New York

View of “Robert Gober: The Heart Is Not a Metaphor,” 2014–15. Foreground: Untitled, 1990. Background: Forest, 1991. Photo: Thomas Griesel.

View of “Robert Gober: The Heart Is Not a Metaphor,” 2014–15. Foreground: Untitled, 1990. Background: Forest, 1991. Photo: Thomas Griesel.

Robert Gober

View of “Robert Gober: The Heart Is Not a Metaphor,” 2014–15. Foreground: Untitled, 1990. Background: Forest, 1991. Photo: Thomas Griesel.

FROM THE BEGINNING, the art of Robert Gober was distinctive, as if it had emerged full-blown from his forehead; and, in fact, an early work, Slides of a Changing Painting, 1982–83, a slide show of eighty-nine photographs of a single painting altered again and again, has served as a source for many pieces ever since. (The template of this painting, the torso, is a leitmotif of his work as a whole.) Right away, Gober announced metamorphosis as a central concern—metamorphosis not only from image to image but also from medium to medium, above all from the pictorial to the sculptural and the spatial. This double transfer, in which a trace of the initial image or imagistic mode persists in the final object or installation, is one key to the fundamental ambiguity of this art. It is an ambiguity that mixes illusion and reality in subtle ways that often elicit strong feelings of curiosity and ambivalence.

Gober is best known for his inexplicable objects: unplumbed sinks, unusable cribs, male legs planted with candles or drilled with drains. Although they appear to be porcelain or flesh, they are in fact plaster or beeswax, and this substitution moves them away from the politics of the readymade, with its dialogue with the commodity and its aesthetics of indifference, toward the poetics of the found object,with its evocation of the body and its potential for psychic charge (as is the case with the best Surrealist trouvailles). In the catalogue to the current retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Gober speaks of “jumping sculptural traditions”; here the jump also involves conventional forms such as cast figures on the one hand and applied forms such as theater props on the other. (As a student at Middlebury College in Vermont, Gober was involved in dramatic productions.) Often this jump drops his objects into an ontological no-man’s-land, stranded as they are between such categories as replica, relic, and refuse.

It is mostly the illusionism of his materials that estranges his things, but this superimposition of the real and the imaginary contributes to other confusions Gober puts in play between the utilitarian and the aesthetic (as with his chairs and beds), the public and the private (as with his urinals and sinks), the lived and the dreamed (as with his crazy cribs and hairy candles). No less important to the oddity of his objects is the homey handcraft that goes into them. Among other qualities, this separates Gober from fellow masters of the facsimile such as Jeff Koons and Charles Ray, who make a fetish of glossy production value; his hands-on, can-do American pragmatism (as his father built the family home, so Gober builds his miniature houses) is distinctive. Indeed, his objects are personally painstaking, and just as pain is often evoked at the level of subject matter (all the body parts), caring and tending are often intimated at the level of process, where work sometimes takes on the resonance of working through. There is damage and melancholy in this art, as is often remarked, but there is also reparation and mourning, and sometimes, as with the legs planted with candles or the buttocks printed with music, there are all of these things at once.

Reparation, not redemption: Redemption is too final a state for Gober, who is ever committed to the shape-shifting of natural things, human bodies, selves, communities, life. (In any case, the Catholic Church, central to his childhood, was hardly redemptive for Gober, or for countless others, during the darkest years of the AIDS epidemic,a formative period in his life and work.) It is in relation to this metamorphic quality that I read his chosen title for the MoMA show, “The Heart Is Not a Metaphor,” which he derived from the 1979 Elizabeth Hardwick novel Sleepless Nights: “Alas, the heart is not a metaphor—or not only a metaphor.” Repositioned by Gober, this statement echoes the proclamation of feminist appropriators Louise Lawler and Sherrie Levine from a few years later: “A Picture Is No Substitute for Anything,” which stood as a caution against representation as a form of displacement, of speaking for others. Yet the “not” in Hardwick and Gober is more ambiguous, not a full negation. How can it be? The heart is an ineluctable metaphor, and though, like a rose, it is also simply a red thing, it is never only literal, just as it is never only figurative. In Gober, too, the real and the symbolic interrupt one another, as when actual hair disturbs allegorical candles. Perhaps his art proceeds less by metaphor than by simile, a matter of likenesses that suggest a logic (or illogic) of transformation, whereby a torso becomes a sink and a sink becomes a grave marker.

Sometimes this shape-shifting is Ovidian, as when flesh turns into bark in a change that can be read as traumatic or transcendent or both. More often the metamorphosis is Surrealist, as when Gober divides a torso between male and female breasts à la Magritte. Bataille once scoffed at this Bretonian aesthetic as a mere “play of transpositions”; he preferred his desire fixed, like that of the fetishist attached to his shoe. And there are times when Gober seems to agree. These are times when one is damaged, as so many were during the AIDS crisis, or abjected, as countless gay people and people of color are every day—times, in short, when metaphor is impossible, when nothing can serve as a substitute, when your heart is broken, when no one can take your place, when you die.

