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Artists Robert Gober
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Robert Gober

American Sculptor and Conceptual Artist

Movements and Styles: Conceptual Art, Appropriation Art, Installation Art

Born: September 12, 1954 - Meriden, Connecticut, USA

Robert Gober Timeline

Quotes

"The humor, to me, is very important. A lot of times in the studio, I push the pieces until they make me laugh. It's a way to let people enter into the piece, where you can give them more complicated and fraught material. It's a disarming device, but it's also a pleasure that comes with the piece."
Robert Gober
"Making sculptures has taken me places emotionally and intellectually I never would have gone."
Robert Gober
"I don't think art is inherently cynical. I think it's inherently hopeful."
Robert Gober
"Most of my sculptures have been memories remade, recombined, and filtered through my current experiences."
Robert Gober
"For the most part works of mine are untitled. There was a brief period where I had poetic titles for works and they're embarrassing now."
Robert Gober
"My problem painting from my life was I found that you can't paint dirt without romanticizing it."
Robert Gober
"I always try to get people to focus less, or at least not first, on finding 'meaning', or 'theme' in the work, but to focus on what it is exactly. What is it physically made of and how it is made. A lot of times metaphors are almost embedded in the medium."
Robert Gober

"For the most part, the objects that I choose are almost all emblems of transition; they're objects that you complete with your body, and they're objects that, in one way or another, transform you."

Robert Gober Signature

Synopsis

Since the early 1980s, Robert Gober has produced paradoxical sculptures that seem to embody qualities of both hand-made and machine-made objects at the same time. His works are often replicas of items found in everyday life - bags of cat litter, cans of paint, kitchen sinks, urinals - but his deliberate fabrication techniques transform these mundane things into pieces of fine art. Gober both entices and deceives his viewers by giving the impression of familiarity while engaging with surprising complexities of modern-day sexual identity, religion, politics, and art history. His works confront the expectations of those inside and outside of the formal art world; he asserts a studied, subjective intimacy into his art while placing his ideas within the celebrated lineage of Modern art, being both intensely present and historical, and invoking personal and universal experiences, at the same time.

Key Ideas

Gober's sculptures seem like ordinary objects at first glance, but they reveal their artifice upon closer scrutiny. Rather than hiding their handmade quality, these objects highlight the materials involved in the construction process. For some works, Gober identifies them only by their materials, showcasing media like wood, plaster, wax, hair, wire, clay, paint, and more. Surprisingly, Gober exposes both the means and the making of the art work, giving the viewer access to the unseen history of the work and the inevitable presence of the artist behind it, affirming a more complex process existing underneath a finished exterior.
By choosing objects found in modern-day life as the subjects of his sculptures, Gober's works directly confront the influence of the "readymade" throughout recent art history. First made famous by Marcel Duchamp in the early 20th century, readymades extracted items from daily life and gave them new identities as art objects. This process made artists and viewers reconsider their own relationships with these items, as well as their understandings of what art was required to be. Gober's works, however, are not readymades in the truest sense, but recall the impact of the readymade on artistic freedom. Gober preserves a hand-crafted quality in his objects obscuring and negating their use as commodities while still maintaining their basic, original visual features. Gober's simultaneous recognition and rejection of the readymade's most prominent features pushed the limitations of Contemporary art, eliciting surprise and provocative thought.
The presence and the absence of the human body is constant in many of Gober's works. From dollhouses to kitchen sinks, his objects often imply use by humans, even when people are not visually present. Gober inserts the viewers into the spaces created, leaving them empty and waiting to be filled by a real or imagined human presence. This experience is comfortable and familiar, and yet, it is also disconcerting, especially when the sculptures and installations invoke privacy and intimacy associated with the human body. As viewers intrude on these intensely and physically close moments, they are aware of their own complicity. This tension between comfort and discomfort is one of Gober's hallmark traits, forcing viewers to experience sensations and ideas in an art environment that carry impact beyond the gallery walls.
Though Gober's sculptures present seemingly mundane and universally experienced objects, many of them hold personal, even autobiographical, meanings. Gober investigates such intimate topics as sexual identity, religion, and social taboos over many years and in many visual manners, finding surprising methods to include the individual, and here the artist, in the final products.

Most Important Art

Robert Gober Famous Art

Half Stone House (1979-80)

Half Stone House was one of the first pieces of sculpture Gober ever made. It stemmed from an impulse he had to make doll houses out of materials he found on the streets, hoping to make some money from them. Yet, he found himself surprisingly preoccupied with the fabrication of the miniature house, later explaining that "when I made Half Stone House, that's when I knew I was going to be a sculptor because I was waking up and going to sleep and spending every free moment I could thinking about it." He quickly realized that what he was making was art.

