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Robert Gober: The Heart Is Not A Metaphor at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is a collaborative project between Robert Gober; Ann Temkin, chief curator of painting and sculpture; and Paulina Pobocha, assistant curator. The exhibition, at its heart, reflects Gober’s curatorial practice. This role is not a new one for the artist. In 2009, Gober organized Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield, with Cynthia Burlingham, at the Hammer Museum of Art; and for the 2012 Whitney Biennial, he curated a selection of Forrest Bess’s work. Indeed, as MoMA Director Glenn Lowry notes in the foreword to the accompanying exhibition catalogue, curation has been central to Gober’s art: “On this occasion Gober’s own body of work is the subject, and he has brought to the project his extraordinary ability to tell a story through the images, objects, and spaces that he creates” (9). This artist-curated approach produces an unforgettable installation, including re-creations of Gober’s most significant exhibitions of the 1980s and 1990s, as well as some organizational weaknesses.
Encompassing fifteen galleries, The Heart Is Not a Metaphor has a sprawling layout that is difficult to navigate for those unfamiliar with Gober’s work, even for a seasoned museumgoer. Reconstructing exhibitions at the Daniel Weinberg Gallery, Paula Cooper Gallery, Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, Dia Center for the Arts, and two at Matthew Marks Gallery is an ambitious undertaking. Gober’s early exhibitions at Daniel Weinberg and Paula Cooper attracted attention to the artist’s anthropomorphic sinks, which employ broad edges and centrally placed empty faucet holes to evoke a male torso, and they introduced his use of wallpaper to create immersive, culturally critical installations. In his subsequent 1991 exhibition at Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris, Gober paired beeswax sculptures cast from legs and buttocks with Forest, a hand-printed silkscreen wallpaper depicting an autumnal scene. The woodland imagery reappeared in the 1992 Dia Center installation alongside the sinks, now functional with flowing water. An exhibition Gober curated at Matthew Marks in 1999 featured a tapestry by Anni Albers; a gruesome video by Robert Beck, in which his father saws off the antlers of a deer head; and Cady Noland’s Stand-In for a Stand-In (1999). Gober paired these selections with two Joan Semmel self-portraits and black-and-white photographs by Nancy Shaver. The final installation is Gober’s response to the events of 9/11, exhibited at Matthew Marks in 2005. Arranging these reinstallations chronologically and in separate galleries, Gober places them in context, illustrating the evolution of themes over the course of his career. The galleries that are not re-creations of previous exhibitions, however, do not conform to a cohesive chronological or thematic structure, and there is little signage to elucidate the relationship of works in these spaces. The complex presentation, combining galleries that are reconstructions with new installations, required further explanation in the introductory wall text.
Gober has been toying with objects since 1976 when he studied under sculptor Haim Steinbach, then an instructor at Middlebury College in Vermont. Gober’s sculptures rely on commonplace imagery: furniture, newspapers, suitcases, ice skates, contorted playpens, sinks, a dog bed, a bag of donuts, etc. He is also inspired by Surrealism, exemplified by the uncanniness of his beeswax sculptures of disembodied legs with protruding candles, or his oversized cigar. His Surrealist sensibility, strongly present but difficult to pin down, has led him to evade categorization. At the beginning of his career in New York, Gober’s work was loosely connected to appropriation and neoconceptual artists such as Ashley Bickerton, Sarah Charlesworth, Peter Halley, Jenny Holzer, Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, Matt Mullican, Tim Rollins and K.O.S., Peter Schuyff, Cindy Sherman, and Philip Taaffe. Similar to these artists’ work, Gober’s oeuvre contains an object quality that plays on the tension between abstract forms and the everyday, asking if the former can exist as a series of visual and sculptural signs amid recognizable subject matter.
Gober’s art is enigmatically invested with real-life issues: sexuality, racism, domesticity, gender roles, spirituality, and political activism. The faucet-less sinks, which drew attention when they were exhibited at Daniel Weinberg Gallery in 1985, employ the spare forms of Minimalist sculpture, and have been interpreted as a commentary on the AIDS epidemic and a resulting obsession with cleanliness. Historically, sinks and water fountains as symbols of segregation during the Civil Rights Movement come to mind. The imagery also has personal significance for Gober and can be traced to a specific domestic object, the farm sink in his childhood home in Yalesville, Connecticut. Installed by Gober’s father as part of a basement workshop where he spent time after work, the sink was a cast-iron antique with a handcrafted quality, which Gober’s sculpture embraces.
Gober more explicitly explored connections between domesticity, sexuality, and race in his 1989 exhibition at Paula Cooper. He covered one gallery in patterned wallpaper entitled Hanging Man/Sleeping Man, which pairs a depiction of a gruesome lynching with an image of a bare-chested white man sleeping peacefully on a fluffy pillow. The empty white wedding dress at the center of the room represents, as Gober explains in a wall label at MoMA, “the supposed white purity that often triggered or justified the violence depicted on the walls.” He further notes, “It is also a reminder of the rights denied to gay Americans.” The adjacent gallery, also part of the original Paula Cooper exhibition, is covered in wallpaper of male and female genitalia, pairing images of pleasure and excess. Pewter drains puncture the walls, and at the center of the room is a sculpture of a bag of sugary and greasy donuts—the contents are both enticing and repellent.
Progressing further into the exhibition, viewers begin to hear the sound of running water used in the Dia Center and 2005 Matthew Marks exhibitions. In the installation from the Dia Center, the formerly faucet-less sinks gush with water. Here it appears as a life-generating force, fertilizing the lush, green forest painted on the walls behind and diverting attention from more sinister elements, including boxes of rat poison under the sink, bars on the high windows, and stacks of photolithographed newspapers with headlines about water pollution, deaths, and discrimination against homosexuals. The noise, intimately familiar yet unexpected in this context, is full of contradictory connotations: the sound of spring rain, a stream running through a forest, the drawing of a bath, a broken pipe or a leaky faucet, rising flood waters, the ominous River Styx.
The sound of the water becomes more foreboding in the Matthew Marks installation, among the most effective 9/11 memorials. Gober creates a chapel structure with bronze plinths painted to mimic Styrofoam and arranged as pews with a large central aisle. At the altar hangs a crucifix with a decapitated Christ whose nipples spout streams of water that bore corrosive holes into the floor. In the place of side chapels are two partially ajar doors, which, in a reference to Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés (1946–66), viewers peek through in order to view the legs of a male or female figure partially submerged in running water. The walls of the chapel are decorated with photolithographs of newspapers from September 12, 2011, overlaid with pastel drawings of lovers embracing. The juxtaposition of drawings, photographs of the burning towers, and advertisements for cellphones is a powerful reminder of the failure of technology in the face of disaster.
The intimate and personal themes in Gober’s work, highlighted by images of lovers embracing and views of vulnerable naked bodies in the bathtub, are echoed in the exhibition catalogue. Rather than a collection of thematic essays, the catalogue features a response to the artist’s life and work by writer and theater critic Hilton Als. Accompanying Als’s essay is a thorough chronology of Gober’s career, with reminiscences by Gober, contemporary artists, curators, and colleagues. In the catalogue, as in the exhibition, it is Gober’s voice that frequently guides the viewer. Emphasizing exploration, surprise, and discovery, Gober does not always specify where we are going, but impels us to follow.
Curator, Art Student’s League
was the McKinnon Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Chrysler Museum of Art, from 2011–15. She passed away on May 15, 2015, shortly after this review was completed.