March 26, 2000
Robert Gober: An Impresario of Menace in Simple Things
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By HOLLAND COTTER
A few weeks ago, I visited the survey of work by the
American artist Robert Gober at the Hirshhorn Museum here and was jotting some
notes when a youngish man with a ponytail
and a goatee steamed over. No hellos. He was agitated.
"You look like you know what this stuff is about," he
snapped. "I don't get it." Sensing some kind of crisis, I
suggested that an essay in the show's brochure might be
of help. "I have that," he said and slapped his back
pocket. "And I'll read it." That sounded like a threat, not
I started to watch people. An older man paused in
front of a small, graffitilike drawing of male and female
genitals and gave a clipped, doubtful laugh. Two teenagers stared at a child's shoe cast in blood-red wax. A
woman in sneakers moved slowly past a rattan dog's
bed skewered by an industrial pipe. She was smiling a
fixed public smile.
Photograph by Lee Stalsworth/Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington
by Robert Gober at the Hirshhorn Museum combines recent untitled sculptures like a dog's bed pierced by a culvert pipe, far right.
Mr. Gober, 45, is among the best known of the
American artists who established careers during the
late 1980's and 1990's, a time when AIDS, identity
politics and culture wars produced a surreal, gothic,
dystopian sensibility in art. His work is much in evidence this spring, both in the traveling survey "Robert
Gober: Sculptures and Drawings" at the Hirshhorn and
in the 2000 Biennial that opened at the Whitney Museum
of American Art in New York last week. In the Hirshhorn show in particular it is art that feels resonant with
a recent past but at least potentially in tune with a new
Many of his images are handmade versions of
overlookable, seemingly innocuous things: household
furniture, old-fashioned utility sinks, swatches of wallpaper. But in each case something is off. The original
forms have been enlarged or reduced, stretched or
compressed, or infused with a psychological or sexual
content -- the genital drawing is a wallpaper design --
that alters and undermines their usual function.
To enhance the sense of strangeness, Mr. Gober has
made a practice of exhibiting his work in stripped-down
gallery spaces lighted like stage sets.
During the 1990's he integrated various individual themes into installations, an art genre that has roots in
1960's Minimalism and that merges
objects with interior architecture,
projecting a distinct theatricality.
Installation art was ubiquitous in
the 1990's. Sometimes it took the
form of improvised, jam-packed
jumbles of matter. Mr. Gober's installation pieces -- and his gallery
shows, which almost always had the
organic feel of being installations --
were spare, immaculate. Objects
had a numinous presence. The effect
was of a domestic twilight zone,
magnetic, haunted, possibly malevolent.
Most of his images have sources in
childhood, and specifically in a postwar, suburban, first-TV-generation
American childhood. He was born in
1954 in Wallingford, Conn. His father,
who worked in a factory and had a
contractor's skills (he built the family home), taught him the virtue of
making things by hand. He was
raised as an altar-boy Roman Catholic. He knew he was gay when he was
He studied literature and art at
Middlebury College in Vermont and
graduated in 1976. One of the earliest
pieces in the Hirshhorn show -- a
cool, Pop-ish pencil drawing of an
Ivory liquid soap bottle -- dates from
around that time. Then he came to
New York and worked as a carpenter
and as a studio assistant to the painter Elizabeth Murray.
He was a painter himself at the
time, and in 1982 began a yearlong
project that had a significant effect
on what was to come. He executed
hundreds of fast paintings on a single
wooden panel, photographing each
when it was finished and then scraping it away to begin another. He later
sorted out some 90 slides and projected them sequentially as a piece
titled "Slides of a Changing Painting," which is on view near the beginning of the Hirshhorn show.
The images in the paintings are of
ordinary, clunky things combined in
weird ways. A plumbing fixture
emerges from a bare male torso; a
pair of facing staircases descend and
meet in an empty room; an outsize
autumn leaf sits in a chair; bare
human limbs and streams of water
weave together as a kind of plaidlike
The results have the spooky, deadpan wit of Magritte's paintings, but
they also feel specifically and personally meaningful, in the cryptic
way that jotted-down dreams do. It is
as if Mr. Gober opened a tap to his
unconscious and left it running for a
year. The images that flowed out
have provided a major source for his
work ever since.
Beginning in the early 1980's, he
used some of these motifs as a basis
for sculptures: sinks, pipes and
drains, playpens, child-size beds. The
work was clearly influenced by Minimalist reductivism, and by a post-Minimalist bent toward reticence.
He was especially attracted to the
tiny cast bronze houses and chairs of
Joel Shapiro, who, like Gober,
showed at Paula Cooper Gallery. But
taking a cue from earlier feminist
art, Mr. Gober eroticzed his forms
and infused them with an implied
narrative, even autobiographical
His first solo show was in 1985,
when Neo-Conceptualism, with its
emphasis on consumer culture, was
shaping up to be the dominant style
and the art market was flush. Then
came upheaval. The market crashed.
