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Robert Gober Photo

Robert Gober

American Sculptor and Conceptual Artist

Born: September 12, 1954 - Meriden, Connecticut
"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."
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Robert Gober
"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."
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Robert Gober
"Making sculptures has taken me places emotionally and intellectually I never would have gone."
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Robert Gober
"I don't think art is inherently cynical. I think it's inherently hopeful."
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Robert Gober
"Most of my sculptures have been memories remade, recombined, and filtered through my current experiences."
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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."
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Robert Gober
"My problem painting from my life was I found that you can't paint dirt without romanticizing it."
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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."
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Robert Gober
"The theme of Gober's work is men, their torments, desires, shames, and failures, as well as their occasional tattered triumphs, which are usually heralded by a maternal or celestial female image."
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David Salle Signature

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.

Accomplishments

  • 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.

Biography of Robert Gober

Robert Gober Photo

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."



Progression of Art

1979-80

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

1982-83

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

1985

Untitled

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 - Museum of Modern Art, New York

1989

Cat Litter

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 - Museum of Modern Art, New York

1989-90

Untitled Leg

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 - Museum of Modern Art, New York

1991

Untitled Candle

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

1997

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


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Content compiled and written by Anna Souter

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Meggie Morris

"Robert Gober Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Anna Souter
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Meggie Morris
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First published on 07 Oct 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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