revisionist art

Art Institute of Chicago under fire for erasing this iconic art piece’s queer meaning

This piece, made up of an innocuous pile of brightly wrapped candies, is likely one of the most recognizable works of queer American art. Its iconic status made it all the more surprising for folks in the queer community to discover that, for a time, all mention of homosexuality and the piece’s subject had been removed from the installation’s label.

Cuban-American artist Félix González-Torres created “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) in 1991 to represent the body of his partner, Ross Laycock, whose own body was deteriorating throughout his battle with AIDS. The interactive sculpture invites the visitor to take a piece of candy from the piece, decreasing its ideal 175 pound weight in the same way that Ross’s own weight declined.

There are any number of messages one can draw from the piece: the symbolism of the sweetness being slowly taken, the allegory of communion (reflecting González-Torres’ own Catholicism), the call on authority to step in and help as the museum helps in replenishing the display, etc.

The one message that cannot be overlooked without erasing queer history, however, is the context of its subject.

Yet, for several months, the Art Institute of Chicago had the installation up with a label entirely omitting its context, instead opting for aesthetic description.

Related: The Kapp Twins are Ascending the Art World by Keeping Queer History Alive

On September 28th, members of the community brought this omission to wider attention with a letter to the Windy City Times and a highly circulated outrage tweet.

The tweet calls the piece’s omissive label  “an unconsciable [sic] and banal evil”:

Other users have described the change as “an appalling, senseless act of erasure“, “an astonishingly awful job of curation“, and “conservative donor appeasement“.

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The museum has since updated the label in response to community outrage. The new label includes one sentence referencing the queer context of the piece:

“Regardless of its physical shape, the label lists its ideal weight, likely corresponding to the average body weight of an adult male, or perhaps the ideal weight of the subject referred to in the title, Ross Laycock, the artist’s partner who died of complications from AIDS in 1991, as did Gonzalez-Torres in 1996.”

In response to Queerty’s request for comment, a spokesperson for the Art Institute wrote, “We continually update labels to introduce different types of context. In this case, we heard visitor feedback to the previous label and took the opportunity to revise the text.”

The revised label for the installation as of September 29th can be found here.

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