Coco Chanel may seem an unlikely muse for Robert Gober: The Heart Is Not a Metaphor, the first American retrospective of the New York-based artist, which opens at MOMA in October. But we can imagine at least one Chanel aphorism suiting exhibition organizer Ann Temkin, the museum’s chief curator of painting and sculpture.
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Chanel wisely counseled that a woman should remove one accessory before walking out the door. For Temkin, who is tasked with orchestrating Gober’s enigmatic sculptures and room-sized installations exploring themes of domesticity, childhood, religion, sex, and death, restraint guides her approach to the 130-odd works that span the artist’s career, from student days to the present.
“In planning the rooms, every time we took one thing out, it would be like, ‘Now the room’s really great,’ ” Temkin says. “So if we put nothing in this show, it’ll be the best show of all.”
Temkin’s quip has its truths: When installed well, a Gober holds a room. But many of his deceptively simple works, especially the signature sinks, the neo-minimalist children’s playpens, and his eerie, lifelike wax legs (complete with human hair), pose challenges to museums. The problem is how to ensure that things like body parts jutting out of walls avoid taking on the aspect of a surrealist joke. Hey ma, don’t trip on that dude’s leg!
“The work is not really the two feet by three feet that it occupies,” Temkin says. “It’s that, plus this psychic force that it requires around it. If that psychic force isn’t afforded by the available space, the piece can risk silliness, or decorativeness. So one of the big concerns is to leave a lot of space, literally, for the viewer.”
Those concerns mean that MOMA galleries that normally house up to 20 paintings will contain just a few Gobers each. There should be plenty of room for his painstakingly crafted sculptures, many of which look like readymades but aren’t, plus his more recent multi-sensory room-sized installations. MOMA will also recreate several of his other large-scale works, including a 1992 Dia Art Foundation exhibition featuring wallpaper printed with a dense forest and the artist’s signature sinks and prison bars.
Since coming to prominence in the mid 1980s, Gober, 59, has enjoyed exhibitions across the United States and in Europe. He represented the U.S. in the 2001 Venice Biennale and was the subject of a major retrospective in Switzerland in 2007. But this is his first hometown show.
Though Gober started off studying to be a painter, and his MOMA show will include his touchstone work, Slides of a Changing Painting, from 1982 to ’83, he ultimately found his voice in three dimensions.
Gober and his generation — including such sculptors as Charles Ray, who started off minimalist but turned to hyper-realism — mark an important shift in the history of the art form. They returned to sculpture a sense of human experience — for Gober, that meant references to childhood, religion, and homosexuality — that the Minimalists before him, like Richard Serra, Carl Andre and Donald Judd, had eschewed.
“For Gober, coming of age in the early ’80s, the potential of sculpture for—it’s a bad pun, it’s unintended—carving new territory was rich,” Temkin says. “For a couple of generations at that point, abstraction had really dominated sculpture. So there was a whole lot of room to delve into this territory that once again could include imagery, whether it be things or bodies.
“Today we take for granted that sculpture can be something that is representational or figurative and can have a narrative,” the curator continues. “But 30 or 40 years ago, that would have been quite unthinkable. If it wasn’t Judd or Andre or Serra, if the terms weren’t dictated by them, it just wasn’t modern.”
Though Gober seemed to reject the ideology of that earlier generation, he was well aware of his predecessors. Many Gober works—such as his variations on children’s playpens, which are clean wooden objects that might pass for Sol LeWitts—can be read through a minimalist prism. They just happen to also include a frisson of childhood drama—of vulnerability, imprisonment, and irrationality. Gober’s is an angsty minimalism.
The artist’s images of fragmented bodies, birth, and androgynous figures, which might give a Freudian pause, are deeply indebted to the feminist artists of the 1970s and ’80s. Gober was well versed in the work of Yvonne Rainer, Jenny Holzer, and Louise Lawler, all of whom inserted autobiography and social commentary into their artwork.
In recent decades, Gober has produced ever more ambitious and encompassing installations. Many are total sensory experiences, and several include an unusual element: running water.
One example is an untitled work that debuted in a 5,000-square-foot space at Chelsea’s Matthew Marks Gallery in the spring of 2005 and is now part of MOMA’s collection. It includes a bronze crucifix with water pouring from Christ’s nipples and two figures soaking in bathtubs with running water. The uncommon liquid prerequisite has led Temkin and her team to hang the show on the second floor instead of the museum’s sixth-story special exhibition spaces.
“On the second floor, if there is some kind of disaster, the only thing it’ll ruin underneath is the lobby,” Temkin says of her show’s location. “You don’t want any plumbing problems to happen over a Picasso.”