Art came under political fire. AIDS
was like an alarm that wouldn't shut
off. It was a time that gave no one
any rest, and new art grew nervy and
dynamic, but also constrained by a
fetishistic focus on mortality, sexuality, on a mechanistic view of history
that left the future bleak and the past
Mr. Gober's development was
very much linked to that moment
and is most easily understood within
it. His vision of childhood grew more
intensely fatalistic. The human figure, once physically absent from his
work, appeared, but fragmented and
damaged. The homoerotic content
sharpened. At the same time, as
much New York art grew overtly
polemical, he kept his work conceptually oblique, emotionally damped-down, aimed to get under your skin
rather in your face.
His mode of understatement, a
kind of pressure-cooker effect, was
often highly effective. The art
world's intellectual hero at the time
was Michel Foucault, the French philosopher who examined constricting
social power relations, most blatantly manifested in prisons and psychiatric hospitals. And no artist better
captured a sense of Foucault's romance with oppression than Mr.
Gober. At the same time, there was
room in his art for humor, however
sardonic, and a strain of poetry that
would become more evident with
All of these elements are in the
Hirshhorn show, organized by Richard Flood, chief curator of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, though
it gives a somewhat imprecise impression of Mr. Gober's output.
Spanning some 25 years, it includes a handful of representative
sculptures but concentrates on drawing, a medium never particularly
associated with the artist. None of
his best-known installations, like
those at the DIA Center in New York
in 1992 and the Los Angeles Museum
of Contemporary Art in 1997, have
been reconstituted for the occasion.
As compensation, the exhibition as
a whole has been conceived as a kind
of extended installation: a long sequence of frosty-looking, bare-bones
rooms that suggest a cross between
a prison, a chapel and a home.
The opening gallery, for example,
is small and close like a vestibule but
has somewhat unwelcoming contents. A 1976 oil painting hangs on the
wall. It depicts a pair of hands, maybe a woman's, washing dishes in a
kitchen sink. Below on the gallery
floor sits a small red box labeled
"Enforcer Rat Bait." It looks like the
real thing, but it's modeled from
plaster and paint.
Domesticity -- poisoned, entrapping or disrupted -- is a main theme
from here on. The doorway between
the first gallery and the next has
been fitted with a wooden frame, but
the door itself leans against the far
wall. For some reason, it has no
knob, and may have been forcibly
removed. A door in the wall nearby,
gunmetal gray and resembling a fire
exit, is a fake. A window, the only one
in the show, is barred and set way
above reach, and anyway looks out
onto a patch of painted sky.
Photograph by Lee Stalsworth/Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington
A leg molded from wax and protruding from the wall.
Everything in this melodramatic,
paranoid stage set is as neat as a pin.
But nothing actually works. Sinks,
made from plaster and paint in various shapes and sizes, have no plumbing and just two round holes, like
startled, watchful eyes, where the
faucets should be. Drains are implanted directly into walls like surveillance devices. A big box of tissues sits on an infant-size molded
plastic chair; a metal grate in the
floor underneath it is like a runoff for
a flood of tears.
Any child would want to weep in
this bleak, unsafe house. A playpen is
sadistically distorted. Newspapers
carry reports of disasters tucked
among wedding announcements.
(Mr. Gober appears dressed as a
bride on one page; on another, a 6-year-old boy named Robert Gober is
reported dead in a backyard pool
The only evidence of a parental
presence is a man's hairy leg, molded from wax, fitted with individual
hairs, dressed in a sock and a shoe,
and protruding from a wall at floor
level. It's as if the house had landed
on him, Wicked Witch-style. (The
cast is of Mr. Gober's leg, and the
shoe is his.)
As enigmatic and unsettling as this
work is -- it can certainly make
people uncomfortable, or at least
confused enough to be unsure of what
their reaction should be -- it still
represents Mr. Gober in a fairly
mild-mannered mode. His most provocative individual pieces, which
have raised their share of dust over
the years, have not been included
Missing, for instance, are examples of the wallpaper and fabric patterns he designed using images of a
lynched black man (from a 1920's
political cartoon) and a sleeping
white man (from a Bloomingdale's
advertisement). When he exhibited
the designs at the Hirshhorn in 1990,
black museum personnel protested.
Also absent are his most explicitly
erotic sculptures, notably the series
of cast male legs and buttocks, often
nude, emerging from walls. Sexually
available and vulnerable, some were
adorned with candles or pocked with
drains like open sores.
Nor is there any trace, except in
video documentation, of Mr. Gober's
1997 Los Angeles installation, in
which the central image was a concrete statue of the Virgin Mary, modeled by the artist and pierced
through the abdomen with a metal
culvert. It drew fire from church
groups that considered it sacrilegious.
