PRINT February 1990


IN THE CREATION of his Urinal,1984, Robert Gober referred more explicitly to Marcel Duchamp’s readymades (specifically Fountain, 1917) than any other artist now creating sculpture derived from the everyday object. He also departed radically from the originating impulses of this historical model. While John Armleder, Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach, and others carry on the spirit of Duchamp’s intellectual wisecrack (while exploring issues of commodification, the doubtfulness of discernment, and the irrelevance of the art/kitsch dichotomy, all addressed through a compliant stance toward the marketplace), Gober bathes his urinals, sinks, beds, doors, dog baskets, armchairs, and other furnishings in murkier, more psychologically provocative waters, transforming his roster of everyday objects into an iconography of fundamental human experience. Urinal confronts one as sculpture, as esthetic form. Manufactured out of wire, steel, plaster, and semigloss enamel paint, it is sensually anthropomorphic, like a teardrop. What makes it compelling is in part its seductive shape, and its hand-finished sheen, in comparison to the seediness of its functional model. This lovingly handcrafted, unusable artwork calls up all of the fetishistic implications of the unique object that Duchamp so deftly avoided.

Gober’s quizzical relationship to the readymade, his ambivalent attitude to a historical model, is typical of much work termed post-Modern or appropriative. Of course the use of a urinal as an art object today has meanings quite different from those of seventy years ago. For one thing, it is not shocking; it has a well-known precedent. The only shock inherent in Gober’s piece lies in his bald appropriation of such a historic gesture while reversing the intentions of its originator—while adding to the form precisely what Duchamp negated in choosing it. Gober’s Duchampianism, then, is more of a semblance or posture than the reflection of a tradition or cultural continuity. His context is the cross-pollinated art of the ’80s. In Urinal, Gober combines two historically antithetical modes of working. This kind of crossover of intention recalls certain work produced during moments of cultural interchange, such as that of the European Surrealists’ exile in the United States during World War II, a period that helped to move American art out of its sociologically determined sense of the real and into a broader field of vision. The unresolved, conflicting sensibilities within Gober’s objects raise questions as to the limits of what can be visualized in art. His project, rather like that of the Symbolists, is an examination of how psychologically and metaphorically loaded a seemingly common image can possibly become, of the extent to which one can associatively expand its iconographic readings.

Some critics have discussed the matter of “beauty” in relation to the readymade. Though Duchamp himself described these works as “nonretinal,” the selection of a particular common product from the myriad available almost inevitably raises the issue of its inherent qualities of form and surface. But the readymade’s concerns are more aptly seen as the nonesthetic but crucial properties of timing and context, along with the parodying of the ideas of esthetic decision-making and of the primacy of vision. Thus the readymade needs to be seen to be understood less than any other gesture of the historical avant-garde. Into this dispassionate gesture Gober injects human drama: where many of Duchamp’s works dealt with sexuality through an approach that seems rather oblique, titillating yet veiled, Gober’s art is infused with a sexual undercurrent. If Urinal murmuringly suggests a pre-Modern, idealizing mode of representational sculpture, it also confronts the viewer with his or her own gender in an entirely contemporary way. The female viewer may feel confrontationally excluded from involvement with this object, an exclusively masculine piece of furniture, more common in public men’s rooms than in private homes. The male viewer, on the other hand, is led precisely to whatever associations he has with those public rooms—and perhaps farther back, to toilet training, a Freudian staple of character formation, and to his first memories of urinating alongside other men. In this sense, I see Urinal as a homosexual object, tending to form the intimate artwork/viewer bond with men only. By the way it functions as art, it comes to signify the socially anathematized male homosexual unit. Almost a part of the wall in its whiteness, Urinal is a pristine little memory stripped of function, stain, smell, situation, and pink disinfectant crystal. It exists to evoke.

Gober produces his signature sinks in several varieties. The standard model—made of painted plaster on a wood-and-wire armature, and conceived as a wall piece—is a large work sink in an outdated style. Two Basinless Sinks, 1986, is just that—all backsplash. Three Parts of an X, 1985, features a backsplash turned flight of plastic fancy in the form of a lopsided T with an inverted basin protruding from one of its arms. The piece begs to be read in terms of established issues in 20th-century sculpture: it addresses the familiar problem of retaining an object’s texture as metaphor while abstracting its shape so as to give it an other-than-representational role. In Three Parts of an X and related works, abstraction (the form) and metaphor (the image) simultaneously pollute one another. But in some ways this weakens the piece, which loses both the metaphoric wholeness of Gober’s simpler sinks and the rewards of rigorous abstraction. Already a hybrid of the handmade and the readymade, it is also a hybrid of the impulse toward “pure” vision and the impulse toward associative meaning. This, I would argue, is an overload of Gober’s combinatory process. The more sinklike sinks are the more intriguing ones, because they tempt the viewer less into the realm of formalism, functioning more immediately as referential images.

