ArtWeekend

Robert Gober’s Unanswered Questions

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Robert Gober. “Untitled” (2005-2006), aluminum-leaf, oil and enamel paint on cast lead crystal. 4 3/4 inches high × 4 1/4 inches in diameter. Collection the artist. Image Credit: Bill Orcutt, courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. ©2014 Robert Gober (all images courtesy the Museum of Modern Art, New York)

The sprawling, high-ceilinged contemporary art gallery on the second floor of the Museum of Modern Art might have been built for Richard Serra, but Robert Gober owns it.

The gallery, which “was designed and built specifically with [Serra’s] sculptures in mind,” as Christopher Hawthorne wrote in the Los Angeles Times, is a block-long space featuring double-height ceilings, column-free vistas and “floors that have been reinforced to carry heavy steel.” The positive notices trailing Serra’s forty-year survey in 2007 seemed to validate at least that one component of Yoshio Taniguchi’s cold and empty expansion.

While a number of exhibitions, including the recent Sigmar Polke retrospective, have made imaginative use of the gallery’s height and flexibility, I have never felt as thoroughly immersed in a single artist’s vision has I did in Robert Gober: The Heart Is Not a Metaphor, which casts a highly selective net over a pivotal artist’s prolific career.

As in the Polke exhibition, the individual pieces tend to be subsumed into the esprit of the whole. In Polke’s case, the overriding impression was of unconstrained freedom and possibility; for Gober, it’s the perfect mesh of objects and environment. The subdued color, modest scale and workaday demeanor of many of the pieces seem designed for display in an aggregate, even before the idea of manipulating a room’s viewing conditions became part of the artist’s repertoire.

As Roberta Smith intimated in her New York Times review of The Heart Is Not a Metaphor, once you’ve seen one of Gober’s plaster sinks, with or without a drain hole, you’ve kind of seen them all. But here, the placement, repetition and recapitulation of these mutant plumbing fixtures and other personal motifs lure you ever deeper into a dream state you’ll be loath to leave.

I once read in an essay whose title and author escape me (and whose apparently Google-proof source has resisted attempts to locate it) that James Joyce turned reality into a dream and Franz Kafka turned dreams into reality. Gober possesses the singular ability to do both, fusing hyper-detailed realism into handmade objects that, in their seamless conflations of memory and apparition, feel deliberately calibrated to defy any attempt to decode them.

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Robert Gober, “Untitled Closet” (1989), wood, plaster, enamel paint. 84 x 52 x 28 inches. Private collection. Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. © 2014 Robert Gober.

The first room is a knockout, with just five artworks, two of which are very small. The focal point is an empty, doorless closet (“Untitled Closet,” 1989) with trowel marks on the hand-plastered interior and a thick jamb that seems to have been repainted generation after generation. The closet contains an upper shelf but lacks a clothing bar, giving it a cool, geometric look that conveys the sense that Gober’s work, as a number of commenters have mentioned, is a content-based response to Minimalism.

But the artist’s meticulous rendition of the plastering, an all-but-obsolete craft, and his ersatz buildup of paint on the doorjamb evoke the passage of time as they send a signal, repeatedly reinforced throughout the show, about the illusory nature of memory and its inescapable enfoldment into the present.

The room also includes one of Gober’s perpetually alarming truncated legs (“Untitled Leg,” 1989-90), which are typically clad in pants, socks and shoes from another era — the time of the artist’s childhood, the mid-1950s and ‘60s, if not earlier. The bone-white skin, made from bleached beeswax and individually applied strands of human hair, peeks out from the sliver of space between the bottom of the pant leg and the top of the sock, an unadorned icon of death-in-life, as intuitively alien as it is profoundly ordinary, which has retained its fascinating horror over the quarter-century since it first appeared.

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Robert Gober, “Untitled Leg” (1989-1990), beeswax, cotton, wood, leather, human hair. 11 3/8 x 7 3/4 x 20 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the Dannheisser Foundation. © 2014 Robert Gober.

The other three works in the room mark different points in the artist’s career — a graphite study for a fabric pattern (“Study for the Slip-Covered Armchair,” 1986), a hand-painted paint can (“Untitled,” 2005-06) and a facsimile of a homemade cat-sitting advertisement (“Untitled,” 2000-01) — rounding out the themes that Gober returns to again and again: domesticity and decoration, the body, and the transformation of the everyday. His signature metaphor of domesticity, the sink, shows up in the second room, consecrating it as an uncannily sacred space.

There are five sinks altogether in that room, all untitled and dating from 1984, three years into the AIDS epidemic (Gober became a prominent activist during the crisis). They’re missing faucets, drains and pipes — only the sepulcher-white basins and backsplashes are left — and they’re hung low, much below standard waist-level. Their siting on the wall, especially in relation to the double-height ceiling, accentuates their dual role: simultaneously sinks whose lack of plumbing renders the act of cleansing impossible, and implied tombs or columbaria — death as a hole in need of filling.

