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.
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."
Important Art by Robert Gober
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.
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.
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.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Robert Gober
- Robert Gober: The Heart is not a MetaphorOur PickBy Hilton Als
- Robert Gober: 2000 WordsBy Johanna Burton
- A Robert Gober LexiconBy Brenda Richardson
- Robert Gober: Sculpture and DrawingOur PickBy Garrels, Temkin and Flood
- Robert Gober: Sculptures and Installations 1979-2007By Elisabeth Sussman
- Found MeaningsOur PickBy Peter Schjedahl / The New Yorker / October 13, 2014
- Interview with Robert GoberOur PickBy Craig Gholson / BOMB Magazine / Fall 1989
- Robert Gober opens at MoMABy Jason Farago / The Guardian / October 3, 2014
- Gay and God: Walter Robinson on the perverse art of Robert GoberOur PickBy Walter Robinson / The Observer / October 8, 2014
- Robert Gober's Unanswered QuestionsBy Thomas Micchelli / Hyperallergic / October 18, 2014
- Robert Gober retrospective, Museum of Modern Art, New YorkBy Julie Belcove / The Financial Times / August 8, 2014
- Robert GoberBy Richard Flood / Walker Art Center / 2005
- Reality Skewed or Skewered (Gushing, Too)By Roberta Smith / New York Times / October 2, 2014
- Some thoughts from Robert Gober on the eve of his MoMA retrospectiveBy Alanna Martinez / Observer Culture / September 30, 2014