Collections> Browse Robert Gober

Collections> Browse Robert Gober

Robert Gober
Holdings (20)
4 sculptures, 4 photographs, 8 edition prints/proofs, 2 multiples, 1 book, 1 drawing

Wikipedia About Robert Gober

Robert Gober (b. September 12, 1954) is an American sculptor. His work is often related to domestic and familiar objects such as sinks, doors, and legs. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Robert Gober, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

In 1984, Robert Gober had his first solo exhibition. For five days only, an invited audience could see the artist’s Slides of a Changing Painting (1982–1983). The work was a documentation of a constantly morphing painting on board that Gober photographed in his studio. “I had this little board on a table, about 11-by-14 inches, on which I painted on and off for a year. I had my camera and lights mounted over it. I would paint, take a slide, scrape the paint off, add more paint, take a slide. 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.”1 As one slide merges into the next, a haunting narrative of loss and regeneration glides by, with the clicking of the slide projector playing the role of a relentless metronome. The images themselves linger most attentively on a human torso that evolves from male to female to hermaphrodite. The torso becomes a room, is penetrated by a conduit, disappears into a thicket of vines, splits to reveal a waterfall. Seasons pass from one to the next and everywhere there is water—gushing, pouring, pooling. As remarkable as the images themselves is the fact that Slides of a Changing Painting has remained over the succeeding years the abundant source for much of Gober’s ensuing sculpture. Back in 1984, only a handful of people saw Slides of a Changing Painting, and there were no reviews. To this day, it has been seen only rarely; but for those who have experienced the piece, it becomes clear that it is the Rosetta stone for Gober’s sculpture. Talking about the work, the artist comments: “I knew in the beginning what the end form would be, that they [the paintings] would be slides. I always thought of myself as a painter, but I could never make paintings. I was never interested in the physical objectness of a painting, but the process and imagery really interested me. It was the heyday of neo-expressionism, and I had a kind of allergic reaction to it. So, in a way, my intuitive response to that gluttonous situation was to make a surfeit of paintings that didn’t really exist.”2

The following year, Gober opened an exhibition devoted exclusively to his sculpture and everything changed. The dominant sculptural form in the show was a sink—kitchen sink, laundry sink, bathroom sink. Each was instantly recognizable, yet completely alien. The sculptures’ materiality was built up from a wooden armature covered in wire lath, then plastered and painted. The semigloss enamel paint covering the sinks did not pretend to mimic porcelain any more than the plasterwork imitated a flawless, machined surface. Each work reveled in its handmade homeliness. The exhibition offered a whole new hypothesis for sculpture, one that affirmed the seriality of Minimalism while celebrating the virtues of the handcrafted. That the sinks had no provision for plumbing also signaled a Surrealist edginess that would remain a signature of the work. Then too, the exhibition came at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and it was remarked early on that the unplumbed sinks functioned something like surrogates for the dead, deprived as they were of that which defined their nature. This resolve to deal with the politics of disease would continue in Gober’s work throughout the 1980s. Yet, in the sinks (and succeeding works such as male legs protruding from walls, some embedded with drains or candles), Gober is continually drawn to a vocabulary of functional forms (beds, chairs, playpens, drains, urinals, doors, conduits) that, in his hands, take on grave emotional beauty. Each of his sculptures, in its own way, is a portrait of an emotion or a human condition, whether it be the isolation of childhood or the seductive power of the reimagined fact.

In 1992, at the Dia Art Foundation in New York, Gober staged the most intricate of an ongoing series of psychologically plotted installations that, in their physical scope and metaphoric sweep, truly fall under the rubric of Gesamtkunstwerk. These installations exhibit a totality of vision as well as a growing thematic bravado that snakes its way into many corners of the human experience. It is the water (first seen in Slides of a Changing Painting) that turns Gober’s environments into a drowned world where redemption is always a whispered promise, but often heard in a cautionary voice. In the Dia installation, the sinks—this time fully plumbed and gushing with water—gave voice to the promise. Talking of the exhibition, Gober said: “I wanted the feeling of the show to be positive and mature. And I think I felt that making the sink functional wasn’t only an internal imperative of expressing who I am, but maybe it was also a response to so much of the interpretation that had to do with the nonfunctioning sink and the epidemic and myself as a gay man. I think I felt a need to turn that around and to not have a gay artist represented as a nonfunctioning utilitarian object, but one functioning beautifully, almost in excess.”3

After the Dia exhibition, Gober continued to make individual objects as he had before, but the anxiety of their presence did not diminish. Sculptures of a lounge chair and enormous tissue and lard boxes gutted by bronze conduit pipes, a Brobdingnagian stick of butter occupying an equivalently extravagant piece of wax paper that measures out gigantic tablespoons all generated strange adventures in scale and psychological perception. Male/female torsos, which earlier in the decade were hermaphroditic wax torsos tossed into right-angled corners, began turning up in laundry baskets and milk crates—not as horrific back-alley discoveries, but as strangely commodified inevitables. A standard child’s nursery-school chair placed over a drain accommodates a larger-than-life box of tissues to create a portrait of the psychologically freighted all-American child sitting on a world of repressed anxiety.

As the last century drew to a close, Gober created another work of shattering power (now on permanent display at the Schaulager in Basel, Switzerland). The installation was created for Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art and resolves itself around a larger-than-life-size concrete statue of the Virgin Mary standing atop a sewer drain. Below the drain lies a limpid pool of water filled with sea plants and outsize coins all inscribed with Gober’s birth year. The Madonna’s womb is penetrated by a large bronze conduit. Behind her, in the distance (visible through the conduit), is a domestically scaled wooden staircase down which torrents of water rush, producing a sound that, if experienced in one’s home, would spell disaster. At the bottom of the steps, the water gathers and then gushes into the blackness of a storm drain. Off to the right and left of the Madonna are two silk-lined suitcases lying open on the floor. Their interiors are also drains in which one can glimpse sparkling tidal pools and the legs of a man holding a diapered infant over the water. The work is apocalyptic in its complex merger of rapture and serenity. In that complexity lies the profound seductiveness of Gober’s art, which looks unblinkingly at life as a grand, occasionally grinding reality that is, by turns, harrowingly ordinary and breathtakingly transcendent.

  1. Quoted in Richard Flood, Robert Gober: Sculpture + Drawing, exh. cat. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1999), 127.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Ibid., 21.

Flood, Richard. “Robert Gober.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center