The Connoisseur of the Uncanny

Robert Gober: The Heart Is Not a Metaphor

an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, October 4, 2014–January 18, 2015
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Ann Temkin
Museum of Modern Art, 271 pp., $45.00
Museum of Modern Art, New York/Jonathan Muzikar/Robert Gober
Robert Gober’s sculpture of a nearly six-foot-long cigar, shown at MoMA with one of his wallpaper installations, both from 1991

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…

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