PRINT December 2007

Linda Norden

SINCE OPENING IN 2003, Schaulager in Basel has come to specialize in what might be described as gestalt retrospectives—highly intelligent monographic shows that reenact an artist’s practice more than provide conventional chronological reconstructions of an artist’s work. Two years ago, Jeff Wall’s cool conceptualism unfolded here in almost mathematical sets, a single gallery (and then sequence of galleries) proposing a succession of potentially disparate photo setups as a larger formal and sociological hypothesis. In 2006, Francis Alÿs’s performative relationship to artmaking benefited from a case-study presentation, in which a single long-term project was exhibited in its myriad manifestations. Even last year’s installation of Tacita Dean’s heavily film-based oeuvre underscored the intensely interior intellectual reverberations of her work over time, with the seemingly endless array of semi-enclosed dark viewing rooms her practice required (an irritation in situ) obtaining a surprisingly powerful, implosive lag effect.

But “Robert Gober: Work 1976–2007,” a meticulously tended-to installation at Schaulager this year, exceeded even those exceptional surveys. Strictly as an exhibition, it was a near-perfect exercise: beautiful, instructive, revelatory in places, and deeply affecting. At once theatrical and conceptually orchestrated, the show unfolded contrapuntally and over time, as the artist—working with Schaulager director Theodora Vischer—jettisoned chronological, thematic, and stylistic retrospective modes to restage his own storied development, creating new connections and contexts for his work. The lexical nature of Gober’s iconography, its repetitions and recombinations, lends itself to this kind of timebased, almost musically composed curating, as do the varied spaces and sight lines of Schaulager. The enigmatic, overscale aspect of his sculptures both commands attention from afar, holding the huge space visually, and intimates something between cinematic set and scene of the crime; the works weigh in like so many words and phrases from an ongoing story, transforming the institution’s dramatic but insistently neutral spaces into a kind of memory palace. It is hard to imagine an oeuvre better served by the variable vistas, looped circulation, precipitous interior elevations, and equally lofty museological goals of this über-archive.

The exhibition’s official, and conceptual, starting point was Slides of a Changing Painting, 1982–83, shown in the first entry-level gallery on an elegant rear-projection screen. By photographing a single board that he painted and repainted over the course of an entire year, and then editing the pictures into a gentle, sequenced dissolve, Gober here created a kinetic work that introduced his visual vocabulary and the gradual transformations within it. “For some reason I always thought that I was a painter,” Gober explains in one of many illuminating commentaries included in the accompanying catalogue. “But I could never make a successful painting. . . . What I eventually realized was that I was interested in imagery, not in actually making a painting.” In fact, the calculated morphing of one image into another that the changing slides allow—a pool, say, into a drain and then a coffee cup and then a sore—also serves to imbue each image with unexpected symbolic power. The significance of Gober’s recognition was made crystal clear when viewers encountered his exploded dollhouse-size church, Prayers Are Answered, 1980–81, which seems as much picture as sculpture: Its interior contains treelike pillars awash in water, all made of white plaster, and the walls are hung with colorful paintings depicting quotidian scenes from the artist’s life (“putting socks on, having a drink, a smoggy puddle and riding the subway”). Together, these two early works seem to prefigure everything in his practice: the everyday, the home, and the church as subject and setting; metamorphosis as aesthetic; and an instinct for what might best be described as the suburban unconscious.

The retrospective included several of Gober’s sculptural series, objects that are repetitive yet never identical, presenting in turn a slow evolution of forms—sinks and drains and cribs and body parts—appearing and reappearing in room after room. Seen in this context, the subtle variations from sink to sink—his first series, begun in 1983—seemed to be internally driven, psychological and surreal; the works are minimalist only in outward appearance. Gober devoted more than three years to his sinks before, as the artist explains it, he “literally put the image to rest”: In Two Partially Buried Sinks and Partially Buried Sink, both 1986–87, the object emerges from the ground like a tombstone. In the interim, he varied their configuration and distorted their scale; he streamlined their contours and rid them of anything functional, of anything so cathartic as running water. (Only when the sinks reappeared on the forested walls of his 1992 installation at Dia Center for the Arts in New York did they feature faucets and water.) At first, the artist thought of his sinks as portraits “of a sink that I knew or had lived with,” and their constrained expressivity reinforces this impression. The sinks never become anthropomorphic, but they do gain individuality. The three galleries devoted to the sinks at Schaulager were among the most beautiful in the show, spare and haunting. As in their original installations, they hovered or hugged the walls, rotated and inverted; Gober seemed to have calibrated their placement to the inch. The lighting changed almost imperceptibly from gallery to gallery, to surprisingly palpable effect.