The house depicted in this work recalls a typically American suburban home for a middle-class family. However, rather than embodying the comfort and security promised by the suburban domicile, this house produces a sense of eerie abandonment. The overall appearance of the house is familiar to the viewer, but the emptiness is striking - a home's purpose is to provide shelter for people, yet there is no sign of human presence and activity in this house. Additionally, a doll house is traditionally a toy for children, especially for young girls, where they can mimic the daily activities of life they observe around them. But Gober's doll house has an uncomfortable edge, recalling Freud's ideas of the uncanny - that which is familiar and yet strange at the same time. The uncanny is something that he would pursue for the rest of his career.

Like many of Gober's works, the doll house is rooted in his own life experiences. Gober later recalled, "my father, as a man, built the house that we lived in. This is what I learned a man does: builds houses." Here, Gober's version of masculinity is very different from the more traditional approach of his father; to build a doll house is not physically demanding, but instead requires more seemingly feminine skills, such as the ability to work on a small scale with attention to detail and patience.
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Robert Gober Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood

Robert Gober was born in Meriden, Connecticut, and grew up in the nearby town of Wallingford. His family included his mother, who worked as a nurse, his father, a draftsman, and his brother and sister. Both sets of his grandparents were immigrants to the US - his maternal grandparents from Italy and his paternal grandparents from Lithuania. Gober's family members were strict Catholics, and Gober served as an altar boy at a church as a child. His family's Catholicism and his experiences within the church were to shape his life and artwork. He has said, "I think the benefit of a Catholic childhood is your belief in visual symbols as transmitters of information and clues about life, whether it's the mystery of life or life in general."

The family who lived next door to Gober was comprised of circus performers who specialized in the human cannonball act. Having such an unusual family nearby exposed Gober to alternative and unorthodox versions of family dynamics, seeing a family dependent upon each other for their livelihood and survival in a thrilling and performative way. Generally liberal in their views, the wife of the family told Gober at a young age that it was acceptable to be attracted to other boys, a thought that was foreign and forbidden in the Catholic purview of Gober's own family. Gober would soon discover his homosexuality, something his Catholic family did not take kindly to. Turning away from the strict adherence to Catholicism that his family embraced, Gober sees his rejection of this faith as the start of a "redefinition" process that would characterize the rest of his life.

As a child, Gober was fascinated with the contact he had with art, although that contact was limited. For example, an Ellsworth Kelly abstract painting he saw aged 11 moved him so much he tried to recreate it at home. As a teenager, he also loved the work of Salvador Dalí, whose Surrealist approach would influence Gober's mature work. What he loved about the work of Dali was the shock and adolescent impulse to rebel, precisely what he later claimed was "a staple of the avant-garde."

Early Training and work

After high school, Gober applied to several art schools but was rejected by all of them. Instead, he attended Middlebury College, in Vermont, where he studied English Literature while taking several art courses where he acquired key, technical skills.

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Robert Gober Biography Continues

For one semester, he had the opportunity to attend the Tyler School of Art in Rome, Italy. While he was there, he became well-acquainted with Italian art, visiting museums that host some of the most renown Italian Renaissance, Mannerist, and Baroque paintings and sculptures. Gober was particularly interested in the paintings of the Mannerist school, such as Pontormo, which distorted the proportions of people and spaces in direct contrast to the mathematical precision developed in the Renaissance.

After graduating in 1976, he returned to Wallingford and got a summer job working at the town's sewer department. Initially, he thought he would be working at the water and sewer department, but on his first day the receptionist put him right: "sorry, son - just sewers". After his summer working with the sewers, Gober moved to New York. He got a job in construction in order to support himself. He soon met painter Elizabeth Murray, who gave him a job as her studio assistant. As Gober worked as a carpenter and general assistant to Murray, she introduced him to the social intricacies of the New York art world and encouraged his own creative practice. As he put it later, "I got an eyeful."

Mature Period

In the late 1970s in New York, his early years in the city, he did some painting, but was dissatisfied with the results; he would later find more satisfaction with similar subject matter in sculpted objects. At one point he decided, on a whim, to make a doll house in the hope of being able to sell it. He became consumed with the project of building the dollhouse, and realized that he was creating a unique piece of sculpture. He later recalled, "that's when I knew I was going to be a sculptor." He also later claimed that the process of making doll houses as art was "inextricably woven into the challenge of 'coming out' and whatever that meant," as it gave him a chance to know what building a structure by hand was like - something his father did as a carpenter, and as such seemed a uniquely masculine activity in Gober's mind. Yet, the symbolism of the dollhouse recalls an undeniably feminine quality, as dollhouses are typically employed for young girls to pretend to set up a household, preparing for their domestic futures.

After his epiphany, Gober began to make sculptural works, fabricating highly crafted versions of everyday objects. He also began painting extensively again, and his first solo exhibition took place in 1984 at the Paula Cooper Gallery, where he exhibited his work Slides of a Changing Painting (1982-83).

