Robert Gober - Biography and Legacy
American Sculptor and Conceptual Artist
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.