”Untitled” (Welcome) is an astonishing work. It is made of the most common materials, arranged in the most simple forms, but unlike the industrial ready-mades of Duchamp, or the radically geometric sculptures of Judd and LeWitt, it conveys a deeply poignant and profoundly personal charge. It is elegiac, not ironic; intensely felt, not cool and abstract. Made when Felix Gonzalez-Torres faced his own mortality and that of his lover Ross, the artist had no time to waste; he had to make every act and every detail count. And he does. The work is essential in its subject matter and concentrated in its emotion, not just in its form. He compressed into this extraordinary sculpture everything he had learned how to express from the armory of Modern and Contemporary art. It is no accident that as one comes to look at this masterpiece one thinks by turns of the formal simplicity of Judd, the private languages and personal symbolisms of Beuys and Cornell, the desperate yearning of Rothko, and the angry yet bittersweet lyricism of late Picasso raging against death.
The work consists of eighty-some identical black rubber doormats, each emblazoned with the word “WELCOME,” which are arranged in four ascending stacks, set with the highest stack against a wall. Unlike his paper stacks, which the viewer is free to take, the doormats are a permanent part of piece. Hidden and interlaced among the mats are everyday items, such as a key, a playing-card, two bars of soap, a papertowel, some scraps of writing, a group of photographs (fig 1). The doormats are public, commonplace, industrial; the items hidden among them are instead relics and traces of personal and shared existence. The soap still gives off its perfume, an aroma that is fading but still lingers like a memory; and all the items similarly evoke treasured experiences that can be recalled, but not recovered, from the past.
The photographs range in character and subject-matter from the sort of pictures of himself (fig 2), family, friends, pets, and loved-ones that nearly everyone has, to images of natural beauty (for example, the sky, a waterfall), as well as pictures of more overtly metaphysical or poetic content, including works by the artist. Susan Sontag has famously remarked: “Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction, this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people” (Susan Sontag, On Photography, New York 2001, p. 70). Photographs in this sense are expressions of the desire to hold on to and preserve what one cannot bear to lose, but one day will lose anyway.
The haunting combination of innocence and mortality, love and death, is unmistakable in all these pictures. It is especially evident in a photograph of an arm and hand holding a Teddy-bear: an AIDS-induced lesion marks the arm (fig 3). That the Teddy-bear is one of the many toys Felix salvaged from the flea market only increases its poignancy as a totem of childhood vulnerability and love.
The ephemerality of beauty and the flickering evanescence of life are also on view in the largest photograph of the group. This depicts the shadow of a man that is cast onto a diaphanous curtain which is caught and illuminated by the light coming from an unseen window (fig 4). In cultures throughout time and around the world, shadows have been used to express the transience of mortal existence. Hence, in the Book of Psalms, for example, one reads, “Man is like a thing of naught; his time passeth away like a shadow” (Psalm 144.4), and Pindar, the classical Greek poet, wrote, “What is a man? Man is but a shadow, the shadow of a shadow. Yet, when beautiful golden light streams from the sky, then bright and brilliant seems his lot” (Pythian Ode 8). It is striking that Gonzalez-Torres’s photographs of the sky, two of which are included here, surely are meant to convey this very sense that beauty is a kind of blessing, although an all too brief and ultimately ungraspable one.
Gonzalez-Torres, of course, is not quoting or referring to the Bible or ancient literature in his art. He does not need to for his meaning to be immediately felt and understood. He found in his impending death a means for understanding, and the urgency to express in direct comprehensible language, the beauty and fragility of mortal existence. He wanted to create something of permanent value, which by being shared with and experienced by the viewers, would continue on after he was gone.
The stacks of doormats that ascend like a series of steps going into a house surely imply the presence of a door. Of course, the threshold, gate or door is a universally understood marker or symbol of the division between two realms of action and being, such as the public and private, the family and the social, the sacred and profane (the word profane literally means outside the gate), the living and the dead. It is easy to imagine these steps, containing the relics of memory and love, as a bridge between the public and private. Indeed, Gonzalez-Torres in his art often straddled these two spheres, with works such as the stacks of candy that were meant simultaneously to be preserved and given away; they are something with an intensely personal significance, and yet also something with a shared, common association of an entirely different order.
Yet the implicit door is surely also the portal between the living and the dead, as in an ancient Roman sarcophagus (marble coffin), where such symbolism was quite common. Beyond this gate lies “the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns” (as Shakespeare described it). One typewritten note hidden among the mats speaks of “The trip good-bye.” Before leaving the land of the living, on the edge of oblivion, Felix Gonzalez-Torres made a marker, a monument, and blessed it with the traces of love, beauty, and remembrance.