I’ve had mixed feelings about the work of Robert Gober, the subject of a 30-year retrospective at MoMA. I admire its introspection, a quality lacking in a lot of today’s gallery fare, but I also find it precious at times.
Thankfully, Gober abjures irony and the faux-transgressive posture of many artists in his generation. Similarly, his sculptures and installations—the sinks and furnishings (doors, beds) made by hand; the hyperrealistic, disembodied legs made of wax; the rooms, wallpapered with dreamlike imagery and forest scenes, complete with running water—refer to his background as a gay Catholic without resorting to identity politics. He’s an artist of memory, a surreal chronicler of sorrow and loss. More importantly, his work suggests that a certain humility is necessary when confronting the mystery of life, whether it’s called God or the human condition.
Gober, then, is the anti-Koons. But like Koons, he traffics in sentimentality, which can seem all the more cloying because of his work’s subjectivity: A giant stick of butter flirts with the saccharine, for instance, while a chapel-like memorial to 9/11—presided over by a headless crucified Christ, water gushing from his nipples—is a complete misfire.
Nonetheless, when the elements cohere, his work is both haunting and mesmerizing—nowhere more so than in an open valise set on the floor. A look inside reveals a sewer grate separating the viewer from a submerged diorama of a tidal pool inhabited by bright marine fauna: an astounding visualization of the solace that only imagination can bring.
Gober has earned this survey and his place in art history. By investing emotion into Duchamp’s readymade, he exposed its shortsightedness in tying artistic agency to the purely cerebral. As the show’s title states, the heart is not a metaphor. But it is a place where art can live.—Howard Halle