Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Existentialism

Have you conquered fate? That is a question answered in the life and works of the late artist Felix-Gonzalez Torres. Torres worked as an artist in 1980s New York, and continued until his death in 1996. His work primarily dealt with the universal feelings of loss, love, and intertwined concepts of death and intimacy throughout his pieces. Torres created installation artwork in a pivotal moment in time, both in history and in his own personal life. Born in 1957, the Cuban born artist graduated from the Pratt Institute in New York in 1983, and worked as an artist during the height of the AIDS crisis (“Collection Online”). AIDS, a disease frequently blamed on the gay community by bigoted politicians and media, overtook his life as himself and his partner Ross Laycock were diagnosed with the disease. Torres was deeply involved in sociopolitical causes during his life and career, and made art that poignantly displayed his life as an openly gay man in the wake of a deadly epidemic. At the time of Felix-Gonzales Torres’ death in 1996; 581,429 cases of AIDS were reported to date, with a devastating 362,004 lives having been claimed by the disease, Felix and his late partner among them (Thirty Years, amfAR). Felix Gonzalez-Torres explored existential themes of anguish, forlornness, and despair in his installation work as he liberated himself from the confines of societal expectation as a gay man living in the midst of the AIDS crisis, leaving behind a sorrowful portfolio that truly explored what it means to be apart of humanity. 

Jean Paul Sartre lived as an atheistic existentialist in the 1900s. He is largely known for his defense of existentialism in his piece “Existentialism.” In this piece, he defines three tenets of existentialism that are intrinsic to the human condition, as well as the fundamental idea of existentialism. The three tenants are anguish, forlornness, and despair. In his piece, Sartre rights that “Man is condemned to be free” (Sartre, 282). When saying this, he meant that the existence of man is condemned because he did not create himself, and is on this earth even though he did not choose to be. Speaking of freedom however, he writes that man is self defining, and free because man carries responsibility for all of their actions, taking away the idea of divine power and born circumstances within a society (Sartre 282). In this way, the life of an existentialist’s ‘fate’ is to be entirely self responsible, and to make their own path, with no protection or defense of the self against his own ways and actions. 

In 1991, peculiar billboards peppered New York skylines, from Manhattan to Queens. On these billboards was Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” 1991 (Gonzalez, Untitled). Lacking in text, logos, or explanation, these billboards showed a black and white image of a bed, with the imprint of two bodies between the empty sheets. The piece juxtaposed a private, personal image with the bustling, busy, and oversaturated streets of New York City. Due to its ambiguity, the work gave need for a second look, and contemplation, of his work. Torres insured that his pieces left the confines of a studio and gallery to ensure the accessibility of his art to all, existing multiple places and being visible at all times.

“Untitled” (1991) was a palpable taste of political activism. It drew the audience in, regardless of if they intended to view it or not. The choice of Torres to display his artwork in this way shows that he viewed it as something that should be meaningful to all. In his activism, he was clearly advocating for his life as a gay man, and others in his community, to be accepted and publicly known. In this way, the Sartrean concept of existential anguish can be seen in his artistic philosophies and distribution of his work. According to Sartre, “The man who involves himself and who realizes that he is not the only person he chooses to be, but also a law-maker who is, at the same time, choosing all mankind as well as himself, can not help escape the feeling of his total and deep responsibility.” (Sartre, 280). As his art continued, so did the involvement of others in his art.

Four years later, Torres created “Untitled” (Golden). A key example of his style of installation art, this work required participation and choice of the viewer to experience the piece fully. “Untitled,” made roughly a year prior to his death, was a work composed of glittering beads, coming together to create a radiant curtain that was meant to be walked through. Able to be touched, the piece mandates the viewer to effect change on the piece, even if temporal, by walking through it (Gonzalez, Golden). Flexible and changeable, this piece represented Torres’ own human body as he lived with his AIDS diagnosis. The intimacy of walking through an artist’s representation of himself created a collective experience for viewers, and as they passed through the curtain, passed through an area of Torres’ life as well. This example of an installation piece and his insistence on audience participation signals the connectedness of the human experience. Anguish, in Sartrean theory, relies upon the fact that one human’s choices serve to impact the lives of all. By making art that had to be touched by all to be understood, Torres ensured the universal understanding of those who interacted with it, and condemned them to understanding.

According to Jean-Paul Sartre, “God does not exist and … we have to face all the consequences of this” (Sartre, 282). When saying this, Sartre argued that the human condition was one of free will and personal choice, and that forlornness was an essential component to the human experience. A godless world is something clearly depicted in the art of Felix Gonzales Torres, through his many depictions of death and loss. In 1991, Torres created one of his most notable pieces. Another installation work, “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) was composed of individually wrapped candies, covered in multiple shades of cellophane. Piled in a corner of the room, the candy ideally weighed 175 pounds (Gonzalez, Portrait). This piece represented his lover, Ross Laycock. Yet again, Torres desired the audience to interact with the piece, and viewers were meant to take candy with them. By doing this, Ross Laycock’s memory waxed and waned, existing within the confines of a piece that only existed so long as someone replenished the supply. Torres’ understanding of death was something that stopped on Earth. No illusion to a heavenly afterlife existed in his work, rather, he immortalized his partner, and himself, through art and the memories of those who consumed it. In a godless world, Torres showed that “As much as we want to be in the world, our lives are cut short, but art is something that can be left behind, as a marker in space. In your work there’s a recognition of the transitory nature of things, of our own lives” (Nickas, Felix). Life is fast and short, and forlornness, the understanding of a godless world, makes the fleeting nature of “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), all the more meaningful. 

Alongside his themes of love and loss, Felix Gonzalez-Torres existed in a state of understanding of the uncontrollability of life. In his most famed piece of work, “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers), Torres surrenders himself to what he cannot control. Perfect Lovers showcases two synchronized clocks adjacent to each other (Gonzalez, “Perfect Lovers). This piece represented the concept of relationships and lives ending, as over time, these two clocks would inevitably run out of sync with each other, representing the impending death of his partner in the wake of his AIDS diagnosis. It encompasses the realities of living in a known moment in time where two people, in the same space of existence, acknowledge that life will move forward to death. In a note written to his lover explaining the piece, Torres writes “Dont be afraid of the clocks, they are our time, time has been so generous to us. We imprinted time with the sweet taste of victory. We conquered fate by meeting at a certain TIME in a certain space. We are a product of the time, therefore we give back credit were it is due: time” (Gonzalez, Letter to Ross Laycock). Existentialist despair dictates that humans must understand exactly what Torres wrote. Death is inevitable, and the passing of time will stop for no one. Sartre wrote that “we shall confine ourselves to reckoning only with what depends upon our will, or on the ensemble of probabilities which make our action possible.” (Sartre 285) In order to live fully and honestly, one must recognize this core tenet of existentialism, and this is seen heartbreakingly in this 1988 installation and Torres’ understanding of death, which is the most obvious example of situations out of one’s control.

The only way to truly conquer fate, as Torres would say, is to exist in such a way that recognizes anguish, despair, and forlornness. Felix Gonzalez-Torres did this in his art, and looked at his life through the perspective of death. In doing so, he created meaningful works that transcend time and circumstances, in the way that human lives cannot. According to Sartre, humans are condemned to be free (Sartre, 282). Torres exemplifies exactly this by creating his own life and identity by choosing values for himself and others through activism, creating art in an atheistic mindset, and relinquishing control of the things he cannot change. His artwork and his life denied societal constructs of heterosexuality, and pushed adamantly against homophobia and blame rampantly directed at the gay community in his lifetime.