To Gertrude Stein, "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose."

But to New York installation artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, 37, a rose is never just a rose. To him, flowers -- like everything else -- take their meaning from their context.

He argues the point eloquently in the lone color photograph in "Felix Gonzalez-Torres: 'Traveling,' " his largest museum show to date, now at the Hirshhorn Museum. The image -- a lush overhead shot of a rosebush and other flowering plants -- is hung conventionally in a frame on the wall. The only such work in an otherwise wholly abstract exhibition of installation art, the image is both accessible and irresistible for its vivid color in a largely black-and-white show. But visitors will be totally seduced by the color before they realize they've been had, torn from their reverie by the photograph's title. It reads: "Untitled (Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein's Grave, Paris)."

This is a grave site? Toklas and Stein were buried together? In Paris? No longer just a pretty picture, this photograph is suddenly filled with extra-floral meaning -- poignant thoughts, all conjured in the viewers' mind. Thus transformed by the context provided by its title, the photograph becomes an evocation of ghosts, of memories about Stein and Toklas, writer and cook, and of lesbian lovers in life, now together in death.

Actually, wresting such thoughts and feelings about life and love and loss from ordinary objects is what nearly everything in Gonzalez-Torres's show is about. And in the rest of this show, he works with far more unlikely things -- clocks and mirrors and strings of ordinary light bulbs. The flowers, in their way, are a gift from the artist, a key to decoding his work, which, for many, might be otherwise unapproachable.

But even without that key, understanding accumulates slowly in this show, which includes 20 installations, each one a temporary, site-specific, mixed-media arrangement of photographs or any other objects that are brought together to elicit a response. From the start of this show, common household objects are Gonzalez-Torres's principal medium, often anthropomorphically paired off: Two identical, battery-operated wall-clocks, for example, hang side by side and are titled "Untitled (Perfect Lovers)," 1987-1990. Then come paired mirrors, set into a wall; and paired circles printed on a stack of white pages, like wedding rings, just touching. By the time you get to "Untitled (Lovers -- Paris)," two strands of glowing, fragile light bulbs nestled together on the floor, you begin not only to understand, but also to feel the warmth projected by Gonzalez-Torres's abstract portrayal of love.

But soon something clouds the romantic narrative, a sense of trouble roused by a beautiful beaded curtain ominously labeled "Untitled (Blood)," through which one must pass to get to the next gallery. There, human vulnerability is made explicit in 31 small white, gridded chartlike paintings hanging high on the wall, and titled "Untitled (31 Days of Bloodwork)." By then we may have surmised from the titles -- or learned from a gallery handout -- that such works reflect the everyday facts of the artist's life as a gay man facing the loss of lovers and friends from AIDS. Still, their impact is universal.

Then, just when it's needed, comes "Untitled (Placebo)," a beautiful, shimmering, dramatically lit gallery filled with 1,500 pounds of silver-foil-wrapped candies. And we are invited to pick one up and eat it -- short-lived though the pleasure may be. Situated as it is in the context of illness, this piece takes on specific meaning as a placebo. But this being Washington, it could also be re-contextualized to have political implications: sweet promises that quickly melt away like pineapple candies. Politics is something Gonzalez-Torres cares deeply about, and to him, all art is political: "You're either with the flow or against it," he said during a recent lecture here. But he is curiously restrained in this show.

Much installation work such as this is unsalable, and by its nature disappears when an exhibition is dismantled. This candy piece, however, is owned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which thereby owns the right to reproduce it or lend it to another museum. The borrower has the responsibility of replenishing the candy ad infinitum, until the show is over (kids take note). Meanwhile, the sea of candy continues to recede and change its shape in the course of the show. In the process, it also changes the traditionally passive, "don't touch" relationship between viewers and works of art, especially in museums. In his June lecture here, Gonzalez-Torres remarked amusingly on the relative orderliness of Washington audiences, who neatly carry their candies off, as instructed by a museum label, and throw the wrappers in the trash. At MOMA in New York, he said, the crowds ate the candy and tossed the wrappings back on the pile. He liked it, and the piece was left that way until the show was over.

There are other interactive, take-away works in this show, notably two tall stacks of paper that stand near the entrance, printed with two phrases: "Nowhere better than this place" or "Somewhere better than this place." Visitors are invited to make a choice and then take the "print" home to do with as they wish. For Gonzalez-Torres, these works are not complete until they have been given "meaning" in the minds of those who carry them off.

An influential teacher at NYU, Gonzalez-Torres believes that art is about ideas, not just the making of consumable objects. And in his view, art -- like contemporary life -- suffers from an "explosion of information and an implosion of meaning." It is meaning, and ideas, that he has set out to restore. The central aesthetic problem with all of his work, however, is whether we'd "get" any of it without the one-trick labels, which claim, in every case, that the work is "Untitled" before stating the point in the parentheses that always follow.

But Gonzalez-Torres is more than a theorist. And anyone who doubts his ability to cast a spell, even with the most mundane objects, is bound to be won over after an encounter with the show's centerpiece, "Untitled (North)." Though it consists of nothing more than 12 strings of light bulbs and extension cords hanging down from the ceiling, they wash the gallery with an embracing, comforting and even celebratory light. From there, it isn't much of a stretch to read this piece as a portrayal of the United States as -- still -- the immigrant's dreamed-of destination.

Born in Cuba and raised in Puerto Rico, Gonzalez-Torres moved to New York in 1979, where he was weaned on minimal and conceptual art at Pratt Institute and the International Center for Photography. But what makes his work so exceptional is how he has reshaped and warmed those cool minimal forms and cerebral strategies to make them serve humanistic ends. The result is a highly original body of work that is both challenging and accessible, abstract yet rich in content. He's even translated the traditional artist's self-portrait into a different form, conjuring moments from his own personal history by painting foot-tall names, places and dates in a frieze around the top of one gallery.

This show is a collaboration among three galleries and three curators who believe profoundly in Gonzalez-Torres, with Amada Cruz representing the Hirshhorn. It was first shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in May, where it took the form of 22 billboards placed around the city, each picturing isolated birds in flight against a stormy sky. An indoor version of two of those billboards ends the Hirshhorn's show. After the exhibition closes here Sept. 11, it will be shown at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago from Oct. 2 to Nov. 11.

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, on Independence Avenue at Seventh Street SW, is open every day from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The nearest Metro stop is L'Enfant Plaza, Maryland Avenue exit.