For all their imagistic quality, however, one of the most compelling aspects of Gober’s sculptural objects, beginning with his “dollhouses,” is their confounding facticity—not just the sinks, but the cribs and drains and armchairs and footstools; the uncanny bags and boxes of cat litter, rat poison, and enormous farina; the clammy, hairy legs, socked and shoed or candlelit like the branch of a Christmas tree; even the weirdly illustrational wallpaper patterns. They all but scream their specificity, in part because they are so conspicuously handmade, and in part because Gober’s selective exaggerations, aggressively narrative juxtapositions, and ever-precise placements are inescapably driven by something far stronger than mere aesthetic fancy. The obdurate “thereness” of his mute furnishings leads us to read them as clues to a very particular past, whether or not they do in fact refer to the artist’s personal history. That they incite both intrigue and foreboding makes them unexpectedly, almost exotically, political. More like Warhol than his Pictures-generation contemporaries, Gober makes his personal engagement public, successfully turning private talisman into popular symbol.

GOBER MATURED AS AN ARTIST in the America of the 1980s, a decade of rampant consumption sideswiped by a traumatic epidemic and a downsizing economy; its population, polarized by the relentlessly upbeat and blinkered nostalgia of the Reagan administration on the one hand and an academic culture of complaint on the other, was subject to newly virulent, latent prejudices incited by the specter of AIDS. (The ’80s might have been the last time the optimistic mythology of America had any purchase on the collective imagination.) In her essay for the Schaulager catalogue, Elisabeth Sussman quotes a 1989 article that Gober wrote for Parkett. The passage is revealing as it underlines how, for a gay man, the artist’s twin obsessions—the home and the church—always contain thematic undercurrents of exclusion and prejudice. Describing how homosexuals have had to organize and rely on one another in the face of AIDS, Gober writes, “Should gay men succeed in moving through the discrimination that has nurtured this pandemic, their achievement will be remarkable—because for the most part they will have succeeded without the support of family and religion, the two mainstays of succor and strength for previously oppressed minorities.”

Amid a generation equally committed to private pleasure and public outrage, Gober found a way, it seemed, to make work that conveyed emotional complexity and vulnerability, as well as what Vischer calls “old themes”: childhood, sexuality, religion, discrimination, power. His response to this decade differs, too, from that of many of his closest artistic contemporaries, who engaged appropriation not just as an aesthetic strategy but as a political act—an extension, one might say, of a position Jasper Johns once called “American”: “not mine but taken.” Explaining why his oversize Urinal of 1984 never inspired a series, for example, Gober suggests that that Orwellian year was also “the beginning of ‘appropriation’ and all that people saw in the work was its reference to Duchamp. It was also too loaded for me in its sexual and social connotations . . . although later on I would embrace those same qualities. The relative blankness and heightened formal qualities of the sink gave me much more room to explore.”

Political outrage—sexual and social—enters Gober’s objects obliquely, as if unleashed through the act of making anew objects others preferred merely to reposition. He grasps the power to be had in making fake, as in artificial, something all too inescapably real, and in simply shining a light in dark corners; he trades on the recognition that the scariest scary lurks in the typically domestic daily repressions and denials constructed in the interest of comfort and embodied in the overlooked details. His meticulously crafted, lumpen totems are cautionary, alluding to dark and hidden actions, past and possibly to come, and they recast nostalgia as a symptom of trauma—like the severed, misplaced ear in the opening stretches of David Lynch’s 1986 film Blue Velvet. Gober’s deceptively banal objects are more awkward and dumb than Lynch’s, if equally creepy, but their stubborn presence intimates unresolved circumstances and forces further thought. His strain of suburban surrealism is streamlined and minimal, but like Lynch’s, his work is vividly pictorial and speaks of dreams gone bad. The artist shares the sense that, as the filmmaker has said, “the home is a place where things can go wrong.”

Indeed, the first artwork I saw as I entered Schaulager was a bed. Although situated on the lower, second level of the show, Gober’s Untitled, 1986, could be viewed from the open mezzanine entrance. Even looking down at it from that considerable height, one sensed the blank bed’s assertive tautness, just-so control, and conflicted vulnerability. A slightly oversize twin, or single, it is the first of the few beds Gober made (the others were not included in this exhibition), the first series he began when he finished the sinks. Gober’s beds, however, are not indelibly linked to his artistic profile. One reason for this may be that he made only three before going “back in time,” in the artist’s words, to build cribs and playpens. Like most of his sculptural objects, the bed is a deceptively simple piece of furniture, painstakingly constructed by the artist. Unlike his other handmade everyday objects, however, its closeness to the “real” thing complicates its sculptural identity; simple wooden beds, unlike sinks, are often handbuilt, and there is little by way of obvious exaggeration or distortion or ambiguous decoration to nudge the work from furniture to art.

Untitled was included in the first show Gober organized, in 1986 at the Cable Gallery in New York. As he notes in the Schaulager catalogue, “The bed was also the sculpture that first got me interested in curating exhibitions. As my work was beginning to be placed within large group shows, I was increasingly frustrated by contexts that I felt weren’t rich or elusive enough.” Gober’s comment is similar to the complaints voiced in the ’60s by artists such as Sol LeWitt about the critical texts addressing their work; whereas LeWitt and his colleagues turned to writing criticism, Gober became a curator in an attempt to enlarge the context and impact of his sculptural practice. Indeed, Gober describes himself as a curator as much as a maker of objects. The sheer volume of the Schaulager interior allowed the inclusion not only of individual sculptures and installations but of whole exhibitions reconstructed and positioned as autonomous artworks, including shows featuring other artists. The grandest of Gober’s tableaux is on permanent display at the museum: Untitled, 1995–97, featuring his cast-concrete, culvert-pierced Virgin, water-flooded stairs, and brightly gurgling pools of sea flora. But the retrospective also included simulations of past shows held at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; Paula Cooper Gallery, New York; and Dia; and revised versions of those at Paris’s Jeu de Paume, the 2001 Venice Biennale, Matthew Marks Gallery in New York, and Houston’s Menil Collection (all of them only slightly scaled down here).

