Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Leading light of AIDS-era art

Out There

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Stone's Throw by art historian, critic and curator David Deitcher (Secretary Press) is an appreciation of the work of the gay late-20th-century artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who died 20 years ago of AIDS complications. Deitcher had an intimate friendship with him, and as well with activist-curator Bill Olander, and dedicates the work to both of their memories. It's an interesting exegesis of Gonzalez-Torres' art, with plenty of illustrative plates. The artist took the tropes and forms of Minimalism and Conceptualism and infused them with meaning, emotion and resonance.

The best examples of Gonzalez-Torres' artistic genius are in works like "Untitled (Leaves of Grass)" (1993), a string of light bulbs hanging from a gallery ceiling on an extension cord. Vertical, simple, minimal, it still has stunning impact in installation. In works like "Untitled (Rossmore II)" (1991), a pool of sugary candies, each individually wrapped in cellophane, is placed on the gallery floor against a wall. Viewers are encouraged to take one; in fact, the stipulation "endless supply" is explicit in the work's materials list. All sorts of associations come into play; and any resulting trash is very much part of the artist's intentions. "Consistent with their status as poetic embodiments for the cycle of life, it makes sense that such works would in this way reflect organic deterioration," Deitcher writes, "which is rarely tidy and almost never pretty. The cast-off wrappers serve as abject reminders of such unavoidable facts of biological life. Whenever I remove and eat a candy from one of Felix's sculptures, I will toss the wrapper onto its host to advance this decidedly tough and fear-inducing trope."

Deitcher makes the point that "the horrors of the North American AIDS crisis arguably compelled the emotional engagement that distinguished Minimalist- and Conceptualist-informed art of the 80s and early 90s from its antecedents; clinched its importance in the context of lives traumatized by loss and institutionalized neglect and hostility." Though he concentrates on the oeuvre of Gonzalez-Torres, he also brings in the work of other gay and transgressive artists and collectives of the era, including Jim Hodges, Nayland Blake , Tony Feher, Roni Horn, Group Material, ACT UP , and the NAMES Project . This book-length essay is an important addition to the critical study of art and culture of the AIDS era.

The book's annotations, on pages facing the main text, are frequently as interesting as the main essay, from the very first one, which explains the phrase "suckable hands" in a postcard the artist wrote: "Some queer activists voiced disappointment at the absence from the film [Jonathan Demme's 1993 Philadelphia] of a passionate kiss between Andrew (Tom Hanks) and his lover Miguel (Antonio Banderas ). Felix was adamant that no face-to-face kiss could have been sexier than the scene, near the end of the film, when Andrew sucks on Miguel's fingers." Yum, agreed!


Simon Dobson will have two commissioned works and two US premieres in an upcoming Curious Flights program. Photo: TP Cresswell

Adventurous music

Curious Flights will continue its 2016 season on Sat., March 19, 8 p.m. at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, with Transatlantic Crossings, a program of new works by U.S. and U.K. composers including three world premiere commissions, two U.S. premieres and a week-long residency by two-time British Composer Award winner Simon Dobson.

The performance is a showcase for talent here in the Bay Area (composers Mason Bates and Samuel Adams) as well as for Dobson, the group's talented resident composer, who is something of a hot commodity back in the U.K. (London Philharmonic commission, two British Composer Awards, joining the likes of Thomas Ades and Kaija Saariaho ). Transatlantic Crossings will offer the world premiere of a Curious Flights-commissioned work for clarinet and electronics performed by clarinetist and Artistic Director Brenden Guy , and the U.S. premieres of Crystal for eight trumpets and Another World's Hell featuring the San Francisco Wind Ensemble.

There's a distinct "cool" factor running through the program with all of these composers blurring the lines between musical genres, which holds appeal for those looking for a slightly more alternative classical experience. Tickets ($20) are at brownpapertickets .com or at the door. For more information, visit


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