Robert Gober entered the New York art world in 1985 with an exhibition of polysemic sinks that effortlessly slipped between torsos, faces, tombstones, ghosts, and glory holes—animated by the gentle quivering of their handmade surfaces. Since that time his “common objects” have proven a major force, engaging the trauma and tenderness of the contemporary world. His 40-year retrospective The Heart Is Not A Metaphor (Museum of Modern Art, October 4, 2014 – January 18, 2015) brings together drawings and sculptures, and reveals both the precision of his images and complexity of his greater vision. He met with Jarrett Earnest in his studio to discuss materials, art schools, faith, and the nature of metaphors.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): I wanted to start with materials. I found it significant that the drains embedded in the walls in “Untitled” (1989), were made of pewter, which I feel is an especially tender metal: it is soft and sentimental, something that used to be given at weddings, but historically it’s a toxic metal—pewter once contained lead which was dangerous to eat from. I wanted to ask you about the decision to make them out of pewter.
Robert Gober: It was an unusual metal that I didn’t see used much in the art world. It is a metal with a low melting point so we could do it here in the studio, now that they have leached the lead out of it. I grew up in Wallingford, Connecticut and one of my grandparents worked at International Silver, and before Wallingford became the silver-plating capital it was known for pewter work. But I’m thinking for the first time now of how pewter was used for plates and tea sets and things that you drank out of and ate off of, and I’m wondering if I wasn’t bringing that as a sort of dim metaphor to the drains—something going through you.
Rail: When he curated In a Different Light at the Berkeley Art Museum in 1996, Nayland Blake talked about your sculptures as a form of drag—where “high-brow” materials masquerade as “low” materials. So you have the pewter, which becomes the drain. How did you relate to his idea of sculptures in drag?
Gober: You rely on other people’s perceptions to help you understand your own output. I think Nayland was ahead of his time. That was a fascinating show—still reverberating. A collaboration, I believe, with Larry Rinder. My sculpture of a piece of plywood was in the section called Drag. Writers now refer to that piece as a sculpture in drag but don’t credit his mind, or maybe they’re just unaware.
Rail: “Untitled” (2005 – 06), the paint can sculpture at the beginning of the MoMA retrospective, is cast lead crystal and painted to look like a can of paint. In contemplating the crystal interior, which has been made visually inaccessible by the paint, how do you think the inside and outside of the sculpture relate?
Gober: [Gober retrieves another version of the paint can sculpture in his studio and places it in Earnest’s hands.] In this instance the glass is a metaphor for the paint. It’s a precious material. Paint is not, but lead crystal is. The paint can in the exhibition directly precedes the sculptures of the sinks, which were all painted with this same semi-gloss Benjamin Moore enamel.
Rail: Ugo Rondinone made those lead-filled bronze tromp-l’oeil fruits, and he maintains that because it is solid metal it has a different relationship to gravity that you can perceive, even though it just looks like an apple. I am trying to understand how you think about that aspect—you handed this to me to feel, and I learned something important about its nature as an object. For people who do not have the opportunity to handle it, does this information get delivered just on a conceptual level—because it says it is “cast lead crystal”—or is there some perceptive faculty that understands its density?
Gober: That’s why stating the exact medium on the labels can be useful. Thinking about the medium might lead you into a more complex wondering about the piece, not an explanation necessarily.
Rail: I think Brenda Richardson makes the point that your medium lists usually function as the surrogate title because the titles are mostly “Untitled.” Why is it important to you to keep the title as officially “Untitled” and then have these extremely descriptive lists?
Gober: I have no talent for poetic titles. I tried. I envy artists who do, like de Kooning’s “Door to the River” (1960); could there be a more beautiful and evocative title? I tend to say “Untitled” or use a simple descriptive title. I know it’s annoying to people and that it creates a vacuum when you “untitle” things, but if I have no interesting information to add with a title then why do it?
Rail: I read that the title of your current show is taken from Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights (1979). She is a writer I admire because she is good at something I’m not good at: very precise observation that is hard, clear, tight, often about ambiguous things. That is why I read her, because I want to learn how she does it. Those are also formal qualities that could describe your own work. When did you start reading Elizabeth Hardwick and why did you want to make that reference?
Gober: It was years and years ago. I think I’ve read maybe everything and then re-read some. It was in re-reading Sleepless Nights a few summers back in Nova Scotia that the phrase “the heart is not a metaphor” jumped out at me. It was part of a longer sentence that I think read, “alas, the heart is not a metaphor—or not only a metaphor.” I had never titled an exhibition of my own work, I’d only titled exhibitions that I curated, but there it was. So from the beginning I had a working title although I wasn’t absolutely certain that I was going to use it. I never met her, but Hardwick was such an interesting, vital character to me, both in her writing of fiction, her amazing essays, her involvement in the founding of the New York Review of Books, her marriage to Robert Lowell, and her book Seduction and Betrayal where she ponders women writers. I was happy to bring her into the exhibition, even as a footnote, for people who might not have any idea of her.