Gober stages his complicated play between metaphorical transposition and its ethical refusal most dramatically in his installations, and the MoMA show includes several in whole or part. Gober has called them “natural history dioramas about contemporary human beings,” and like dioramas they are scenes where, again, illusion and reality mix—in our world yet not of it, actual and oneiric at once. In this regard, it hardly matters that the installations have shrunk at MoMA, for scalar disorientation is part of the psychological theater to begin with. Indeed, rather than site-specific, they are psyche-specific, particular to Gober yet available to us. (Available does not always mean legible.) This is so because, even as they emerge from his memories and fantasies, they treat of objects and spaces known to others, habitats of home, school, church, and so on. They also tap into phenomenological symbols that are general, symbols, as dear to Bachelard as to Gober, such as fire and water; this quality can lend his model of a burned house or a tidal pool the force of a folktale. In such storytelling, as Benjamin once remarked, we often warm our souls over a dead body. That is true here too, though with the uncanny twist that the dead body might somehow be our own as well.

Crucially, Gober also engages history in these installations, weaving traces of his life, his community, and his nation into enigmatic narratives about persistent racism, antigay bigotry, and terroristic wars on terror. Thus, in an acclaimed installation from 1989, we confront a sleeping white man and a lynched black man on the same wallpaper, as well as a bridal gown and bags of cat litter in the same space—so many figures tensed between repose and murder, purity and pollution. In another celebrated diorama from 1992, we are surrounded by wallpaper depicting a lush wood mottled with sunlight and punctuated by sinks in which water actually flows, but this transcendentalist landscape is contradicted by bundles of newspapers and packages of rat poison, and its barred windows suggest that it is also a prison. And in a chilling installation from 2005, we revisit 9/11 as if sleepwalking in a chapel that has become a morgue. The politics of these pieces is never polemical; the agitation builds from within us, with a sobriety that allows for both mournful reflections and activist impulses.

All is not perfect in this art. There are moments when Gober is too gothic for my taste (a fireplace with stacked legs? cheese with long hair?), and recent pieces that enlarge, distort, or combine different objects do not always work for me (Surrealism is too close here). Overseen by MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, Ann Temkin, the exhibition is immaculate, however. It begins and ends with two paintings from 1975: the first, of a suburban home (Hope Hill Road); the final, untitled, of a view from an interior (perhaps a college dorm room or studio). Thus announced is the subject matter of childhood, family, an artistic life to come, and a charged relation to religion (signaled by the first object we see, X Pipe Playpen, 2013–14, a crib cut through with a cross made of pipes). Gober and Temkin intersperse other early pieces throughout the show in a way that reminds us of the persistence of such concerns. This adds to the odd feeling of an art that always anticipates itself, as does the placement, in some galleries, of a piece that leads on to the next project; as a result, our passage through the exhibition is like a procession. This should come as no surprise: Like Temkin, Gober is a gifted curator, acclaimed for his presentations of Charles Burchfield (at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in 2009–10) and Forrest Bess (in New York at the 2012 Whitney Biennial), among others, and here too he includes works by other artists—Anni Albers, Joan Semmel, Robert Beck, Nancy Shaver, and Cady Noland—whose work speaks to different aspects of his own.

The show is beautifully orchestrated, then, and each space is calculated to the nth degree, but that might also be a problem. It seems contradictory for an art that is so committed to enigma to be so resolved in presentation: The work invites the viewer in but then leaves him or her little room to move. Gober resists explication in order to keep things open—this is a longtime stance on the part of the artist that one must respect—yet this can also forestall interpretation, or at least run the risk of a reticence that might seem withholding. He offers bits of stories that we can only take to be his, but he is also oddly absent or at least difficult to locate. In short, this art is intimate to the point of being private, yet that privacy is sometimes opaque; perhaps, given that it treats material that is not always conscious, it is not fully accessible to Gober either. None of this takes away from the work; it likely adds to its force.

The resistance to interpretation extends to the exhibition catalogue, despite a beautiful essay by Hilton Als and an innovative chronology-cum-biography that includes many voices (old friends, assistants, fellow artists). Here I am biased, but a retrospective at MoMA is surely an occasion to develop the critical literature on an artist that positions him or her in relation to art both past and present. Again, Gober is distinctive, yet that distinction is differential, bound up with the work of other artists, which he develops and redirects. There is, for example, a text to be written on the replica, placing Gober in relation not only to Koons and Ray but also to his friend Vija Celmins, who, like Gober, uses the replica less to question originality than to explore similarity. Or a text on the souvenir, positioning Gober in dialogue with Jasper Johns, who also treats traces of the body as palimpsests of memory. Or a text on the part object as first posed in late Duchamp (Étant donnés is a diorama about contemporary human beings, too), picked up by Johns, and elaborated by Gober. (Gober opens up the hermetic reading of Duchamp undertaken by Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg, and Johns surveyed in the 2012 exhibition “Dancing Around the Bride” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.) Or a text on sexuality in art from Surrealism to feminism, clarifying how Gober effectively queers the devices others developed to probe gender and difference. And so on. A sign of the excellence of an exhibition is its capacity to prompt new lines of inquiry; this one should do just that.

Hal Foster is a 2014–15 fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.