Yet these works themselves introduce another art-historical system: because the changes from sink to sink are subtle and slight, they suggest a veiled reference to serial Minimalism. These are reduced, repeated shapes, and their variance depends on the modification of a single template rather than on a true reinvention of form. In The Ascending Sink, 1985, two sinks climb the wall, one above the other, in what seems a reference to the stacked boxes of Donald Judd. Where Ashley Bickerton and Tony Tasset, for example, parody and satirize Minimalism, Gober makes the Minimalist modus operandi his own. As with the readymade, his relationship to this preexisting style is not so much critical as revisionist: he borrows the form but not the content of the artistic archetype and fills it with evocations of what it originally existed to purge—representation, function, the everyday, the domestic, implicitly the bodily. Gober tends to treat art history as if it were a succession of empty gestures in need of an infusion of humanism.

Legend has it that Praxiteles’ statue of Aphrodite was so lifelike that a man tried to make love to it. One may have the impulse to lie down on a Gober bed, or to urinate in a Gober urinal, but with their pristine, fragile presence, and in the obvious care that went into their making, these objects are as divorced from functional objects as Praxiteles’ statue was from living flesh. (In any case, the sinks have no faucets; the drains would void into the room.) The common ground between functional property and intellectual property (the terrain originally mapped out by the readymade) is really the least compelling element of Gober’s work. His objects are made from memory rather than by a casting process or some other means of exactly duplicating an existing model; thus the sink pieces, for example, are better described as sculptures that look like sinks than as actual representations.

This helps to free up their metaphoric potential. The sink is an emblem of cleanliness, or of the effort to be clean. That prosaic association can easily be extended into a religious symbolism of purification, perhaps of atonement, a suggestion reinforced by the sculptures’ whiteness, their absence of color, with its accompanying implications of innocence, of purity (surely a debunked aspiration in our age), or of deathliness. The latter reference works on both the personal and the social scale. Like the urinal, the sink is an agent of disappearance: where does the waste go? Implicit in these works, I suggest, is a poetic correlative for our society’s habits of consumption, at the expense of the environment in which we live. But because of both objects’ relation to the body—their necessarily intimate contiguity to the body, and the drain’s suggestion of the organic passing of water —the reference to waste extends to individual death and sickness. Two Partially Buried Sinks, 1987, is explicitly morbid: a play on Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed, 1970, it comprises two of Gober’s backsplashes stuck like tombstones into a box of sod. The empty holes where faucets might go stare out like the wide eyes of two people buried up to their necks. Tying together the themes of cleanliness and health, personal and social, innocence, bodiliness, and mortality, the sinks are resonant images during the AIDS crisis.

The body as figured by the objects it uses and possesses is a crucial presence in Gober’s art, which is neither mystical nor spiritual but corporeal: dealing with the needs, both physical and emotional, of the body, and with the means by which the body finds or fails to find its ease. Gober’s early work, in fact, is figural, a series of plaster statues crouching as if in anguish. This crouching form is picked up later in a series of doors begun in 1988. As with the sinks, some of these pieces are more doorlike than others, and those that depart from the basic form are collapsed and bent, doubled and tripled up on themselves, often low to the floor, as though to open them one would have to mirror their contortions in one’s own body. The entrance to the house of Gober is a door folded like an accordion. One wonders what spaces these partitions divide, what they shut out and what they keep in, what dimension they open on, a dimension inconceivable to the logic of vision. They suggest a pathway into the psychological underbelly of the American home.

The simultaneity of the banal and the esthetic, and the rupture of the apparently familiar, are tactics that recall Surrealism, another hybrid presence in Gober’s work. His Plywood, 1987, a large sheet of plywood that leans against the wall, reminds one of construction debris left behind by a careless carpenter, but is actually painstakingly handmade out of thin sheets of fir laminated together by the artist; distilling the uncompromising simplicity of Minimalism and the discourse on the socially determined status of the art object that arises out of the readymade, this piece of congealed labor also forces us into a realm of the absurd, like that of Surrealism, or even, subversively, of Dada. To make by hand an object made far more easily by machine, only to end up with something indistinguishable from the mass-produced original (and no more handsome), seems ridiculous, futile. Yet we accept it as art.

