Félix González-Torres, “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers), (1987-1990)
One of the most important artists to emerge in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Félix González-Torres is said to have closely monitored the use of his personal biography and to have largely avoided being photographed—the better to escape having success and celebrity limit the interpretation of his work. And yet his untimely death from AIDS in 1996 has magnified the impact of González-Torres’ use of everyday objects in his art as a metaphor for the process of dying and regeneration.
Known for minimal installations and sculptures, González-Torres used materials including lightbulbs, clocks, stacks of paper and packaged hard candies to create quietly conceptual and powerfully emotional works of art. In 1991, he portrayed his AIDS-afflicted lover as a 175-pound mound of shiny sweets, “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in LA), (1991). The cellophane-wrapped candies were to be consumed by gallery visitors, so that the pile diminished steadily in quantity like his lover’s dwindling body weight. Unlike his lover’s health, the sweets could be regularly replenished—much as the human race repopulates every day.
Such logic animates “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers) (1987-1990), on view at David Zwirner’s 20th Street gallery in a mini-survey of the legendary artist’s career, “Félix González-Torres” (until 24 June). A work that features two commercial wall clocks installed side by side, it folds dime-store familiarity and metaphorical concision into a single poetic gesture.
Identical but independent, the clocks run in sync but will eventually fall out of time with one another. Because the artist specified that the clocks should be restarted when they stop, there is no mistaking his final message: life propels life, in imitation of the sustaining symbolism contained within González-Torres own creations.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Vigil for a Horseman (2017)
Arranged around the wine-colored walls of the New Museum’s open fourth-floor gallery, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s exhibition of paintings presents an encyclopedic sweep of historical portraiture—but with a pantheon of sensuous black figures depicted instead of the usual Caucasian suspects (“Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Under-Song for a Cipher”, until 3 September).
Painted with spare but bravura brushwork and a restrained palette full of various shades of browns, the 17 canvases on view channel Old Masters and proto-Modernists from Velázquez to Joshua Reynolds and Édouard Manet. The portraits are of entirely fictional people whom the artist composites from drawings, magazine clippings and her own memories. Their elegant bearing belies the historical absence of black faces and bodies during more than five centuries of European painting.
The exhibition’s most colorful work and only triptych, Vigil for a Horseman consists of three canvases featuring two black males attired in black tops and red tights lounging on top of a red and white striped bed and a black and blue diamond-patterned cushion. It was painted quickly, as were the other canvases, and without the benefit (or hindrance) of disegno—the underlayer of drawing used in traditional portraiture.
Additionally, the triptych’s loose brushwork courts enigma, shadowed by the history of representation, with an expert hand.
A tour de force of patterned color and painterly restraint, Vigil for a Horseman and its purposefully ambiguous title—in the artist’s own words, her captioning functions less as an explanation than an extra “mark in the paintings”—propose a unique rationale for making finely calibrated pictures of black figures. Painted without the usual visual markers that might indicate a time stamp or social and cultural origins (which we know to be fictional), Yiadom-Boakye’s mysteriously handsome figures exist in an allegorically retroactive space—a present where works like these, and those of other leading black artists, can aspire to self-invent a visual canon.
Irving Penn, Truman Capote, New York (1948)
One of the most prolific photographers of the 20th-century, Irving Penn made pictures of just about everything under his hot studio lights. Whether working for corporations such as General Foods or for fashion magazines including Vogue, his black and white images were squarely in the public eye.
Penn’s most thrilling works were a series of spartan portraits he shot of American culture’s postwar royalty—actors, writers, artists, and film directors—during the 1940s and 1950s. One example is a simmering photograph of the young Truman Capote which radiates the heat of a concentrated performance. It is part of the Met’s current retrospective “Irving Penn: Centennial” (until 30 July), which celebrates 100 years since Penn’s birth with a show of more than 200 photographs.
Penn took a reductive approach to making images, in imitation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. He literally corners famous subjects such as Spencer Tracy, Salvador Dalí, and Gypsy Rose Lee between two stage flats to amplify the drama of their poses.
In other works, he underscores the artificial nature of the studio by throwing old carpet over boxes on which Alfred Hitchcock, Marlene Dietrich and others sat or leaned. This stripped-back photograph of Capote eliminates everything except the subject’s most basic cover: his well-tailored clothes and preening nature. Penn’s minimalist stagecraft helped his subjects shed their more practiced impostures and appear directly available to the camera.