The 1980s saw the beginnings of the AIDS crisis, which closely affected Gober as a gay man watching many of his friends suffer from the disease. The New York art scene was decimated, and Gober made several series of works responding to this human destruction, most notably his hand-crafted sinks. Before the crisis, much social interaction within the gay community of New York took place in the public baths, which were swiftly closed down after the AIDS crisis. As a result, Gober became interested in notions of cleanliness and sanitation. As Gober put it later, "I matured as a man - specifically a gay man - during one of the biggest health epidemics of the century. I was at the epicenter, and it was absolutely indicative that you say who you are."

The latent human presence that resides in his inanimate representations took on more recognizable figurative form in Gober's work from the 1990s onwards: dismembered limbs began to populate his ever more complex installations, growing out of walls or human torsos, interspersing references to childhood and religion with architectural metaphors for both imprisonment and escape. Every exhibition called for grappling with his works anew. For this reason, Gober's oeuvre has been perceived and experienced more as a series of manifesto-like individual appearances than as a continuous narrative.

It was in the 1990s that Gober met his partner, Donald Moffett, an American artist whose practice involves questioning traditional painting techniques and materials. Both were closely involved in ACT UP, or AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, a protest group promoting action to respond to the AIDS crisis.

Current practice

Gober produced a site-specific installation in the US pavilion at the 2001 Venice Biennale. Modern-day items of domestic life and bathroom cleanliness - etched pieces to look like newspaper clippings, a sink plunger sculpture, replica gin bottles, and flesh-like sculptures of male and female torsos, among other works - were arranged in a meticulous and uncrowded manner within the pavilion space. These objects brought in the uncomfortable realities of contemporary violence against gay individuals in America (as the plunger references the object of violation used in a recent violent assault) to the sacred halls of aesthetics and order of the Italian gallery space. Once again, Gober took advantage of a hallowed fine art platform to draw attention to the more obscure and obscene stories that objects can bring to the fore.

Even after the legalization of gay marriage in the US, Gober and Moffett chose not to get married. Gober later claimed that marriage was "an institution that deliberately tried to hurt me. Why would I want to be a part of it?" The couple split their time between North Fork, on Long Island, and New York City, where Gober also has a studio.

Gober has also become interested in curatorial practices, keen to explore and support the work of his colleagues. In 2009, for example, he curated an exhibition of the paintings of Charles Burchfield for the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and, in 2012, he curated a room of Forrest Bess's work at the Whitney Biennial in New York.

Since his earliest days as an artist, Gober has used visual art to send provocative messages about modern day human experience, embracing and rejecting common assumptions and behaviors all at once.


Legacy

As an openly gay artist confronting the consequences of the AIDS crisis, Gober has been particularly influential for other homosexual artists. Richard Flood, curator of the New Museum in New York, claims that Gober has been particularly key for artists "dealing with their queerness in their work," because "he became a huge hero for emerging from the [AIDS] plague years with work that made people stop and think." Such artists impacted by Gober's work included Keith Haring, whose images became posters for the ACT UP protest group that Gober participated in, and David Wojnarowicz, whose provocative art confronts homophobia and the AIDS crisis.

Very relavant to this day, one of the most striking features of Gober's work is how his objects continue to elicit contradictory readings, lacking final resolutions and decisions about their ultimate meanings. His objects and installations are seductive in the simplicity and familiarity of their subject matter, yet they never cease to challenge the viewer's preconceived notions.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Robert Gober
Interactive chart with Robert Gober's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Marcel DuchampMarcel Duchamp
Ellsworth KellyEllsworth Kelly
Hans BellmerHans Bellmer
Salvador DalíSalvador Dalí
Rene MagritteRene Magritte

Friends

Elizabeth Murray

Movements

SurrealismSurrealism
MinimalismMinimalism
Modern SculptureModern Sculpture
Robert Gober
Robert Gober
Years Worked: 1982 - 2010s

Artists

Cindy ShermanCindy Sherman

Friends

Donald Moffett
David WojnarowiczDavid Wojnarowicz
Christopher WoolChristopher Wool
Keith HaringKeith Haring

Movements

Conceptual ArtConceptual Art
PostmodernismPostmodernism
Appropriation ArtAppropriation Art

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Content compiled and written by Anna Souter

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Anna Souter
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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Useful Resources on Robert Gober

Videos

Books

Websites

Articles

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

biography

Robert Gober: The Heart is not a Metaphor Recomended resource

By Hilton Als

Robert Gober: 2000 Words

By Johanna Burton

A Robert Gober Lexicon

By Brenda Richardson

Robert Gober: Sculpture and Drawing Recomended resource

By Garrels, Temkin and Flood

More Interesting Books about Robert Gober
Found Meanings Recomended resource

By Peter Schjedahl
The New Yorker
October 13, 2014

Interview with Robert Gober Recomended resource

By Craig Gholson
BOMB Magazine
Fall 1989

Robert Gober opens at MoMA

By Jason Farago
The Guardian
October 3, 2014

Gay and God: Walter Robinson on the perverse art of Robert Gober Recomended resource

By Walter Robinson
The Observer
October 8, 2014

More Interesting Articles about Robert Gober
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