American Sculptor and Conceptual Artist
Summary of Robert Gober
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.
- 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 in the final products.
Progression of Art
Half Stone House
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.
Wood, stone, glass, stainless steel, paper, paint, linoleum-block print - Collection of Sue and John Wieland, Atlanta
Slides of a Changing Painting
To make Slides of a Changing Painting, Gober worked on the same piece of board over the course of a year, taking hundreds of photographs of the various transformations to create a "memoire of painting." After applying paint and photographing the image, he scraped off the paint layer to create a series of different images - a bare room, a drain, a man's chest. The photographs were then shown as an 89-image slideshow. The images were later projected onto a gallery wall; as one image dissolved into the next, collectively they offer a deeply personal record, like the pages of a diary. The process of documenting the creation and destruction of Gober's creative thoughts allowed him to evaluate his artistic practice and explore content and imagery that captivated him at that time and in subsequent years. Gober later described the process he used: "I took thousands of slides over the course of a year and then edited them down and showed them with a dissolve - basically a memoir of a painting."
The changing slides create a narrative through the contrast of similar and yet dissimilar images. The regularity of the projector acts almost like a ticking clock, emphasizing the temporality of painting as a medium. The images are fleeting, since the paintings cannot be experienced as they were created in person and the individual images only appear for brief moments before they turn into something new. This fleeting nature also means that the textures of the paintings cannot be closely scrutinized. The movement of the projector is insistent and reliable at the same time, reminding the viewer of the inevitable progression through time in life and the unavoidable changes that the passage of time brings.
According to Gober himself, the piece was not well received. He says "it was met with a yawn," and consequently "I put it away and kind of forgot about it." However, it soon became clear that the imagery Gober explored in Slides of a Changing Painting would inform his artistic practice for the rest of his life.
89 color 35mm slides shown in three parts - Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
David Salle defines Robert Gober as "the poet of drains." This untitled piece is one of a series of sinks that Gober began to make in the 1980s. The sink recalls Duchamp's famous urinal readymade, which consisted of a real urinal turned on its side and exhibited in the New York City in 1917. Despite the similar appearance, Gober's sinks are not found objects. Instead, they are carefully crafted by the artist out of plaster, wood, and paint - materials that would not hold water were the sink to be plumbed in.
From a distance, this sink looks real; but, upon closer inspection, its handmade quality is clear. The paint and plaster of the sink's surface does not imitate porcelain perfectly. Gober based his first sculptures on the standard bathroom sinks he had known growing up. The repeated study of the sink motif allows Gober to revisit and reconsider several themes over a long period of time. The strong similarities between subsequent versions recalls the serialized practices of Minimalist sculpture and painting dominating the contemporary art scene of New York in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet, noticeably different from both the readymade and Minimalist art, Gober's sinks insert the handmade, craft aesthetic into the contemporary art gallery. Some critics have claimed that the sinks recall human faces. Historian and New York Times art critic Peter Schjeldahl, for example, argues that "they are anthropomorphic, with holes (where the taps would be) like empty eyes." Gober has denied attempting to make them look like faces, but he does reference to the physicality of the human body.
Beyond these references to monuments of earlier, avant-garde art, Gober's sinks also engage with the realities of their own time. The series of sinks were partly made as a direct response to the AIDS crisis, which was decimating the artistic community in New York throughout the 1980s. As Gober put it, "I was a gay man living in the epicenter of 20th-century America's worst health epidemic, and the sinks were a byproduct of that. What do you do when you stand in front of a sink? You clean yourself. Yet they were about the inability to [do that]." The exposed male body is an unseen but nevertheless present entity in the sink sculptures, highlighting the vulnerability that Gober observed all around him - and undoubtedly feared - considering his close interactions with victims of the epidemic through his volunteer work, activism, and art practice during those trying years.
