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Exhibition at MoMA brings together Robert Gober's iconic sculptures and installations
Robert Gober (American, born 1954), Untitled Leg. 1989 – 1990. Beeswax, cotton, wood, leather, human hair. 11 3/8 x 7 3/4 x 20” (28.9 x 19.7 x 50.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the Dannheisser Foundation© 2014 Robert Gober.

NEW YORK, NY.- Chronicling a 40-year career, Robert Gober: The Heart Is Not a Metaphor is the first large-scale survey of Robert Gober’s (American, b. 1954) work to take place in the United States. The exhibition is on view from October 4, 2014 to January 18, 2015, and features approximately 130 works across several mediums, including individual sculptures, immersive sculptural environments, and a distinctive selection of drawings and prints. Robert Gober: The Heart Is Not a Metaphor is organized by Ann Temkin, The Marie- Josée and Henry Kravis Chief Curator, and Paulina Pobocha, Assistant Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture, MoMA, working in close collaboration with the artist.

Early on, Gober’s sculptures declared themselves an indispensable part of the landscape of late-twentieth century art; since then they have continued to evolve while remaining tightly bound to the principles outlined by the artist almost four decades ago. Gober places narrative at the center of his endeavor, embedding themes of sexuality, religion, and politics into work drawn from everyday life. Spare in its use of images and motifs while protean in its capacity to generate meaning, Gober’s work is an art of contradictions: intimate yet assertive, straightforward yet enigmatic. Taking imagery familiar to anyone—doors, sinks, legs—Gober dislocates, alters, and estranges what we think we know. Although a first glance might suggest otherwise, all of Gober’s objects are entirely handmade, by the artist and by collaborators with the necessary expertise.

The earliest works in the exhibition date from the mid-to-late 1970s when Gober was largely working in two dimensions. A painting of the house he grew up in Connecticut hangs at the entrance to the galleries. The first room of the exhibition offers an introduction to Gober’s career, as told through five works: a sculpture of a paint can, a man’s leg, and a closet, as well as a drawing and a small print.

Between 1983 and 1986, Gober created more than 50 sculptures of sinks and scores of related drawings. Based on real sinks, including one in the artist’s childhood home, Gober built them from wood, plaster, and wire lath, and finished them with multiple coats of paint to mimic the appearance of enamel. But, crucially, they lack faucets and plumbing. The sinks’ appearance coincided with the early years of the AIDS epidemic, and their uselessness spoke to the impossibility of cleansing oneself. The sculptures on view in the second gallery of the exhibition were featured in Gober’s first show of sinks, held at the Daniel Weinberg Gallery, Los Angeles, in 1985.

Gober’s early and straightforward sink sculptures gave way in 1985 to a group of distorted sinks whose bodies are variably stretched, bent, multiplied, and divided. The evolution of form registers in the works’ titles: self-evident descriptions become increasingly expressive (e.g. The Sink Inside of Me). By the mid-1980s, the artist’s preoccupation with domestic objects expanded to include sculptures of furniture such as beds and playpens, as well as an armchair, on view in the third gallery. Between 1986 and 1987, Gober created Two-Partially Buried Sinks, among the last sink sculptures of the decade. This work is positioned outside the walls of the Museum on a scaffold, and can be viewed through the gallery’s window.

In 1989 at the Paula Cooper Gallery, Gober exhibited his first room-sized installations. Each is framed by wallpapers: a pattern pairing a sleeping white man and a lynched black man in one, and line drawings of male and female genitalia in the other, both of which are on view in the following galleries. These backdrops powerfully inflect the sculptures contained within: a freestanding bridal gown and handpainted plaster cat litter bags in the first room and a bag of donuts with cast-pewter drains inset into the walls in the second. With characteristic concision, Gober sets off a complex swirl of questions about the unease surrounding issues to everyday life in America.

Gober made Slides of a Changing Painting between 1982 and 1983. During this year, he painted on a small Masonite board and photographed the imagery as it changed over time. Eventually, he had accumulated more than 1,000 slides, which he edited down and organized into a slide projection that he showed in 1984. After the exhibition, Gober put the slides away. When he revisited the project around 1990, he realized that he had unknowingly employed many of the same images in his subsequent sculptures. Slides of a Changing Painting has continued to be generative; it provides a nearly complete index of Gober’s visual themes and vocabulary. The work is on view in a gallery centrally located within the exhibition.

