The sixty-year-old artist Robert Gober is a connoisseur of the uncanny. He dreams up discombobulating variations on ordinary objects, sights, and situations. Then he turns his disquieting visions—a playpen crisscrossed by two pipes; a wedge of cheese with a head of hair—into impeccably carpentered, cast, painted, woven, and sewn works. The retrospective of his sculptures, drawings, prints, paintings, and installations at the Museum of Modern Art—the first large-scale survey of his work in the US—is a twenty-first-century cabinet of curiosities.
Gober, who planned the show along with Ann Temkin, a curator at MoMA, rejects the smooth, chronological approach typical of museum retrospectives in favor of a series of shocks, jokes, horrors, enigmas, seductions, alarms, and diversions. Even museumgoers who fail to grasp many of Gober’s buried allusions will sense that he is our contemporary, a man grappling with hopes and disappointments and bewilderments of the past thirty years, which for him have turned out to be an Age of Ambiguity. In Gober’s work the good and the bad are nerve-rackingly jumbled together, like the headlines in The New York Times that he reconfigures to create his own homespun versions of the paper of record, which are tied up and ready for recycling in a couple of his most elaborate installations.
The first few galleries of the MoMA retrospective are beautifully laid out, with each work or group of works exerting a subtle spell. Gober persuades us to linger over objects that at first appear to be nothing much: a shallow closet without a door, built into one of the walls of the gallery; a sculpture of a man’s lower leg and foot, his pants pulled up to expose a stretch of pale hairy skin; an impeccable rendering of a can of Benjamin Moore paint that from the evidence of its banged-up exterior and clotted drips has already seen some serious use.
What claims our attention are not so much Gober’s quotidian subjects as the intentness with which he reconstitutes ordinary objects; this is his way of possessing them. Gober’s laconic perfectionism lends humdrum stuff an eeriness. I feel that eeriness in the subtle shadow play he reveals in his plainly carpentered closet, in the delicacy of human hairs inserted into the wax surface of a sculpted leg, and in the trompe l’oeil finesse with which he paints the label on the battered Benjamin Moore can. Gober keeps his virtuosity tamped down and under wraps. His weird world is constructed with the meticulousness of a jeweler putting together a Fabergé egg.
A mild-mannered sensationalist, Gober is also a sneaky sensualist. Museumgoers who are intrigued by his work will find themselves slowing down, looking closely. Whatever one’s ultimate feelings about Gober—I think he sometimes inflates his chamber-music-sized gifts to an oppressive operatic scale—there is no question that his eccentricities are hard-won and heartfelt. Gober is a product of both a Catholic boyhood in rural Connecticut and the hardscrabble bohemian idealism of the New York art world when he started out in the late 1970s. Early on, he worked as an assistant to a couple of well-known artists, took part in the experimental dance and performance movement, found a supporter in the pioneering SoHo gallerist Paula Cooper, and confronted along with many of his friends the scourge of AIDS and the wider world’s slowness to respond to it. Although he has become in the last twenty years an international star—he represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2001 and is widely collected both at home and abroad—he has never lost touch with a vision by turns darkly comic and somberly romantic.
Gober likes to revisit old motifs, giving them a slightly different spin or inflection. For about a year, beginning in 1982, he painted a series of compositions on a single small board, photographing each image of pipes, trees, water, male and female torsos before obliterating it. In 1984 he exhibited these lost paintings as a succession of photographic images called Slides of a Changing Painting. What you find here are many of the themes that have preoccupied him ever since.
His work is cyclical, a spiraling history of affections and obsessions. In 1984 Gober produced a series of sculptures of wall-hung sinks. Their blunt, boxy forms were inspired at least in part by a work sink his father had in the basement of the house where Gober grew up; but of course the grown-up Gober couldn’t help associating such a sink with the minimalist sculptures of Donald Judd. Gober’s sinks, impressive in their dour elegance toward the beginning of his career, are echoed later on by sinks that are metamorphosing, sprouting rough-cut wooden elements; the ascetic suddenly has become prolix. Likewise, the image of a leg appears again and again. In one work a male leg and foot emerge from between a pair of female thighs. In another a pile of children’s legs are stacked in a fireplace. Gober is fond of taking an initially simple idea and giving it a noirish baroque spin.
Even Gober’s most outlandish conceits are presented with a certain modesty; their oddity catches you by surprise. When he explores variations on a child’s crib, one of his favorite motifs, the size of the crib remains more or less naturalistic, even as he angles the verticals so that the whole structure stands at a slant. Or he fills the crib with a giant stick of butter and a few apples. The ordinary size of the crib somehow makes the abnormality of the situations all the more bizarre. And the scrupulosity with which Gober uses materials gives the work’s subtle sting an extra staying power. Gober’s feeling for the beauty of materials suggests that the ardor of an old-fashioned academician is alive in the body of this up-to-the-minute neosurrealist dude. When I look at one of Gober’s sinks, constructed of plaster, wire lath, wood, and semigloss enamel paint, I feel both the exactitude of his homage to a plain, practical object and the extent to which he is distancing himself from that object—remaking it after his own plan or scheme. Gober is riffing on the utterly familiar experience of discovering the unexpected where we least expect it.