Rail: That is something you do a lot—retrieve people or things and say, “look at this great thing!” Have you always been drawn to creating those kinds of lineages, or sharing those kinds of obscure things? [Gober gets up and hands Earnest a small panel—floating on a pale blue background is a bunch of tenderly painted violets—he points to a signature in the lower corner, “MFAULKNER”.]
Gober: It’s by William Faulkner’s mother, Maud Faulkner. I had seen her paintings hanging in his home in Oxford, Mississippi a number of years ago and never forgot them, and I always wanted one.
Rail: What was it about them?
Gober: Imagine being William Faulkner’s mother!
Rail: So, it’s not the paintings themselves, but the context of where they come from that you are interested in?
Gober: Absolutely—William Faulkner’s mother.
Rail: One thing this relates to is the way you put together the long chronology for the MoMA catalogue. It seems like a rather straightforward thing but it deals with a lot of art historical and intellectual issues. The most obvious being: what is the relationship of the biography of the artists to the stuff that they make and how do we talk about that relationship without being reductive? When did you envision doing that kind of chronology and what was important to include?
Gober: Memory is like looking up at the stars, it’s not a linear thing—my memory is that the chronology was not my idea initially. This show hatched over a long period of time. The first years were mostly speculative talking. We were tossing around ideas for what would be useful as a catalogue. I think from the beginning Ann Temkin (the curator) did not think it would be useful to have the usual four or five distinguished scholars weigh in—this was not something that was interesting to either of us.
So one day during this process, Hilton Als, who I literally hadn’t seen in 20 years, although I’ve followed his writing, came to visit. He said he wanted to possibly write a book about me and my work. I was both puzzled and flattered. I told Ann about this visit and as she admired his work and his voice, she wondered if maybe Hilton’s idea for a book could be the book for the exhibition. When Hilton agreed, that became our anchor. We knew his writing would be poetic, allusive, and non-hierarchal in an art historical way, in terms of a definitive staking of territory—and probably something of a surprise. So then we thought, what is the balance to Hilton? I don’t spend much time thinking about how I might come across to people outside my immediate circle but I’ve been told that people say “oh, he’s so private,” and things like that. So we both thought that it might be worthwhile to be pretty forthcoming about who I was, where I came from, what happened to me and where I am now. Claudia Carson, who is my registrar and archivist and much more—and who has worked alongside me for almost 20 years—began the work. She created an accurate timeline that included early school years, formative experiences, disappointments, friends, dogs, assistants, exhibitions, curators, trips, photos, and numerous interviews with my mother. Paulina Pobocha the co-curator of the exhibition then came in and interviewed her own selection of individuals—friends from my past, artists, curators, dealers, me, and it started to really fill in. Then I got more involved in shaping it, to be more reflective of my voice and how I would like to be presented given all this information that they had accumulated.
Rail: I appreciated that you listed what shows nothing sold from, when and how you met certain people, romances, apartments, and when you adopted and lost all your dogs. All of that stuff seems equally legitimate information that is almost always excised from art historical accounts. One of the things you said that was being considered with the catalogue was that there is a perception of you as a “private” person—
Gober: Which I don’t feel I do anything to help create. Sometimes I do things like this, like an interview, because I don’t want to create a false impression of myself as hermetic, even though I don’t have that much interest in talking about my work. My interest is my work.
Rail: “Slides of a Changing Painting” (1982 – 83) made me think of how slippery and smart the images are as they relate to each other cumulatively. The title, The Heart is Not a Metaphor, seems like you are signaling that you are resisting language, as you’ve said multiple places, but in fact there is a lot of linguistic play in the images. In the slides you realize the relationships: tree trunk to torso; leg to limb; seashell to ear; with abstractions in between—body to landscape to body. I thought that piece was a key to the exhibition; all the imagery is very much there in 1982.
Gober: That is why we put it in the center, it worked metaphorically—
Rail: It’s the “heart”!
Gober: Chronologically it should have been in the beginning but I was dead set on not beginning an exhibition with a dark room, with a slide show you have to sit through, because I wouldn’t watch it, I would just say, “Let me get to the show.” You ask about the title, people ask, “What does it mean?” and I always say, “I don’t know.” I still think it’s a good answer, a valid answer: I don’t know what it means—“the heart is not a metaphor”—because obviously it is, sometimes. It still stays in my mind as a puzzle. It becomes a bit of poetry that is almost irreducible, and that is why I love it.
