Despite growing acceptance and increased visibility of queer culture in recent years, it is still rare to come across museum exhibitions that effectively translate the LGBTQ experience. 

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a Cuban-born American artist, has widely been known for his installations and sculptures – and by the influence of his gay identity on his work. His most famous installations are participatory, and many translate his personal experience with AIDS, his relationships and loss. 

That’s why it may have been somewhat surprising to learn that the mention of AIDS was absent from a label accompanying one of his most popular works when it was reinstalled at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) this July. According to Hyperallergic, the wall label was originally changed in 2018 when the work was briefly on display that summer.

“Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” consists of a large pile of cellophane-wrapped candy, 175 pounds worth to be exact, corresponding to the ideal weight of Gonzalez-Torres’s late partner. 

The original label read: “This installation is an allegorical portrait of the artist’s partner, Ross Laycock, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1991. The 175 pounds of candy can be seen to correspond to Laycock’s ideal body weight. Adult visitors are invited to take a piece of candy; the diminishing pile parallels Laycock’s weight loss prior to his death. The museum can choose to replenish the pile, metaphorically ensuring Laycock perpetual life, or to let the pile disappear over time.”

Gonzalez-Torres also died in 1996 from an AIDS-related illness. 

On September 25, Zac Thriffiley penned a letter titled “A Concerning Change in the Contemporary Wing,” that was posted to his Facebook page and later printed in the Windy City Times. In the letter, the Chicago-based English teacher speaks of his shock and disappointment to find “that the description had been changed, removing any reference to HIV/AIDS and Gonzalez-Torres’s homosexuality.” 

“How can the Art Institute engage in such a brazen act of queer erasure?” asked Thriffiley. “By removing any reference to HIV/AIDS and queer sexuality, your curatorial staff and the Institute as a whole have stripped the work of its personal resonance and political power for the many, many visitors not already familiar with the work.” 

The new label read: “Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s work is characterized by a sense of quiet elegy. He possessed an uncanny ability to produce elegant and restrained sculptural forms out of common materials. “Unititled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) consists of commercially available, shiny wrapped confections. The physical form of the work changes depending on the way it is installed. The idea weight of the work, 175 pounds, corresponds to the average body weight of an adult male. As visitors choose to take candy from the work, the volume and weight of the work decrease.”

Thriffiley’s letter speaks to the importance of visibility, especially for young LGBTQ people and for those who don’t identify as LGBTQ who may learn from the experience. 

His post went viral on social media leading the museum to change the description with only minimal reference to AIDS and “the artist’s partner.” It still seems to diminish the importance of his HIV status and their relationship in Gonzalez-Torres’s work.  The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation also makes no mention of AIDS or of Ross as his partner in its description of the piece online. 

A Growing Issue

According to Christopher Leitch, a museum consultant and visual artist based in Kansas City, the erasure parallels a pattern of censorship found in other cultural institutions over the past couple of years. Leitch was the lead author of “LGBTQ Welcoming Guidelines for Museums” in 2016, that was published by the LGBTQ Alliance professional network of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). 

In 2021, state park officials in Missouri removed an exhibit documenting the LGBTQ rights movement in Kansas City from the state capitol after complaints from a legislative staffer. According to the Kansas City Star, a legislator assistant posted a complaint on Facebook that by displaying the exhibit, the “taxpayer funded museum is pushing the LGBT agenda in our state capitol.” The Missouri State Museum is housed in the first floor of the state capitol.

Locally, the Gaston County Museum, in Dallas, N.C. removed a photo taken by Grant Baldwin during the 2019 Charlotte Pride Festival & Parade from an exhibit of local photographers. 

In September, a Memphis museum cancelled a drag performance after armed protestors showed up. According to Nexstar Media Wire, the Museum of Science & History was set to host the Memphis Proud drag show and dance party in connection with several exhibits focused on LGBTQ history, including the national traveling exhibit “Rise Up: Stonewall and the LGBTQ Rights Movement.” 

The pattern is alarming to many in the museum industry and Thriffiley’s letter set created a firestorm for many in the field. 

Rock Hushka, a co-curator of the 2016 exhibition “Art AIDS America” at the Bronx Museum, told Hyperallergic that lately there has been a push toward a more aesthetic interpretation of Gonzalez-Torres’ work, away from his personal biography. “The whole idea of Felix’s work is that those two aspects are inextricably combined,” he said. “And you should never remove one or the other.” 

Thriffiley did eventually receive a response from the museum with a link to the new label. The e-mail read in part, that a new label had been installed that included more biographical information, stating that “in concert with artists and their estates/foundations, we continually update labels to introduce different types of context.” 

Still, Thriffiley believes the updated label diminishes “the importance of HIV and its queerness to the work.” He says “The AIC is attempting to raise suspicion where there has always been certainty. I’m glad AIC felt compelled to make some kind of change, but it’s still not enough when friends of mine continue to receive HIV diagnoses year after year…they still are subject to long-lasting social and institutional prejudices that seek to dehumanize and diminish their existence in a given community.”

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