Rotterdam, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen; Bern, Kunsthalle, Robert Gober, May - October 1990, p. 33, illustrated in color and p. 79, illustrated
Many artists today take as their point of departure the ongoing negotiation of the status of the object as first discussed by Marcel Duchamp. Andy Warhol’s enterprise was certainly fueled by Duchamp’s irreverence towards the sanctity of the original Image (and the concomitant Signification of its matrices of meanings). Jeff Koons, likewise, has engaged directly with Duchamp’s Ready-Mades, adding a cooler veneer of presentational polish to this Duchampian dialect. However, it is Robert Gober’s work which, perhaps more than any other artist, has fully embraced the Duchampian questions surrounding the Object, Image and Index. Like Duchamp, Robert Gober’s art is one that plays with the variety of meanings associated with a discourse concerned with boundaries. These limits are confronted and manipulated by the artist in a number of intriguing and intelligent ways. He tackles the limitations of the object itself, by extension illuminating and reviewing his own praxis. He takes issue with the easy demarcation between figuration and abstraction and, of course, embraces the human body not as a homogenous entity, but rather as a series of fragments, both present and absent, that glorifies an open-ended concept of the body and of being.
This curious and challenging enterprise manifests itself in a number of objects that essentially display the absence of presence and vice versa. Gober’s first comprehensive series of objects, his “sinks”, created between 1984 and 1986, are unashamedly anthropomorphous. As the artist noted, these are objects, which have to be completed by the body of the viewer, just like his “playpens” and “beds”. The “sinks” thus become simulacra not of the human being, but of human existence. They embrace a collective consciousness, rather than express an individual weltanschauung. This immersion of the human body into an inanimate form is most clearly exemplified in his early Slides of A Changing Painting (1982-83, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis). Here a variety of already ambiguous torsos slowly shift, through changing slides, from readably human forms into other non-body forms such as water pipes or corners of rooms, and back again. This early work reveals how easily differing areas of Gober’s visual vocabulary blend into each other. Thus, when one is presented with two isolated plaster urinals or one dislocated booted wax leg, one is already aware that these charged objects contain a slippery stream of Signification above and beyond their merely material reality.
Two Urinals from 1986 poetically displays many of these concerns between absence and presence. Certainly evoking (if not quoting) Duchamp’s Urinal (1917), the present work also engages with the dynamics of gender and sexuality. Both the urinals evoke the female genital form (Duchamp himself referred to this with his original Urinal), and yet, of course, these are objects to be used exclusively by men. The masculine is thus merged with the feminine. Ironically, this fusion is achieved in a work that draws heavily on its juxtaposition. Just as Felix Gonzalez-Torres juxtaposed two clocks to signify the perfect loving couple (their identical time indicating their unity as a couple, as well as their identical gender), so too do Gober’s urinals indicate a union. Given their male Signification, clearly defined by their utilitarian role, one can see these two objects representing another homosexual loving couple. Samuel Beckett’s Platonic dialogues, executed by existential characters that serve to (in)form one another, such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) or Vladimir and Estragon (Waiting for Godot) provide another fitting comparison. One becomes the other via a number of discourses which attempt to achieve a sense of Self or Identity for each protagonist. Only in juxtaposition do these two urinals become one, just as only in juxtaposition do we realize that Vladimir is ultimately Estragon and that these characters are reflective of a wider summary of Everyman.
Gober began making sculptures of body parts in 1989 and they have become his most celebrated body of work. These sculptural body parts, such as ‘butts’, ‘legs’ and ‘torsos’, continue the simultaneity of presence and absence first evinced in the ‘sinks’ and ‘urinals’. By displaying a dislocated foot, isolated on the floor and coming off the wall, Gober, again, points to the absence of the whole body. This physical disconnect lends the work an ambivalence that is eerie at the very least: one finds it difficult to approach them intellectually as objects given the sets of associations and understanding one brings to such a foot. Even though the image is highly charged, it remains almost undefined. Untitled Leg becomes what Theodora Vischer calls “… [a ] site that express[es] both loss but also renewal, as a starting point for a gaze that transforms our images of bodies and human beings … In shifting the representation of objects as simulacra of the body towards the representation of the body itself, the conflict between presence and absence is dramatically intensified.” (Theodora Vischer, “Emblems of Transition” in Exh. Cat., Basel, Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Robert Gober, 1995, p. 50). Again, connections to Duchamp resound, but there are other tributaries of thought that provide rewarding context for this series of works. One can think about Untitled Leg as the continuation of the Surrealist credo, particularly as practiced by someone like Hans Bellmer whose contemplation of the figure embraced the trinity of object, subject and abject. It is with this series of Legs that Gober most powerfully displays his concern with Identity. How can one establish the homogeneity of Self, both physically and psychologically, through the isolated depiction of a mere leg, foot, torso or set of breasts?
The following two works are outstanding examples by one of America’s most distinguished artists working today. They powerfully display his deep investigation into codes of existence through the presence and absence of the human being, set against the background of the politics of sexuality and gender– an issue that continues to fascinate the artist, and which was most recently celebrated in his critically acclaimed solo exhibition at the Matthew Marks Gallery, New York in March 2005.
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