Where the retrospective works best, the meaning of an object or environment hinges on the intersection of formalism, craft, allusion and contradiction. Gober’s excavation of the quotidian requires a sensitive equilibrium between life and art — too much of the former, and the work becomes trite or bland; too much of the latter, and it dissipates into its sources.

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Robert Gober, “Untitled” (1984), plaster, wood, wire lath, aluminum, watercolor, semi-gloss enamel paint. 28 x 33 x 22 1/2 inches. Rubell Family Collection. Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. © 2014 Robert Gober.

The two artists the exhibition repeatedly brought to mind, for better or worse, were Marcel Duchamp and René Magritte. While there is a patent correspondence between Gober’s sinks and Duchamp’s urinal (“Fountain,” 1917), I was thinking not of the readymades per se — the idea of which Gober has turned on its head with such fiendishly handcrafted simulacra as “Plywood” (1987) and “Untitled Door and Door Frame” (1987-88) — but of “Étant donnés” (1946-1966), Duchamp’s secret final work, which features a pair of peepholes drilled through a set of rough-plank double-doors, revealing a partially obscured female nude reclining in a wooded landscape, her left hand holding aloft a gas lamp. I was also reminded of “Why Not Sneeze Rose Sélavy?” (1921), a quasi-readymade comprising a cage, a thermometer, a cuttlefish bone and more than a hundred pieces of marble impersonating sugar cubes.

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Installation view of “Robert Gober: The Heart Is Not a Metaphor,” The Museum of Modern Art, October 4, 2014–January 18, 2015. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar. All works by Robert Gober © 2014 Robert Gober.

A couple of Gober’s works follow the example of “Étant donnés” in form and spirit, most pertinently “Untitled” (1997), in which you peer into an old valise to find a sewer grating instead of a bottom panel, and below that, a tidal pool — with real water — lapping the ankles of a barely-glimpsed man holding a baby,. (The original, more incendiary configuration of “Untitled” featured a white plaster statue of the Virgin standing over the grate, with a long, black drainpipe piercing her abdomen.) The similarities between the dioramas made by Gober and Duchamp, however, seem not as important as the cracks in reality they represent, the intersection between our world and the damaged, ethereal Eden of dreams.

The Heart Is Not a Metaphor is mesmerizing to the extent that it inhabits a heightened — some call it spiritual — plane. The objects are more than themselves, sometimes because they are part of a beguiling environment, elsewhere because the density of the materials and effort put into their creation result in a kind of unitary, metaphysical perfection. This is where “Why Not Sneeze Rose Sélavy?” becomes the template, in which a luxe material, such as Duchamp’s flawlessly white, granularly textured marble, stands in for a household item. Similarly, Gober’s aforementioned paint can is a completely painted-over piece of cast lead crystal, but overall the luster and magnetism his replicas display are derived less from material splendor and more from sweat equity.

This is particularly true of the cat litter bags sitting on the floor of one of the exhibition’s showstoppers, the room-sized installation “Untitled” (1989-1996). The centerpiece is a hand-sewn satin evening gown surrounded on four sides by a wallpaper pattern pairing the images of a white man sleeping in bed and a lynched black man hanging from a tree.   Each of the litter bags, eight in all, are cast plaster and identically hand-painted. The colors of the package design, particularly the black, white and red, feel unnaturally sharp against the plaster support, much crisper and more saturate than they would be if printed on paper, and their exact repetition across the eight sculptures creates, to choose a loaded term, an unmistakable, if deadpan, aura.

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Installation view of “Robert Gober: The Heart Is Not a Metaphor,” The Museum of Modern Art, October 4, 2014–January 18, 2015. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar. All works by Robert Gober © 2014 Robert Gober.

When I entered the room and my eyes fell on the litter bags, I couldn’t figure out what it was about them that seemed to click alongside the social-commentary wallpaper and the satin gown, when by all rights they should have felt impertinent and jarring. The reason certainly wasn’t related to the explanations found on a wall text Gober wrote about the installation — an instance of curatorial handholding mercifully absent from most of the exhibition — in which he refers to the bags as a “metaphorical fulcrum” that “absorbs the stench of the excrement (the wallpaper) and […] allows for domestic intimacy (think diapers). It is also a reminder of the sacred vows that those who wear the [satin gown] profess — to care for the body of your loved ones ‘in sickness and in health, till death do you part.’” He also notes, “When this piece was made, to many Americans, Gay Americans (an estimated 10 percent of our population) it was a reminder of equality denied.”