Many of the artist's sculptures,
when displayed alone, have an iconic,
almost sacramental aura; his installations feel, often in oppressive ways,
ritualistic. But the image of the
pierced Virgin, surrounded by flowing water (it poured down a staircase behind her and ran under the
floor beneath her feet), read like a
candid effort on Mr. Gober's part to
examine the mechanics of faith. And
nowhere has the language of abjection on which he has based his art felt
richer or more complex.
To get some sense of this complexity, one can turn to the drawings,
which make up the bulk of the exhibition. Mr. Gober has indicated that
drawing is, for him, a notational activity, a way of planning or working
out ideas, not an end in itself. The
dozens of examples spread throughout the show suggest as much.
Most of them are done on nothing-special paper, some in ballpoint pen.
The images tend to be small, even
crabbed, isolated on the page the
way Mr. Gober's sculptures are in a
gallery space. They are precisely
rendered but often erased, then
drawn over with graceless, pressured deliberation.
Polish and virtuosity aren't the
point. What's there instead is a thinking process in play, one whose peculiarly slowed-down restlessness and
subtlety are most apparent when a
single theme -- the sink, for example
-- is reconfigured dozens of ways.
None of these variations are real,
drawn-from-life sinks. They have exaggerated postures and distinctive
personalities. Some, with tall back
splashes and vestigial basins, look
monumental; others are squat and
babyish. The faucet-hole eyes make
them seem alert or alarmed or cute.
A few are even intended as cartoons,
as in the case of a 1986 exhibition
card Mr. Gober designed with a sink
top as a tombstone bearing the epitaph "Robert Gober, New Work."
Things get more interesting, however, the further he departs from the
prototype, takes its basic form and
unfolds it, bends it, splays it and in
general makes it abstract. Sometimes he creates a whole flock of
sinks as oddly angled crosses that
seem to fly in formation across the
page, or as L-shapes that tumble like
In other cases, a number of sinks
are welded together into architectural structures. And on a few pages, the
sink drawings are accompanied by
doodle-like linear forms, modernist-looking systems of overlapping
squares, the kind of thing one might
do to relax, without lifting the hand
from the page.
All these morphological riffs loosen up the obtuse, adamant solidity of
the sculptures and suggest the
wealth of associations that the sink,
as a form, can carry: of washing
(clothes, houses, babies, bodies living
and dead), of baptism, of slaking
thirst, of warming, cooling, healing,
of dirt rinsed down the drain, and of
precious things -- fortunes, lives --
gone down the drain and lost.
It's important to understand the
metaphorical dimensions of Mr.
Gober's art. But it's not always easy
to do so in the presence of some of his
past sculptures, which seem locked
in their mood of infantile alienation.
As time goes on, and the cultural
climate that produced them recedes,
their Grand Guignol brew of pessimism and nostalgia can still deliver
a shock, but it also feels heavy-handed.
The sculptures that Mr. Gober contributed to this year's Whitney Biennial, including one of a large sink
with childlike legs protruding from
the faucet holes, feels that way, too.
It is a kind of pastiche of past motifs
that it is hard to image him taking
With its emphasis on a fleeter,
more flexible medium, the Hirshhorn exhibition, which moves to the
San Francisco Museum of Modern
Art from May 26 to Sept. 5, might be
read as a tacit acknowledgement of
that. So might the 1997 Los Angeles
installation, and a memorable group
show that Mr. Gober organized at
Matthew Marks Gallery in Chelsea
last summer. There, Mr. Gober indirectly expanded on his own art
(which he didn't include) through
that of older and younger artists he
admires, from an Anni Albers textile
with an abstract geometric pattern
to a set of 1970's photographs by
Nancy Shaver that tracked the innocence-to-experience progression of
childhood but did so unemphatically,
Unemphatic is, in fact, the tone of
much work being produced by young
American artists. The prickly, critical content of the 1980's and 90's has
relaxed; the thrill of emergency is
Yet essential links are in place.
Childhood remains an insistent
theme, and few artists have more
effectively explored it than Mr.
Gober. His purgatorial suburbia
lives on in many forms, among them
photographs by Gregory Crewdson
and his many followers, in which
psychic narratives play themselves
out in spotless kitchens and on manicured lawns.
Mr. Gober's exploration of sexuality and gender has been thoroughly
absorbed by a post-AIDS, post-political, post-identity generation. His attention to the hand-crafted object
finds many adherents, as does the
systems-intensive, variations-on-a-theme approach represented by his
drawings, an approach that in other
hands has become an end in itself.
The big difference is that younger
artists are lightening up on his formal density and his conceptual gravity. Perhaps that is the direction that
Mr. Gober, an artist emblematic of
one era and poised on the edge of
another, will take himself.