The basic impulse in Gober’s work is not so much imaginative as it is curatorial, an urge to select and present objects that are significant to him. Gober has always been an idiosyncratic perfectionist—a control freak who quite naturally wants to shape the way his work is displayed, gathering his various motifs together in the room-sized installations he regards as wraparound, stand-alone works of art. Not content to be the curator of his own creations, he also takes a keen interest in organizing exhibitions of work by contemporary and earlier artists, which may or may not include work of his own.
While Gober’s expansive ambitions are certainly appealing, there can also be something slightly overbearing and didactic about his insistence on covering entire rooms with wallpaper that he has designed or including in the middle of the MoMA retrospective a small group of works by artists he admires, among them two paintings of nudes rendered in sharp, extreme perspective by the veteran New York artist Joan Semmel.
For an exhibition at the Paula Cooper Gallery in 1989, Gober covered the interior with wallpaper he designed, one pattern juxtaposing small images of a handsome, dark-haired white man asleep in bed and a black man hanging from a tree, the other with drawings of penises and vaginas inscribed in white on a black background. Hilton Als, in a long essay in the MoMA catalog, begins by writing of the wallpaper called Hanging Man/Sleeping Man, which he says “created a clean space for me to think not only about bodies, male bodies, but about my own reaction to them sociologically, racially, and visually.”
While I would not gainsay Als’s feelings, I find the sting of Gober’s juxtaposition, though effective in some modest preparatory drawings, defused and diluted when repeated over an expanse of wall. I think that he runs the risk of diminishing his effects as he multiplies them. An installation commemorating September 11, originally presented at the Matthew Marks Gallery in 2005, has a formalized arrangement, centered on a Christ figure with water pouring from his nipples. There are fine things here, especially two doors opened only a crack, through each of which we glimpse a person’s legs in a bathtub. But these haunted vignettes, which bring to mind Edward Hopper’s saturnine humanism, are not enough to salvage the numbing effect of the symmetrical images that dominate Gober’s elegy for September 11.
The closest Gober has yet come to an installation that has a romantic fascination from beginning to end was at the Dia Foundation in Chelsea in 1992, a work reconstructed at MoMA. He transforms a large room into a verdant northeastern forest with wallpaper that has the lush elegance of eighteenth- or nineteenth-century papier peint. Against this painted backdrop, he sets a series of sinks with water luxuriantly gushing from the faucets. High up on the walls, small squarish windows are cut into the fictional forest, each with three prison bars through which we see a bright, gentle sky. Along the floor there are some newspapers ready for recycling as well as boxes labeled “Rat Bait.”
The Dia installation suggests both death and disaster (the rat bait, the newspapers, the prison bars) and also catharsis (the beautiful forest, the soothing rushing water). For visitors who know Gober’s earlier sinks, bereft of faucets or drains or water, the rushing water can feel like a fulfillment, a consummation. That must be what Gober has in mind, but I find that the deliberateness and imperturbability of Gober’s work forecloses the ecstatic, the cathartic, the purely pleasurable—at least it does in this symphonic scheme. The critic Dave Hickey, in the catalog for the Dia show, comments that Gober’s work here is “interior decorating with a vengeance,” and it seems to me that this is a problem, the interior for all its weirdness somehow too elegantly plotted and planned.
Gober, who has a natural gift for works of relatively modest dimensions, cannot resist large-scale projects, feeling perhaps that this is where moral and ethical dilemmas can most effectively be explored. I am reminded of the case of Katherine Anne Porter, that subtle shaper of short stories who labored for decades on an immense novel, Ship of Fools, which despite its grand design was regarded by many of her admirers as a betrayal of her gifts. The title Gober has given the MoMA show—“The Heart Is Not a Metaphor”—comes from Elizabeth Hardwick’s novel Sleepless Nights, a work that within its small dimensions encompasses a vast landscape. I imagine that part of what drew Gober to Hardwick is her gift for the glimpse, the vignette, the fragment of a story that tells us everything we need to know. Gober may see a kindred spirit in Hardwick, who in her Sleepless Nights and in her stories about life in New York made a unique and irreplaceable contribution to the art of fiction. He must admire Hardwick’s gift for presenting the mysterious beauties of American experience through a chiseled, angled, magnified vision that owes much to European modernism.