Such simple correspondences, even if they are the artist’s own words, flatten out the work’s layers of meaning and turn the installation into a kind of rebus, a secret message spelled out in images. I frankly didn’t see anything connecting the litter bag with the wallpaper and the dress other than the unity bestowed on the three separate items by the artist’s own hand, a formal confluence that speaks to the subterranean passages he plumbed to intuit their association. Even if we are to take the artist’s statement at face value, with its references to civil rights and gay marriage, the leap from lynching to cat litter to satin gown strains causation and logic, but that kind of strain allows for multiple and contradictory interpretations to bristle outward.

Looking more closely at the paired image of the sleeping white man and the black lynching victim, a number of questions arise. Why, for one, is the man asleep, as if dreaming of the lynching, and not portrayed as one of the perpetrators? Could his state be a reference to “String Quartet No. 1 (White Man Sleeps)” (1986) by the South African composer Kevin Volans, which was recorded by the Kronos Quartet in 1987, two years before the start of this project? If so, the implications of white obliviousness and sins of omission make sense. But why is the figure naked, at least from the shoulders up, and why does the image feel so strangely erotic? Similarly, the satin dress, although it is meant to imply a wedding gown, isn’t white but ivory-colored, and rather severely cut. The only thing indicating that it may be intended for a wedding is the length of fabric trailing behind it into an abbreviated train, but it could also be a gown worn by a children’s book princess to the ball. The more you look at Gober, the further certainty dissolves.

Another title forThe Heart Is Not a Metaphor could have been Against Appropriation. Gober’s work, unlike that of Jeff Koons, whose own retrospective at the Whitney finally closes this weekend after an around-the-clock orgy of marketing and kitsch, makes the argument that the mere replacement of an object’s surface material, no matter how flawlessly executed, is not nearly enough. For Gober, who is the same generation as Koons — and, like Koons, was lumped under the Simulationist rubric at the start of his career — the replication of an object is not a process of value enhancement via wood, bronze, steel or porcelain, but an act of seeing and knowing. And the time spent turning that object into art unavoidably opens up floodgates of meaning for the artist and, concomitantly, through the physical nuances the process plays upon the artwork, the viewer.

The intense, resonant, oddball beauty of the installations filling the first half of the exhibition is so heady that the abrupt midpoint transition into two rooms displaying the work of other artists, a generous but disruptive gesture, even if one is Anni Albers, prompts a precipitous drop-off in emotional involvement, a deflation from which, at least for me, the exhibition never quite fully recovers. Also problematic in the second half is the new complexity of the work — the combination and recombination of recurrent themes — which in many pieces recalls René Magritte’s sometimes facile Surrealism, especially where a familiar motif, such as the backsplash of a sink, morphs into planks of knotty wood, seemingly a direct reference to paintings like Magritte’s “The Discovery” (1928), in which wood grain appears on the body of a nude woman. In these pieces, the connection between art and life is severed, and the work, rather than mine an unexpected shaft into reality, seems to chase its own tail.

Conversely, here and there are pieces, such as a pair of ice skates (“Untitled,” 1997), a cash register receipt (“Monument Valley,” 2007) and a vintage, snack-size, apple pie package (“Untitled,” 2008), that feel earthbound, too content to remain little more than precise copies.  And the artist’s multi-part, Catholic-centric September 11th commemoration (“Untitled,” 2002-05), which encompasses two rooms of the exhibition, feels diffuse despite some compelling ideas, as if it were shrinking away from the enormous emotions still latent in its impossible subject.

These are quibbles. More to the point is the enigma nestled in the heart of these works, most of which, as you’ve noticed, the artist chose to leave untitled.

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Robert Gober. “Slip Covered Armchair” (1986-87), plaster, wood, linen, and fabric paint. 31 ½ x 30 ½ x 29 inches. Collection the artist. Image Credit: D. James Dee, courtesy the artist. © 2014 Robert Gober.

What psychological exigencies, we might ask, could have led to the image of a man’s leg thrusting out of a birth canal in “Untitled” (1993-94)? Where did the piercing blue eyes of the dog-faced “Death Mask” (2008) come from, or the sweptback, wispy black tresses growing from a wedge of Swiss cheese in “Long Haired Cheese” (1992-93) — a vegetarian answer, perhaps, to Paul Thek’s equally repellant slabs of meat? What is so deeply comforting about the hand-painted slipcase in “Slip Covered Armchair” (1986-87), and why does a little girl’s shoe (“Untitled Shoe,” 1990), cast in wax the color of a Maraschino cherry, feel so heartbreaking?

I went through The Heart Is Not a Metaphor once last week and twice on Monday. Each time, when I came to the end, the accumulation of ideas and cascade of emotions resonated like a real journey, a fully completed arc, and each time I started over, the greeting party in the first room — the closet, the leg, the paint can — held the promise of fresh discoveries. How many retrospectives, especially of a living artist, have done that?

Robert Gober: The Heart Is Not a Metaphor continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through January 18, 2015.

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