Rail: Do you think of your works as metaphors?
Gober: I don’t know how else you would understand it without metaphor. It is one essential way to experience and feel something about the pieces.
Rail: When you started making work I feel the whole apparatus of art criticism had been about killing metaphor in the discussion of art, and what is funny about the sinks is that they can be minimal and metaphorical, which is I think what John Russell meant when he said of your first show “minimal forms with maximum content.”
Gober: I went to a liberal arts college—I didn’t go to an art school—so I spent more time in literature classes than I spent in art class. Metaphor was not as thoroughly exiled in literature. I think some of the things I am interested in—like bringing metaphor into a minimal language or bringing the question of faith back into art—are things that most people aren’t interested in. Artists spent decades getting rid of the connotations of faith being married to art.
Rail: How does the metaphorical transformation work in an object? What is a metaphor in matter?
Gober: A metaphor is something that loosely refers to and resembles something else.
Rail: Perhaps wax opens itself up for association more than other types of materials. When you are choosing materials to work with is that part of what you are drawn to in them?
Gober: Part of the task is to find the appropriate material, if there is one, that makes the work resonate in a way that another material might not help it to.
Rail: It seems like a lot of what you are doing is working against the inherent qualities of your materials for specific effect.
Gober: An example please.
Rail: The paint can: the benefit of crystal is that it is transparent. And you have used it for its weight or density or value but robbed it of its most defining characteristic, or at least made it inaccessible. I think that is a strategy in a lot of your work.
Gober: Is that a question? Sometimes the best questions don’t need an answer—
Rail: At one point in the chronology you say: “I was increasingly aware that my intuitive, somewhat blind, choice to make dollhouses was inevitably woven into the challenge of ‘coming out’ and whatever that meant.” I want to know more about what you meant by that at that moment.
Gober: My dad built the house I grew up in—not that you’d know it, it looks like an ordinary Cape—but it had a deep effect on me, growing up knowing “this is what a man does.” If you need a house, you build one for yourself. When I really started making art, which is when I started making the dollhouses, I was a man making houses but what I was also doing was what was forbidden to me as a young boy, which was immersing my imaginative life in dollhouses.
Rail: I really appreciated all the information you included about your work with the Gay Men’s Health Center (G.M.H.C.) and ACT-UP—
Gober: I have never talked publicly about what I did during the epidemic. What a lot of people did. But something moved me and I thought it was important to put down into print what it was like living in the epicenter of one of the worst public health epidemics of the 20th century and how that might have affected me and my work. I’m not sure that young artists understand that. How could they?
Rail: At the moment you started making that work, were there certain formal or conceptual aspects that could speak to a gay sensibility?
Gober: Well, to appreciate the dollhouses you had to get on your knees.
Rail: Do you think there has been a contextual shift around the work? Do you think there is a change in how people perceive it now at MoMA versus how it was encountered in the ’80s?
Gober: I don’t know. I grew up studying artists, great seminal American artists, who were same-sex attracted but who expressed that through an encoded symbolism within their work—I grew up learning from this in a very useful and creative way. Because I became more plain-spoken about my nature I don’t think writers knew how to best handle that. A lot of art writers write from other writing and where was history for them there? I think they felt obligated to talk about it but didn’t know how. I used to be called “openly gay.” Finally, thank god, that stopped because it was absurd—who is talked about as “openly heterosexual?” Sometimes there is actually a review where it is not even referred to which is in some ways progress and some ways isn’t.
Rail: I talked about your work a lot with Dave Hickey last month, and I think his essay on you for the Dia installation in 1992 is very beautiful. It’s hard to find, and luckily we were able to link to it in the online version of this issue. Despite his macho persona, many people forget that Dave wrote very sensitively and interestingly about a lot of women and gay artists.
Gober: I thought Dave’s essay was deep and perceptive and maybe hard-won, his observations about me as a gay artist as opposed to him as a straight viewer and writer. I appreciated how he identified himself within the essay—because writers as a rule don’t want to do that, they want to seem more neutral or omniscient. I think it drives gay writers a little crazy when I tell them that I really value his take; I think they are hell-bent that this straight cowboy from Las Vegas is not going to be the one to define gay identity—as if there is a singular “gay identity.”
Rail: There was something in the catalogue that implied a criticism of art schools. What are your thoughts on education for artists?
Gober: I’m totally pro-education and I think art comes out of life, so the more you know of life and thus of history, the better. The one thing that an art school never tells you is that they cannot teach you how to be an artist. That should be on their letterhead. That really is up to you to figure out.
Rail: I was interested in the early show where you and Koons are both showing together—you sinks and him vacuums. Maybe because the two retrospectives had such close proximity, I was comparing and contrasting them in my head and I believe there are generative differences, maybe regarding hygiene—because the Koons have a lot to do with obsessive cleanliness.
