Lot 20
  • 20

ROBERT GOBER | The Split-up Conflicted Sink

4,500,000 - 6,500,000 USD
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  • Robert Gober
  • The Split-up Conflicted Sink
  • signed, titled, and dated 1985 on the reverse
  • plaster, wood, steel, wire lath, and semi-gloss enamel paint
  • 81 by 81 1/2 by 25 in. 205.7 by 207 by 63.5 cm.


Paula Cooper Gallery, New York 
Gregory Clark, New York (acquired from the above in 1986)
Private Collection (acquired in 1991)
Sotheby's New York, November 13, 1991, Lot 79 (consigned by the above)
Private Collection (acquired from the above)
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1999


New York, Paula Cooper Gallery, Changing Sculpture Exhibition, November 1985 - January 1986
New York, Paula Cooper Gallery, Changing Group Exhibition, June 1986
Tokyo, Touko Museum of Contemporary Art, Strange Abstraction: Robert Gober, Cady Noland, Philip Taaffe, Christopher Wool, June - August 1991, p. 22, no. 2, illustrated in color
Malmö, Rooseum Center for Contemporary Art; and Stockholm, Liljevalchs Konsthall, Oskuldens Århundrade - Den Vita Monokromens Historia/Century of Innocence - The History of the White Monochrome, September 2000 - March 2001, pp. 52-53, illustrated
Oslo, Astrup Fearnley Museet for Moderne Kunst, Realitetsfantasier - postmodernistisk kunst fra Astrup Fearnley Samlingen/Post-modern Art from the Astrup Fearnley Collection, May - September 2002
Ishoj, ARKEN Museum for Moderne Kunst, Pletskud: Værker fra Astrup Fearnley Samlingen/Bull's Eye: Works from the Astrup Fearnley Collection, June - August 2003
Reykjavik, National Gallery of Iceland, Close Up - Contemporary American Art in the Astrup Fearnley Collection, May 2004
Monaco, Grimaldi Forum, New York, New York. Fifty Years of Art, Architecture, Cinema, Performance, Photography and Video, July - September 2006, p. 467, no. 484, illustrated in color
São Paulo, Bienal São Paulo, American Contemporary Art from the Astrup Fearnley Collection, September - December 2011


Jerry Saltz, Beyond Boundaries, New York, 1986, p. 46, illustrated in color
Tricia Collins and Richard Milazzo, "Robert Gober: The Subliminal Function of Sinks," Kunstforum International, June/August 1986, p. 320 (text)
Exh. Cat., Malmö, Rooseum, Art at the End of the Social, 1988, p. 62 (text)
Exh. Cat., Rotterdam, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen (and travelling), Robert Gober, 1990, p. 60, illustrated
Eric De Bruyn, "Robert Gober: Split-up and Conflicted," Forum International, May-June 1990, p. 45
Exh. Cat., Madrid, Museo Nacional de Arte Reina Sofía (and travelling), Robert Gober, 1991, p. 17 (text) (Paris), p. 81 (text) (Paris), and p. 20 (text) (Madrid) 
Betsy Sussler, ed., Speak Art! The Best of BOMB Magazine's Interviews with Artists, New York, 1997, p. 91, illustrated
Exh. Cat., Minneapolis, Walker Art Center (and travelling), Robert Gober: Sculpture + Drawing, 1999, p. 11 (text)
Sam Hunter, John Jacobus, and Daniel Wheeler, Modern Art, New York, 2000, p. 410, no. 793, illustrated
Anna Maria Guasch, El arte último del siglo XX. Del posminimalismo a lo multicultural, Madrid, 2000, p. 511 (text)
Alexander Braun, Robert Gober - Werke von 1976 bis heute, Amerikanische Kunst der Gegenwart im Spannungsfeld einer vernetzten Bildrealitat, Nuremberg, 2003, pp. 90-91 
Pepe Karmel, "Who You Are and Where You Come From: Robert Gober and René Magritte," in Stephanie Barron and Michel Draguet, eds., Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images, Los Angeles, 2006, p. 169 (text)
Linda Nochlin, Bathers, Bodies, Beauty: The Visceral Eye, Cambridge, 2006, p. 149 (text)
Exh. Cat., Basel, Schaulager Basel, Robert Gober. Work 1979-2007, 2007, pp. 114-115, no. S 1985.18, illustrated in color

