empty, rumpled bed bearing the traces of a couple recently departed, suggesting the gaze of government surveillance penetrating domestic space, the way private and public are conjoined when the state intervenes in sexual relations.

For the Los Angeles stop of this show, Gonzalez-Torres placed throughout the city 22 billboards showing birds soaring against a clouded sky. In Washington, D.C., two of these billboards were included in the indoor exhibition; but in Chicago the image has been shrunk into booklets, piled in a stack called “Passport #II” (1993) in the main gallery space, another item the public is invited to take home. It’s interesting to note the trajectory of this image as the exhibition has traveled, the withdrawal of the work from public space into the cocoon of the art gallery and the corresponding shift in distribution. I for one would have loved to see a Gonzalez-Torres set against Chicago streets.

The way “Passport #II” has been withdrawn into a more traditional setting for the viewer’s consumption raises what I see as a general problem in Gonzalez-Torres’s pieces. These works hold out a democratic dream, an aesthetic car-in-every-garage promise, of literal mass ownership of the work of art. Yet the works are still owned by private collectors or institutions, and are often accessible to the public only in the hermetic gallery space. So while the promise of ownership is there, it remains within the shadow of the traditional art-institutional apparatus that Gonzalez-Torres uses to frame and distribute his work. Finally there is the danger that these works end up replicating and affirming the cheap pleasure of thoughtless consumption in our experience of art. I’d prefer a stronger jolt of criticism of the everyday relations of exchange and consumption, perhaps an experience that demands more of my mental and psychic energies to “get it.” Much art of the 1960s managed to do exactly this, as I think Gonzalez-Torres would agree. These enormous questions about our experience of art and about consumption in our society are all raised by Gonzalez-Torres himself; they point to the extreme difficulty of making critical art in our consumption-driven times.