Gober: Some of my favorite of Jeff’s works are the Made in Heaven series—I love the faux dirt marks on their cheeks and butts in the most salacious pictures. Obviously during the epidemic hygiene was a huge consideration, the same way you read in the paper now about Ebola—how it is contracted or not, and what you should do, or shouldn’t do—so hygiene became a life-saving subject of interest.
Rail: In that regard, I was interested in thinking of your activities with G.M.H.C. and aspects of “care”—what it is like to care for sick people as you did—and the way that your objects look very “cared for,”in terms of the qualities of the objects. Most people talk about this as “craft” and it seems to me more appropriate as “care.”
Gober: That is a really nice observation. I wouldn’t have put that together but thank you, in a way, for noticing, I think it’s probably true.
Rail: Walking through the exhibition I was thinking a lot about abstraction, which is something I think about a lot, and when you referred to “Plywood” (1987) once you said it was a “realistic sculpture of a more or less abstract object.” I thought that was compelling. How do you think about abstraction in what you do?
Gober: I don’t think of abstraction that much in my own work but I do think about it in art in general, and I think where we are with a lot of very young abstract painters is puzzling—historically there was an attempt to understand contemporary consciousness through abstraction. I don’t see it, but maybe that’s my failure. I do find it hard to understand art in its time. It can take me years.
Rail: At the time of the Forrest Bess show you curated for the 2012 Whitney Biennial I remember going to a panel of art critics and one of them was going on about how appallingly “sensational” it was to reproduce the photographs and writing of the self-surgeries along with the painting. I was incensed by that. Part of the argument was that if you disregard this weird stuff, they’re interesting paintings and as you showed they are not separable. Did you see Bess as an earlier moment in American art that was sympathetic to the work you were making? Or, that by making visible this historical artist that is not being seen it would help contextualize your own work?
Gober: It was never that articulated in my mind. It must have been there in some regard, because I did it and I put it out there, but it was never a strategy for people to understand my own work better.
Rail: I didn’t mean that in a strategic way—just that people seek out prior examples of things that validate what they already feel.
Gober: But how would Bess exactly relate to my work?
Rail: You don’t think that his hermaphrodite photographs look shockingly like some of your sculptures?
Gober: I suppose you are right. Sometimes you work really blindly as an artist.
Rail: Also maybe about scale—they are little, but actually big.
Gober: They are intimate paintings talking about big stuff. He was a conundrum that fascinated me. I’m interested in occluded histories.
Rail: What did you mean earlier when you said you were bringing faith into contemporary art?
Gober: For decades it has been a high priority of contemporary art to exclude, or separate, art’s very old relationship with religion. An interest in revisiting that possible relationship is hard to put into words.
Rail: Is that to tell me to not ask another question about it?
Gober: No, it’s an attempt at answering a difficult question.
Rail: I wouldn’t have had that sense based on the materials surrounding you and your work. The normal aesthetic scar tissue of being traumatized by Catholicism is there, sure, but in terms of a lingering engagement in aspects of faith, I haven’t picked up on that as a priority. Not that I couldn’t see it in the work, but in the chronology there isn’t any reference to a spiritual life.
Gober: I do write about my first long time therapist, James Serafini, who was the cofounder of Dignity NY and to whom I dedicated the catalogue for the Dia exhibition in ’92. (Dignity NY was established in 1972 to encourage gay men and lesbians to “express their sexuality in a manner consonant with Christ’s teaching.”)
Rail: I read an early interview in Bomb with Craig Gholson where you explicitly said you didn’t believe in God. He says “don’t you believe in god?” and you are like “no,”; then he says “well I don’t mean ‘God’ god, but in some kind of spiritual thing?” and you say, “no, I wish I did.” So, since that time you no longer feel that way?
Gober: That was a long time ago, maybe 25 years ago. I was young. But it’s too reductive to ask, “Do you believe in god or not?” It was a rude question. Perhaps I was reacting to that, I don’t remember, but it isn’t something to talk about publicly. Did Warhol talk about going to mass every Sunday?
Rail: What does it mean to be an artist?
Gober: [Pause.] I think it’s trusting some inexplicable voice within yourself—it’s too cosmic a question in a way, “What it is to be an artist”—it’s trusting that voice in yourself that asks you to focus on an object even if it doesn’t make sense to do in the face of all the other things you have to do in life. It’s trusting the inexplicable—that thing that doesn’t make sense but bugs you and doesn’t let you alone.
"Robert Gober: In the Dancehall of the Dead", by Dave Hickey. Copyright 1993 Dia Center for the Arts.
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.