Catalogue Note

Irresistibly alluring yet acutely unsettling, The Split-up Conflicted Sink from 1984 is an iconic example of the seminal body of sink sculptures which, in their interrogation of the body, sexuality, politics, and religion, serve as the ultimate embodiment of the singular and profound oeuvre of Robert Gober. Executed between 1983 and 1986, Gober’s sink sculptures comprise the artist’s first significant body of work and endure as amongst his most iconic, eloquently encapsulating the artist’s radical interdisciplinary practice. While the sink sculptures are in fact all a permutation on the old-fashioned, domestic sinks that populated his childhood, Gober’s realization of these relics lack the pipes, faucets, and drains that a sink needs to function as such, rendering them humorous and pitiful in their utter futility. In The Split-up Conflicted Sink, the sculpture’s real-life referent has become nearly unrecognizable, the washboard element comically elongated with a second superfluous washboard and basin element jutting out at a 90-degree angle. Surrealist in its ludicrous contortions and manipulation of the familiar object, The Split-up Conflicted Sink is a particularly evocative example from a limited suite of just six “slanted sink” sculptures in which the washboard element has been stretched out and mounted to the wall at a diagonal slope, with the basin elements situated uselessly at the end of slanted planes, such that any water would simply spill out; the five other "slanted sinks" reside in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the Goetz Collection in Munich, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and an esteemed private collection, making the present work incredibly rare to the market. The Split-up Conflicted Sink is exceptionally compelling as, through its title and composition, it directly evokes and embodies the psychological conflict and opposing dualities that define the artist’s practice; with its various elements split-up in eternal discord, the present sink is, through its very construction, “split-up” and “conflicted." Through its composition and accompanying title, Gober's monumental sink embodies an anthropomorphic quality that renders it ever more surreal. Gober’s sink sculptures symbolize the dialectical opposition of purification and bodily pollution, a duality that is especially pertinent for a gay male artist raised in the strict doctrine of the Catholic Church who later witnessed the ravaging effect of the AIDS pandemic in New York of the 1980s and 90s. As an artist and gay man working in New York City in the 1980s, Robert Gober witnessed and personally endured firsthand the devastation wrought by the HIV and AIDS crisis, especially during the early years in which the disease was poorly understood and its contamination stigmatized. One of a group of artists in downtown New York making work in response to the crisis, such as Félix González-Torres and Jim Hodges, these artists utilized vocabularies of Minimalism and Surrealism to create objects that defined a distinctly conceptual and emotionally resonant era in art history. In their quiet but staid nobility, Gober’s sink sculptures stand as a modern elegy to this immense loss and despair, and as a stoic and forceful visual metaphor to address notions of sanitation, health, stigmatization, and resilience. Stripped of its capacity to cleanse, the present sink offers no promise of purification; instead, its empty basins become repositories for filth and waste, a poignant and sadistic metaphor for the inability of those affected at the time to rid their bodies of this disease and the societal denunciation that it provoked. Within the context of Gober’s oeuvre, the symbolism of the sink recalls the ablutions of Catholic worship and the significance of water as a means of purification in religious ceremony; the unmistakable irony here of course being that the present sink offers no possibility of redemption or salvation. Raised in a devoutly Catholic household (as a child, Gober served as an altar boy at his Church), Gober has utilized and reinvented the symbolism of Catholicism throughout his artistic career to criticize the hypocrisies and inadequacies of our religious, political, and social institutions. Art historian Pepe Karmel writes that “Gober’s sinks evoke a profound ambiguity. On one hand, they function as an architecture of purification, a setting in which dirty things are made clean again. By the same token, however, they are places where dirt is collected.” (Pepe Karmel, "Who You Are and Where You Come From: Robert Gober and René Magritte," in Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images, 2006, p. 164) Reflecting on his experience at this time, Gober recalls: “It seemed that every other day someone I knew or someone that a friend of mine knew was getting severely sick, really fast, and most of them were gay men. Young men were dying all around me, from causes unknown, and the world seemed to be either in denial or revulsion. The government lied to the people and shrank from its duty. Families abandoned 'loved ones.' Even the church abdicated its responsibility to life. Gay men were left, more often than not, to take care of their own. It was a situation that is very hard to create in words. So when I am asked to look back and to 'explain' my sculptures of sinks, this situation reasserts itself. What do you do when you stand in front of a sink? You clean yourself. I seemed to be obsessed with making objects that embodied that broken promise.” (The artist quoted in Theodora Vischer, Exh. Cat., Basel, Schaulager Basel, Robert Gober: Sculptures and Installations, 1979-2007, 2007, p. 60)