One could say of Gober’s mimetic objects what Susan Sontag remarks of the photograph, the most explicitly mimetic form of cultural production: “What is surreal is the distance imposed, and bridged, by the photograph: the social distance and the distance in time.”1 The surreal lies in the conjunction of actually disjunct places, times, and contexts: what the photograph depicts and the situation in which it is viewed. Similarly, Gober’s objects, made from memory, evoke some past place and time, and often a sense of loss. The objects he chooses are usually old-fashioned in style. Like the Surrealists, he seems to have a Freudian interest in the nature of the self: the bed and crib sculptures, for example, address the dream, and the formative influence of the experiences of childhood. As André Breton wrote, echoing Freud, “I have always been amazed at the way an ordinary observer lends so much more credence and attaches so much more importance to waking events than to those occurring in dreams.”2

Gober’s spartan bed pieces of 1986–88, dressed in immaculate linens, are the narrow bunks of childhood, or at least of sleeping alone. They are not capacious enough to suggest the creature comforts of adulthood, or the relationships of adult sexuality. Yet the presence of the urinals and sinks in Gober’s oeuvre reinforces an interpretation of the beds as symbolic of other basic human experiences besides childhood, sleep, and the subconscious release of the dream: birth, death, sex, sickness. Their unadorned functionality reminds one of the hospital, and their ascetism is monkish, or soldierly, or simply underprivileged—at any rate, removed from the fullness of life. The beds show existence as solitary; one lives and dies alone. Childhood is no safe haven. Pitched Crib, 1987 , a crib made rhomboidal by the slant applied to each usually vertical bar, suggests an infancy of distortion and whim, an early stifling of human potential. The tilted crib looks about to topple over, recalling the precipice of disaster on which the infant lies in the classic (and quite horrifying) lullaby “Rocka-bye Baby.”

Yet another site of sleep appears in the rattan dog beds, which extend Gober’s interest in domesticity to include the family pet. A version from 1987 features a cushion hand-painted with deer and a hunter, as though to make explicit the theme of the dream—for what else would a dog dream of? Homey to the point of kitsch, the work is also subliminally violent. The cushion of a second Dog Bed, from 1988, is adorned with a naively hand-painted pattern of two repeated images: a white youth sleeps on his stomach; a black youth or man, it is hard to tell, hangs lynched from a tree. Does the first young man dream the second, and if so, is this a nightmare or a racist desire? Or is the dream somehow erotic? Or a complacent acceptance of the simultaneous realities of privilege and senseless punishment? Is the dreamer the sheltered white artist? (In any event, the dog is comfortable.) As with the sink pieces, Gober pinpoints no specific concern, creates no narrative, but opens up his work to general associative thought. What seems consistently asked of the viewer, however, is a disturbing reflection on various kinds of opposing but simultaneous states: the different poles of social inequity, the real and the surreal, the deathly and the domestic. Formally, as a combine of painting and sculpture, Dog Bed departs from the sinks, urinals, cribs, and beds, and the image Gober chose to paint, of a lynching, is also a departure, a venture from an esoteric kind of psychological evocation into the more accessible terrain of the social. But Dog Bed reflects not so much a radical break as an expansion of the artist’s work. In the end, it continues the same basic concerns of his earlier objects.

Dog Bed’s innocent appearance makes it an unlikely site for a reflection on injustice and death. But almost all of Gober’s work is essentially morbid. We see this in a good deal of contemporary art—in Steinbach’s generic black and white, 1987, for example, which uses a group of white ceramic ghosts as an image, paradoxically funny and vigorous, of a kind of cultural death overtaking our increasingly mediated, increasingly simulated world. Gober’s work connects more with the body and with the psyche, and with the suffering one endures and witnesses while still alive. His objects communicate a sense not only of the end of life but of the passage from birth toward that end. In Dog Bed, his attitude becomes more activist. Where earlier works had reified the melancholy quality of the inevitable, the hanged man and the dreamer introduce the idea of unjust death—of life tragically cut short, through violence or through indifference.

These same images also appeared in Gober’s installation last fall at the Paula Cooper Gallery. Entering from the street, one was confronted by the bare studs. and plasterboard of the open back of a divider wall. Turning the corner into the space defined by this construction, one found a three-walled room papered in the pattern from Dog Bed. Standing against the wall at irregular intervals were painted-plaster facsimiles of bags of kitty litter. In the center of the room was a free-standing but empty white wedding dress in a style of ’50s no-frills chic—a dress that a woman of Gober’s mother’s age might have worn as a bride. Gober had made this dress himself. A second, adjoining space was papered in a different wallpaper, a black print featuring rough sketches of male and female genitalia and body parts, in a naive, first-year-of-art-school style. Pewter sink drains—which, in the context of the wallpaper, were easily read as sexual puns—were set into the wall just above waist height. On a pedestal in the center of the room was a bag of doughnuts—baked by Gober, soaked in Rhoplex, and contained in a handmade paper bag. Again, given the surrounding wall, these became an enshrined but hackneyed sexual pun.