Plaster, wood, steel, wire lath, and enamel paint - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
To create Cat Litter, Gober once again undermined the traditional expectations of the found object. What looks like a bag of real cat litter is in fact a carefully constructed version of it, hand-made and painted completely by the artist. Like Andy Warhol's famous soup cans, Brillo pads, and other common consumer products found in the works of Pop art, Gober's bag of cat litter brings the necessary things of contemporary life into the art gallery. However, whereas the Pop artists borrowed the content of real life and presented it in highly stylized ways that transformed the simple items of commercial culture into fine art, Gober presents his content as it would likely appear in the non-art context of the viewer's life. Furthermore, whereas Warhol delighted in confusing the authenticity of his art works by producing paintings in a serialized, factory-like production mode that included assistants, Gober is solely responsible for every step of the creative process and final presentation.
As with many of Gober's works, Cat Litter is concerned with perceptions of cleanliness. Art critic Peter Schjedahl explains that Gober sees the cat litter "as an accommodation for filth that permits amicable relations between humans and felines. This idea suggests a theory of civilization: the reconciling of gross realities and refined desires." Once again, Gober surprisingly invokes the human body with the presentation of an inanimate, commercial object. The bodily functions of animals within present-day, domestic spaces require the actions of humans to restore cleanliness to those personal environments.
In several exhibitions, Gober has presented Cat Litter as part of a larger installation comprised of several works. Originally shown at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York in 1989, Cat Litter debuted as bags placed on the ground leaning against three walls in the gallery space. The walls were covered in wall paper created by Gober, depicting images of a sleeping Caucasian man and a hanging African-American man. In the center of the gallery space was a free-standing white satin wedding dress. This combination of imagery and objects was undoubtedly unsettling, intentionally confronting viewers with the ideas of unpleasant and unjust inequalities that exist in our everyday lives that seem to be constantly covered over, as if they were nothing more than the inevitable excrement that one must tolerate from a household pet but that can be easily masked with the wonders of modern culture like cat litter. Viewers are invited to wonder about the reasons why these items are present in the same space, where they came from, what they signify, and how they may seem familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. In the 1980s, gay marriage was still illegal, and the wedding dress represents a distinctly heteronormative approach to relationships where, according to Gober's configuration, husbands and wives are kept like pets, with each party tolerating the "uncleanliness" that accompanies their perception of the opposite sex.
Plaster, ink, and latex paint - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
A human leg, complete with shoe, sock and hairs on its waxy skin, projects from the wall. The surprising degree of realism in the depiction of the leg increases the shock and surreal effect upon seeing it seemingly protruding from the wall. As critic and scholar Pablo Baler argues, "the work suggests the phenomenon of the uncanny - something ordinary that suddenly seems strange, bringing out fears and collapsing certainties."
According to curator Richard Flood, Gober "saw the expanse of flesh between the sock and the cuff as an erogenous zone" in the leg. Like a burlesque routine that only reveals portions of the exposed human body at a time, here the tease of not knowing what the rest of the body looks like and the process of imagining it instead heightens the curiosity of the viewer. Unlike more obviously erotic parts of the human body, the lower leg is the part of a man's body where he frequently but unconsciously reveals his skin. Gober was inspired to make the work after watching the leg of an attractive passenger on a plane journey. He said, "it was about the challenge of making a sculpture about that moment where the sock doesn't meet the pants and you see the flesh and the hair of the person."
Typically for Gober, this work was also partly inspired by personal experience, in this case a childhood memory. He recalls his mother, who was a nurse, telling him about her first experience in hospital, where she assisted on an amputation. The doctor handed her the amputated leg and she didn't know what to do with it. This image of a disembodied leg always unnerved Gober and played on his imagination. Considering this memory, Gober's leg sculpture could just as quickly symbolize a victim as anything else. The leg is abruptly severed from the rest of the body, and the remnants of clothing and the presence of the sock and shoe hint at an unexpected result, as if the man this leg belonged to was suddenly assaulted. As with Gober's previous body of work, his series of disembodied limbs presents the familiar and innocuous parts of ourselves and our common experiences in uncanny places and manners that insert a frightening or sinister reading of the work, its context, and its meaning.
Beeswax, cotton, wood, leather, and human hair - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
This untitled work consists of a hand-cast beeswax candle, the base of which is covered with human hair. The plain candle is a simple, familiar object, yet it often functions to evoke particular behaviors and moods in its viewers and users, whether to encourage somber devotion in a church setting or elicit romantic desires in an intimate gathering. The addition of the human hair emphasizes a salacious reading of a deceptively simple thing, as Gober turns the candle into a "phallic symbol," as critic Walter Robinson puts it. He also points out that despite "its unlit wick testifying to its unsullied state, this 'virgin' candle is carnal all the same." As in many of Gober's previous works, Untitled candle disrupts the normal relationship between our physical reactions to everyday surroundings and investigates the psychological and symbolic power of the objects of our everyday lives.