The enigma of Americanness is one of Gober’s abiding subjects, both in his own work and in the curatorial activities he has embraced. The core of the MoMA catalog is a 150-page narrative chronology of the artist’s life, clearly shaped by Gober himself. Including observations and memories by Gober and his friends and colleagues, the chronology has an almost novelistic fascination, particularly in its earlier pages, where we are given a detailed account of a modest middle-class American upbringing in Yalesville, Connecticut. We learn about Gober’s parents and grandparents, the church where he was an altar boy, and his travails as an effeminate kid, never fitting in. Gober wants us to be aware of how deeply American his story is: the immigrant grandparents, the father with the nine-to-five job who loved to tinker in the basement, the mother who worked as a secretary for a priest who was a friend of the family but who was also always expected by her husband to have dinner on the table.
The exhibitions Gober has organized have often presented artists whose outsider status gave them some special insight into the nature of American experience; through these exhibitions he may be trying to figure out his own relationship with America. His most ambitious curatorial project was a retrospective of the work of Charles Burchfield, who lived in upstate New York and created a Gothic-romantic vision of the American landscape, with the forest primeval turning mystical, otherworldly. Another interest of Gober’s has been the midcentury abstract painter Forest Bess, a man with a tormented sexuality who lived a marginal life in Texas but exhibited for a time with the distinguished Betty Parsons Gallery in New York.
In 2005, when Gober organized a show at the Menil Collection in Houston that joined works of his own with works from that small, marvelous museum, he found an especially fertile ground for his artist’s-eye view of the American condition. John and Dominique de Menil were Europeans who lived much of their lives in Houston—he was in the oil business—and Gober responded to the de Menils’ gift for interpreting American realities from a vantage point shaped by the experience of European modernism and especially European surrealism, with its sensitivity to conflict and contradiction. In Gober’s Menil installation an exquisite abstract drawing with gouache by Mondrian and two of Magritte’s enigmatic oil paintings were hung in the same galleries as a wax portrait of Abraham Lincoln by an anonymous nineteenth- or early-twentieth-century artist and an abolitionist potholder emblazoned with the words “Any Holder But a Slave Holder” from the de Menils’ collection of African-American iconography. Somehow it all fit together with Gober’s body fragments, recycled newspapers, and prison windows.
Gober’s sensibility, simultaneously blunt and exquisite, is quintessentially American. This paradoxical coupling can be found in much American art: in the early stories of Ernest Hemingway, the music of Charles Ives, the poetry of William Carlos Williams, the dance of Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor, the sculpture of Donald Judd. Gober may have been thinking of this aspect of Judd when he observed that “there is a masculine bluff about [his sculptures] that I find endearing, emotionally complex, and perhaps in their duplicity quintessentially American.” Only when armed with that duplicity—what Gober, speaking of Judd, calls “old-fashioned stagecraft”—can the artist begin to do justice to the bold beauties of America.
For Gober, the struggle to feel at home as an artist in America inevitably dovetails with the struggle to feel at home as a gay man in America. Neither can remain a private struggle, because both fuel the public avowal that is integral to Gober’s art. What has sometimes been lost in all the writing in recent decades about art and politics in the age of AIDS is that for Gober and a number of other artists associated with the protests and polemics of these years, the primary or at least the original priority has always been the making of art.
However consuming the politics may at times become, for Gober art is another world, where duplicities can be allowed to multiply, because the lies that make art possible are entirely different from the lies politicians tell. Beginning with the 1983–1984 series of sinks without plumbing that compose a haunting, almost spectral gallery at MoMA—they were produced some two years after the first announcements of the “rare cancer” that would come to be known as AIDS—Gober’s work has been saturated with the never-ending dread and the ineradicable melancholy that the epidemic cast over a generation of creative spirits.
Although probably a little too young to have experienced the optimism of the civil rights movement and the early years of the anti–Vietnam War protests, Gober felt with full force the shattering disappointments of the 1970s and early 1980s, when American optimism took a tailspin, never really to recover. He may believe that the idiosyncratic nature of his work is a response to that tailspin, as if some more traditional form of artistic avowal would simply not be up to the challenge. There are certainly contemporary artists whose heartfelt responses to our roller-coaster era have been shaped by older visual forms; among them are Bill Jensen, with his dark-toned, febrile abstract paintings, and Barbara Goodstein, with her black-and-white relief sculptures of skeletal, ascetically elegant churches and synagogues.
For Gober, however, the traditional vocabularies of painting and sculpture have been inadequate to describe a world where, as he recalls of the death of one friend of AIDS, “I tried to help him but I was so scared, frightened for myself. Nobody knew how it was spread, or why, and people were dying within weeks of symptoms.” Gober leaves us with a harrowing question. If we take it for granted that the life principle is at the core of artistic creativity, then what is the artist to do when the life principle fails? Gober’s finest works are not so much answers to this question as they are the objects he can’t help but create at a time when this question nobody ever wanted to ask remains unanswered.