Daunting in its commanding scale and unexpected contortion, and yet striking in its austere beauty and elegant fragility, The Split-up Conflicted Sink imbues the familiar with an unfamiliar weight, conjuring the ineffable quality of dreams or memories. Mounted low on the wall below the height of a normal sink, the present work sanctifies its environment as an eerily sacred yet unsettling space, inviting the viewer into a realm in which the objects of our everyday lives have been tampered with and made strange, imbued with a psychological and symbolic power. It is in the banality and familiarity of its referent that The Split-up Conflicted Sink compels such unease: Gober thwarts our expectations and confounds our presumed visual vocabulary, inciting an uncanny and disquieting juxtaposition between our expectations and our present reality. Elisabeth Sussman describes Gober’s sink sculptures as “a specific, recognizable thing, related deeply to everyday life, yet uncannily possessing something unknown, perhaps unexpected, that would appear somehow in the activity of making. To make things meant bringing them to the precipitous brink between the real and the strange.” (Elisabeth Sussman, “Robert Gober: Installation and Sculpture,” in Exh. Cat., Basel, Schaulager Basel, Robert Gober. Work 1979-2007, 2007, p. 19)

Stunning in the purity of its sleek contours and its theatrical austerity, The Split-up Conflicted Sink evokes both the stark reduction of minimalism and the vernacular of the Duchampian readymade. And yet, while eliciting an immediate association with Duchamp’s legendary readymade Fountain, Gober’s sink sculptures are in fact resolutely handmade, painstakingly constructed by hand unlike Duchamp’s prefabricated urinals. In their construction, Gober’s sinks are more closely aligned with the sculpture of Jasper Johns. While the plaster, wire, wood, and enamel construction of Gober’s sinks mimic the finish of their porcelain counterpart, they maintain a sensationally tactile allure in the hand-worked imperfections of their surface. Indeed, a close examination reveals traces of Gober’s labor-intensive process of production, the warmth of the plaster and wood countering the cool, stark indifference of porcelain, the unexpected human quality reinforcing Gober’s search for meaning in form, objects, and content. Without faucets, drains, and pipes, The Split-up Conflicted Sink itself evokes the anthropomorphic, the washboard a torso perhaps, and the two holes where the faucets would be resembling nipples or eyes. And yet, the present sculpture invokes the presence of the human body primarily through its silent, uncanny absence; a sink is really only a sink through its interaction and engagement with the person using it. As Elisabeth Sussman points out: “They are in fact sensuous, glowing, and tactile, combining the tactility of painting and ceramics, and they are completely unlike the works to which they might be compared: the hard industrially manufactured surfaces of either Duchamp’s urinal or of the abstracted forms sent out for fabrication by, say, Donald Judd… To get what Gober wanted meant making it, piece by piece, from the bottom up.” (Ibid., p. 19).

Broadly recognized as among the most important living American artists, Robert Gober’s widely influential oeuvre is distinguished by its conceptual rigor and a disquieting facility for probing the essential binaries of functionality and dysfunction, presence and absence, art and life. Gober’s sink sculptures possess a potential to both cleanse and pollute, sanctify and desecrate; their elegant forms and sober, clean contours simultaneously suggesting presence and absence. This liminality can be understood as an allusion to the universal human condition and, more intimately, as the artist’s own representation of a personal, deeply felt loss.