The Museum of Modern Art, New York
October 4, 2014 – January 18, 2015
What often gives the art of an old master emotional depth is the attachment of surprising symbolic meanings to seemingly banal artifacts. In a famous, marvelously suggestive essay on Robert Campin’s “Mérode Altarpiece”(1420 – 30), a triptych which is in the Cloisters Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Meyer Schapiro argued that this depiction of Joseph’s workshop carried an allegorical significance. Just as mousetraps trap mice, so the devil was trapped and thus vanquished by Christ. The activity of Joseph the carpenter thus anticipates the sacrifice of his divine son. “The different layers of meaning sustain each other,” Schapiro writes: “the mousetrap […] is at the same time, a rich condensation of symbols of the diabolical and the erotic and their repression; the trap is both a female object and the means of destroying sexual temptation.”
We are accustomed to think of modernism as essentially secular. When Marcel Duchamp presented ready-mades and in the 1960s when Donald Judd constructed sculptures, they were uninterested in religious allusions. Not the least of Robert Gober’s achievements is to radically revise these received ways of thinking in ways that have become legitimately influential. Raised Catholic, he came of age as an artist in the East Village in late 1970s. In 1980 – 81 he built “Prayers Are Answered,” a large model of a local church. Between 1983 and 1986 he made more than 50 sculptures of sinks, fixtures that lack faucets and plumbing—and related drawings. Then he made drains, playpens like “Slanted Playpen”(1987), and a bed. And some of his sinks contained running water. Starting in 1989, he introduced body parts—usually sculpted male legs coming out of the wall—into his sculptures. In response to 9/11 he made “Untitled” (2003 – 05), an installation that superimposes drawings of embracing lovers on photolithographed copies of New York Times headlines.
What could be more ordinary than a household sink, an artifact that is found in almost every contemporary household, even the most humble? And yet, if you think about it, these everyday fixtures are full of symbolic meanings. You wash your hands and also your food in a sink—and of course when you enter a church, you cross yourself with the holy water. Children being baptized are symbolically washed free from sin in the water of the baptismal font. To be cleansed is to become pure, physically and also spiritually. By deploying these familiar meanings in a highly personal way, Gober “queers” the Duchampian-minimalist tradition, making art carrying personal meanings about gender, politics and religion. Duchamp’s “Fountain” (1917) or Judd’s boxes are just sculptures, but Gober’s sinks are political commentaries—they are about identity politics. Thus “Untitled” (1984) is about the dangers, real and fantasized, of pollution associated with AIDS—and about the dismaying homophobic role of the Catholic church.
Pre-Gober—PG—American artists, including any number of gay figures, were said to make universally valid art. After Gober—AG—(thanks to him and a few near-contemporaries) it became clear that it is impossible to understand painting or sculpture without taking account of the ways that gender and sexual orientation inflect our visual experience. Gober is also interested in the politics of race, as when he shows a lynched African American on hand-printed wallpaper, “Hanging Man/Sleeping Man”(1989). But that, so I believe, is the least well developed, and least successful aspect of his presentation of identity politics.
How can we know what symbolic meanings an artist gives to everyday artifacts? In his account of “Mérode Altarpiece” Schapiro cites medieval theological accounts of the metaphorical significance of mousetraps. In Gober’s case, we have the super-subtle catalogue essay “I Don’t Remember” by Hilton Als, and, of course, many earlier commentaries. Or, if we seek a visual cross-reference, we need only look across to Jeff Koons’s, his very-near contemporary, whose retrospective just closed at the Whitney. Like Gober, Koons is concerned with the instruments of cleanliness—compare his vacuum cleaners to Gober’s sinks. And he, too, is fascinated with childhood—compared his children’s cribs with Koons’s upscale facsimiles of toys. But where Koons exuberantly celebrates American culture, Gober is its sober critic. Unlike Koons, he shies away from showing himself in his art. It is hard to imagine Koons making statues of the Holy Virgin, as Gober has done; unlike Koons, he is not interested in what is called “kitsch.” The problem with political art, it has been argued, is that it cannot be as potent as straight reporting or photographs. Gober (and Koons) show how wrong that point of view is. If you want to understand the social history of downtown-Manhattan life in the late 20th century, you can hardly do better than to scrutinize The Heart Is Not a Metaphor. In the catalogue, Als asks, “Do gay artists speak a different language from straight artists?” That (great!) question seems to me impossible to answer. What is the case is that Gober, once an outsider, has become very much an insider. Not that this makes his art any easier to understand! But here I am all too conscious that this richly suggestive exhibition raises many questions that I, as yet, have not been able to adequately discuss, or, even, to fully comprehend.
Note: Meyer Schapiro’s “Muscipula Diaboli, The Symbolism of the Mérode Altarpiece,” is republished in his Late Antique, Early Christian and Mediaeval Art: Selected Papers (New York, 1979). “I Don’t Remember” appears in the catalogue Robert Gober: The Heart is Not a Metaphor (New York, 2014).
David Carrier is writing a book about the historic center of Naples.