Gober's use of wax as a malleable material, able to be burned and melted, points to the weakness of the human body. When considered as a phallic symbol, the candle stands in for male desire and virility. But the candle appears to be calling out to be lit, and subsequently destroyed, hinting at the vulnerability of male arousal. The candle also recalls Gober's Catholic upbringing, especially his childhood service as an altar boy, as well as Gober's own discomfort growing up as a homosexual within the Catholic tradition. Additionally, the candle can refer to the recent AIDS crisis that preoccupied Gober in many ways throughout the 1980s and 1990s, recalling the destruction of so many in the male, gay community and also resembling the many candles lit in memorial services for victims of the disease.
Beeswax, string, human hair - Collection of the artist
Untitled Installation, Madonna detail
In 1997, Gober unveiled a large-scale installation within the Geffen Contemporary, a warehouse space and extension of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Like his other sculptures and installations, each work within the installation was hand-made meticulously by the artist himself. As critic Christopher Knight remarked at the time the installation was first shown, "Gober has transformed the pristine space of the museum into something at once old-fashioned and brand-new: an unabashedly romantic grotto of sacred and profane love." Gober did indeed create an indoor grotto, as several components of the installation were situated on top of storm drains that covered water-filled tide pools below. Knight goes on to claim that "the untitled piece engages sight and sound in order to seduce the viewer into a kind of baptism, both spiritual and material."
Perhaps the most striking element of the installation is a six-foot high concrete Madonna statue, penetrated through the abdomen by a culvert (large drain pipe) and placed to hover over a large storm drain. According to critic Roberta Smith, the culvert piercing the Madonna "turns her into an eccentric crucifix at once shocking and grandly tragic." Though this iconography of the Madonna statue does resemble such similar mass-produced figurines and devotional items, Gober's insistence on handmade production and larger-than-life scale subverts the easy distribution and use of such Madonna figures. Gober's Madonna is made semi-monumental, comparing the grand scale of much religious iconography to the much smaller scale of objects for personal devotion. However, the insertion of the culvert appears as a fatal blow to the Madonna figure, calling into question whatever spiritual relief or reassurance she could provide to her worshippers.
The subject of water has appeared in previous artworks by Gober, whether through its choreographed presence and movement or through its deliberate absence. Drawing once again on his interest in drains and plumbing, Gober places storm drains throughout the installation, covered by such items as the Madonna statue and two silk-lined suitcases. Adding to the pronounced sound of the rushing water throughout the piece, a waterfall streams down a wooden staircase behind the Madonna statue, draining into another storm drain at the bottom of the stairs. The Catholic imagery and its relationship to water in religious ceremony is palpable. The components of the installation are laid out in a four point arrangement, mimicking a cruciform shape. As if moving through the stages of the cross in Catholic ritual of devotion and humility, viewers pass from one item to the next, meditating on the presumably familiar but disturbing imagery to the sound of moving water, as if being washed over by the purifying waters activated in religious services and baptisms. As in other works, Gober returns to his own personal experience with the Catholic Church to investigate its lingering influence on his emotions and psyche, forcing others to join him in this uncomfortable journey of self-reflection. As curator Richard Flood explains, "In Los Angeles, Gober was the architect of a chapel that could accommodate him and the author of a religion that could sustain him."
Plaster and metal - Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art
Biography of Robert Gober
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. (Much of the biographical information on the artist is discussed in the MoMA exhibition catalogue for Robert Gober: The Heart is Not a Metaphor.) 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 Dalí 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.
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 Jacopo da Pontormo, which distorted the proportions of people and spaces in direct contrast to the mathematical precision developed in the Renaissance.
One summer, Gober got a 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 graduating in 1976, Gober moved to New York. He got a job in construction and making painters’ stretchers in order to support himself.
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.
In 1979, he 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." 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.
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.
The Legacy of Robert Gober
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 relevant 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.