The human figure was absent from Gober’s sculptural repertoire until 1989, when he made his first sculpture of a man’s leg, a breakthrough that ushered in many related works. Single legs wearing trousers and shoes and truncated at mid-shin were followed by pairs of legs that Gober left whole to the waist. He showed these surreal sculptures in a 1991 exhibition in Paris, recreated in the following gallery. Three pairs of legs, augmented by candles, drains, and a musical score, are positioned around the perimeter of a room wallpapered with a kaleidoscopic landscape of a beech forest in autumn. In the center of the gallery sits a human-sized cigar composed of tobacco sheafs purchased from a Pennsylvania supplier. To learn how to preserve this organic material as it aged, Gober consulted an expert at the American Museum of Natural History. Seeking out specialists’ advice on complicated projects is a hallmark of the artist’s craft- based practice.

The works on view in the following gallery were made by artists Anni Albers, Robert Beck, Cady Noland, and Joan Semmel; photographs by Nancy Shaver hang in the adjoining space. Gober brought these objects together for the first time in an exhibition he organized at the Matthew Marks Gallery, New York in 1999. Gober has been curating exhibitions since the mid- 1980s, most recently focusing on monographic presentations of the works by American artists Charles Burchfield and Forrest Bess. The contemporary artists included in this gallery share with Gober daring approaches to the representation of sexuality, violence, and American culture.

The immersive installation Gober conceived for a 1992 exhibition at the Dia Center for the Arts, New York is on view nearby. All three rooms of that original presentation are reconstructed: an antechamber, a central gallery, and a dark cul-de-sac. The main space features a hand-painted mural, executed in a paint-by-number method by scenic painters, depicting a forest inspired by the landscape of Long Island’s North Fork. Barred prison windows, through which a blue sky is visible, interrupt the verdant panorama. Placed throughout the gallery are hand-painted plaster sculptures of boxes of rat bait and bundles of newspapers—actually photolithographic facsimiles of newspapers featuring real and invented content. After a six-year absence from Gober’s work, sinks reappeared in the installation at Dia, water now running freely from their faucets.

Following the introduction of mens’ legs into his sculptural vocabulary, Gober cast the leg of a young boy and used that mold as the basis for several subsequent works, including a fireplace where legs take the place of firewood, a vision invoking childhood nightmares and uncensored fairy tales. Also on view is a sculpture of a suitcase that occupies space below ground as well as above. Its lid opens to reveal a sewer grate and a brick shaft that leads to a subterranean tidal pool complete with seaweed, mussel shells, and starfish. Visible through the depths of the water, amid the marine life, are the legs of a man and baby, one holding the other in a manner suggestive of baptism. While primarily a sculptor, Gober has worked across a range of media throughout his career including drawing and printmaking. Drawings sit the closest to his work in three dimensions; most of his sculptures and installations are preceded by preparatory drawings. A selection of Gober’s works on paper is also on view in this gallery.

The final installation included in the exhibition was made in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, and results from Gober’s desire to create a space of refuge and reflection. The overall structure evokes the interior of a church: a central aisle separating rows of pews leads to an altar-like area flanked by two chapels. From the nipples of a headless Christ, regenerative “living water” flows into a large hole jackhammered into the floor. In the pastel drawings hanging on the side walls, the power of human embrace confronts the harrowing news contained within the photolithographed pages of the September 12, 2001, issue of The New York Times. In this installation, the overt references to Catholicism explore the vitality of such symbolism in the wake of contemporary tragedy.

Over the past decade, Gober’s sculptures have become increasingly complex, both technically and iconographically. The artist sometimes uses casts of existing sculptures and combines them to create hybrid objects, as in the conjunction of a chest, a stool, and a twisted network of children’s legs. Elsewhere, Gober pushes recognizable imagery into unpredictable terrain: a sink’s backsplash morphs into gnarled planks of wood interwoven with casts of fragmented arms. New motifs, such as a surrealistically melting rifle, also have entered the artist’s visual universe. The strangeness of these new sculptures is presaged by Prayers Are Answered (1980-81), an early work loosely based on a Catholic church on 7th Street and Avenue B in the East Village. Rather than the traditional religious scenes to be found in paintings lining the walls, Gober has furnished the church with murals depicting the harshness of daily life in the city.

The exhibition's final gallery presents works made as early as 1979 and as recently as this past spring. Images of domestic objects and architecture and themes of childhood and the body reverberates across the decades. The dollhouse placed on the floor is one of several that Gober designed and built during his first years in New York City, as one way of earning a living. The sculpture and installations that would follow may be considered life-size realizations of the imaginative potential contained within these small structures.

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