Earlier installations of Gober’s—the leaning door and empty doorframe set around Meg Webster’s Moss Bed at the Boston ICA in 1988, for example—deemphasized narrative or linguistic readings to create dreamlike disjunctions of the domestic. Bringing the home into the display room, they twisted it, infused it with the surreal. The more ambitious recent project suggests a more concrete level of legibility, though its contrasting and conflicting elements, its syntactical multiplicity, still favor freedom of interpretation over a pointed moral. This installation was a kind of symphony of Gober’s concerns. The bared back of the divider wall, for example, immediately confronted one with overt artifice, as if one were being shown what lay behind some Hollywood back-lot facade. Perhaps overly solipsistic, the wall remained a consistent development of the artist’s earlier gestures, and it was a proper introduction to the rest of the installation, for it made the blatantly manufactured environment, whether parlor, living room, or den, into a sort of stage set. The melancholy undertone of Gober’s discreet domestic objects always suggests that they have absorbed the pain of domestic and psychological violence. Here they became simultaneously players and props in a domestic drama, inanimate yet psychologically packed. And that drama was innately unreal.

The kitty-litter bags (which, displayed against the wallpaper, discordantly conflated Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes and cow wallpaper) related not only to the dog beds, through their frumpy domesticity, but also, in their involvement with sanitation and waste, to the sinks and urinals. The bags were predominantly white, and the ground of the wallpaper was white; the space was a white case for the white wedding dress. Thus the dress’ traditional symbology of purity, or of virginity, was reinforced, at the same time that it was juxtaposed with the wallpaper pattern of the white man dreaming and the black man dying. The wedding dress signifies the beginning of the traditional family—the home life starting with the marriage, and maintained and nurtured by the wife. But this American dream seemed like an empty promise, or a placebo, when set against the social ills suggested by the wallpaper, or, for that matter, against the blunt sexuality suggested in the dark, almost pornographic adjoining room. The wedding dress also seemed to demand a Freudian reading, evoking the relationship between mother and son and the suggestion of Oedipal drama. Gober’s domestic scene, furnished by a few of the accoutrements of daily life and wallpapered with guilt and fear, was overseen by a vanished body, the circumscribed mistress of the small artificial universe she was allowed to rule.

The second room of the installation, I believe, was an attempt to communicate a polymorphous vision of sexuality. (Gober’s work is often sexual, though it is never erotic.) If Urinal had seemed limited to a connotation of male coupling, the doughnuts and drains, made libidinal by their context, were less gender-specific. Indeed, both men’s and women’s bodies appeared in the wallpaper, so the ambiguity of the objects as sexual puns could be taken as an attempt to encompass some of sexuality’s variousness. My own feeling, however, is that they ended up paralleling social exclusion along the lines of gender. When it is successful, politically or at least socially aware work that deals with the body often stems from a consideration of the artist’s own physicality. (Cindy Sherman’s and David Wojnarowicz’s art are two, quite different examples of such a practice.) To hypothesize about the lives of others, or to deal with them out of some sense of duty rather than a quickened sympathy, often ends in involuntary insensitivity. Whether anal or vaginal, the doughnuts and drains were associated in Gober’s installation with the waste and soil evoked by the kitty litter; and the presiding human figure in this uneasy constellation was embodied (or, rather, disembodied) in the woman’s wedding dress. Furthermore, the male artist’s representation of the female body involves a host of problems (domination, voyeurism) that his representation of the male body evades. Gober does not seem to have perceived these problems very clearly.

It is in the nature of his modes of production that Gober’s most concise address of gender lies, and in fact this aspect of his work is developing as one of its most interesting components. Gober paints, bakes, sews, builds. His homemade doughnuts and dress were created with the same type of irreverence toward the traditional status of the male creator that Duchamp displayed when he transformed himself into Rrose Sélavy. Thus the artist’s activity becomes a polymorphous project. To the hybrid historical sensibilities in Gober’s work must be added the hybrid sex role. He has been intimating a kind of gender schizophrenia all along: his work posits him as the other, the conundrum, the man/woman forced into exile and exclusion. Banished from the domestic ideal, he is weaned in a rickety crib, forced to sleep alone, to wash in an upside-down sink, to paper his walls in guilt, and finally to lie in a grave marked by a blank white tombstone.

Matthew Weinstein is an artist and writer who lives in New York. He contributes reviews regularly to Artforum.



1. Susan Sontag, On Photography, New York: Dell Publishing Co., Delta Books, 1973, p. 58.

2. André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, paperback, 1972, p. 11.