Gober is adept as well at manipulating more purely architectural sight lines, an often underestimated curatorial skill. His reinstallation here of the Art Nouveau–ish, faux-forest, artificially sun-dappled wallpaper originally made for the Jeu de Paume in 1991 is a case in point. By covering the vast, multistoried far wall of the lower level, he managed to make visitors look up as well as down—and at Schaulager, to look up is to take full measure of the space and of the quantity of archival storage its high interior walls conceal, and to exploit the full impact of the building’s dematerializing flood of skylit sun. The contrast between Gober’s compellingly illusionistic “light in the forest” and the blinding daylight from above perfectly recapitulated the degree of artificiality that makes the artist’s earliest entries so eerily affecting. The giant cigar that accompanied the original installation was unfortunately absent at Schaulager; an elegant tobacco-covered wooden ellipse, banded in brass paper, it signaled a shift into a more abstract frame of reference, appropriate for a historic European museum. It is one of Gober’s funniest art-historical conceits: In one stroke, he sends up Magritte, Freud, Duchamp, Minimalism, and naturalism. His cigar is not just a cigar; it’s a felled log, a sculpture, and a slyly dandified phallic form linked to the musically “scored” wax buttocks (also not at Schaulager) that hung on the wall as if wrapped around a pair of painted tree trunks.

In general, however, and certainly for most of the ’80s and ’90s, Gober has turned less to art-historical “pinging” (essential to the art of close colleagues such as Sherrie Levine) than to another trope of that time: identity. His work continues to elicit intense, personal response and to invite a range of reactions that depend on the viewer’s gender, sexual preference, race, and religion. For example, the reinstalled 1989 Paula Cooper show still feels shocking: One room is wallpapered with repeating imagery of a hanged black man and a sleeping white man, another with chalklike sketches of male and female genitalia; drains are sunk into the walls, and an empty wedding dress, a bag of doughnuts, and boxes of rat poison stand silently. Writing at the time, artist and critic Gregg Bordowitz applauded Gober’s “redress of the presupposition of a universal heterosexual viewer”; on view a year later, in 1990, at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, the wallpaper provoked outrage among the museum’s African-American guards.

The three most recent reinstalled exhibitions at Schaulager reveal how Gober’s themes have expanded in the past few years. His remade objects now take on a broader subject—America—rather than an isolated American household and the gay man who grew up there. Gober’s exhibition at the United States pavilion in the 2001 Venice Biennale was described by its curators as “a sort of archaeology of a democratic society’s collective unconscious” and by the artist as “vignettes of violence and banality and garbage and hope.” (One element, also displayed in Basel, was a terra-cotta-and-oak toilet plunger—which recalls the 1997 brutalization of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima by New York City police officers—standing on a bronze platform cast from a piece of Styrofoam.) Gober’s 2005 show at Matthew Marks made explicit reference to Catholic symbolism and mimicked the internal structure of a cathedral, laying out highly irreverent objects in reverent order as it decried the fallout of 9/11. In Basel, the artist split up and reconfigured the works, diffusing their sacred reliquary status and putting them in dialogue with earlier sculptures, and with the space of the museum itself.

The Venice and New York shows were familiar to me and many others, but the compressed Menil exhibition from 2005, originally called “Robert Gober: The Meat Wagon,” was a revelation, even in its reduced reconfiguration. Culling works from that institution’s holdings—sketches of body parts by Delacroix, a damaged eighteenth-century Crucifix without Cross, a wax head of Abraham Lincoln, a “letter action” to President Nixon from the Guerrilla Art Action Group, a slashed Lucio Fontana—and combining them with his own sculptures (newspaper stacks, an empty closet, a fireplace with childrens’ legs), Gober recounted myriad histories of violence and racism but also expressed religious hope and a deep belief in art itself. His strategy here is an inversion of the stuttering, widely spaced outbursts of his Venice installation; nested within the archive of Schaulager, the room felt like a treasure chest in a sea of sculpture—or, perhaps, a diary hidden within a house. The distillation underlined how Gober’s multipart projects as well as exhibitions of other artists and artifacts are central to his practice. In his remade sculptural objects he grasped the power to be had in making over something all too easily overlooked; in his curating, he trades on the rethinking appropriation demands by simply re-presenting the things themselves, while maintaining the importance of narrative and juxtaposition in his work. Mining the museum much as he has explored the home and the church, he focuses the attention of his willingly captive audience. If the museum is our cathedral, where we vest our faith and look for meaning, then perhaps Gober is the priest, awaiting our confession.

Linda Norden is a writer and curator based in Boston.