Robert Gober - Contemporary Art Part I New York Wednesday, May 13, 2009 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

  • Exhibited

    New York, Paula Cooper Gallery, Robert Gober, April 30 – June 4, 1994; Paris, The  American Center, Miniatures and Monstrosities in Contemporary Art, March 10 – June 4, 1995; Jerusalem, The Israel Museum, Miniatures and Monstrosities in Contemporary Art, July 18 – October 18, 1995; Oslo, Astrup Fearnley Museet for Moderne Kunst,  Robert Gober: Forskyvninger/Displacements, February 2 –April 21, 2003; Basel, Schaulager, Robert Gober: Work 1976-2007, May 12 – October 14, 2007

  • Literature

    J. Saltz, “Robert Gober at Paula Cooper,” Art in America, New York, November 1994, pp.133-134; H. Schwartz, “The Remorse of Conscience,” Flash Art, Summer 1994, p. 96 (illustrated); R. Flood, “The Law of Indirections,” Robert Gober: Sculpture + Drawing, Minneapolis, 1999, p. 25; H. Molesworth, “Stops and Starts,” October, No. 92, Cambridge, 2000, p. 159; A. Thorkildsen, “Gober House,” Robert Gober: Forskyvninger/Displacements, Oslo, 2003, p. 76, & p. 57 (illustrated); B. Richardson & R. Gober, A Robert Gober Lexicon, London, 2005, p. 81 (illustrated); T. Vischer, ed. Robert Gober: Sculptures and Installations 1979 – 2007, Basel, 2007, p. 353 (illustrated); R. Smith, “Against Delusion: Robert Gober’s Nuts-and- Bolts Americana,” The New York Times, August 23, 2007, p. E5

  • Catalogue Essay

    "With great subtlety, Gober raises these seemingly common objects to another level. By detaching them from their iconographic context and manipulating them to the point of alienation, he changes their identities. They break out of their representative role. Abstraction (form) and metaphor (meaning) merge. Even if the objects look introvert, intimate and modest, they activate and create space in a dynamic manner," (K. Schampers, Robert Gober, Rotterdam, 1990, p. 33).
    Robert Gober’s sculptures and drawings that unsettle and intrigue, have established him as one of the most ambitious and compelling contemporary artists working today. Gober’s work deals with pressing universal themes of vulnerability, domesticity, isolation, childhood memories, religion, social justice and the body or everyday object on which all of these ideas are made physical. Gober states, “Sometimes it seems we’re all victims of an incredible mystery. I try to express this” (K. Schampers, Robert Gober, Rotterdam, 1990).
    Gober’s Untitled, 1993 – 1994, the present lot, stands out in his oeuvre as a unique and enigmatic piece while simultaneously dealing with the most central themes of his lifetime of work. Untitled, 1993 – 1994, is a six foot eight inch version of a Farina Hot Wheat Cereal box, complete with hand painted smiling, blue-eyed, blond boy ready to take a bite. With the play in scale a nod to Surrealism, the Pop appropriation of a commercial item, and the simplicity reminiscent of minimalism, Gober infuses these old vocabularies with new meaning.This handmade version of an everyday item from childhood memory has both a humorous and unsettling quality.
    This work can first appear to viewers as a benign joyous presence. As Richard Flood describes his impression of the work:
    "An enormous box of Farina with a deadpan re-creation of a smiling, spoon-fed moppet –offered a somewhat sunnier presence, with its benign promise of nurture. Given the right parental presentation, a box of Farina might well assume such formidable proportions to the obediently receptive child. With its Norman Rockwellesque little boy and comfortably recognizable logo, the Farina box was like a homely, antidotal beacon for those who had been previously exposed to the artist’s bags of kitty litter or containers of rat poison," (R. Flood, “The Law of Indirections,” Robert Gober: Sculpture + Drawing, Minneapolis, 1999, p. 25).
    Cloaked in the guise of domesticity, Gober’s work is characterized by simple, reduced elements that recall Minimalism. The present lot in its singular powerful form is reminiscent of the wall mounted sculptures of Minimalist master Donald Judd. Robert Gober speaks about an element of these sculptures that intrigues him: "While these sculptures appear to be completely forthright and just the form that you see, there is actually a tiny concealed space built into the sculpture, adjacent to the wall, where a hanging bar resides. Although Judd hides it from view, because, I guess, he doesn’t want you to think about it, there is always this dark, weirdly undiscussed backstage space. Judd’s sculptures announce themselves as paradigms of clarity and forthrightness, yet achieve this goal through formal deception. There is a masculine bluff about these works that I find endearing, emotionally complex, and perhaps in their duplicity quintessentially American." (R. Gober, “Behind the Seams,” ArtForum, Summer 2004).
    Gober’s thoughts on Judd’s work apply to the present lot as well. This singular work seems to effortlessly float out from the wall, while it in fact is hanging from a brace concealed behind the work. The undiscussed backstage space can serve as a metaphor for what other content is lurking behind the smiling face of the quintessentially American boy on the cover of the box; what is hidden and the image we are allowed to see.
    However, Gober’s work differs significantly from the goals of Minimalism. “While referring to historical models, borrowing their form, so to speak, Gober at the same time invests them with a symbolic meaning which is completely at odds with their origins. He radically overturns the original intentions of his predecessors. Where they adopt a detached, conceptual stance, Gober opts for a highly personal, emotional approach. He endows his objects with a human warmth which Duchamp or Minimal Art lack” (K. Schampers, “Robert Gober,” Robert Gober, Rotterdam, 1990, p. 31). With minimalism, the concept of the work is present in the form, while with Gober the work is not alone but accompanied by all of the associations the viewer brings to it, so what you get is so much more than just what you see. In the present lot, the ideas we have about childhood, America, and food as it relates to the body are as much a part of the work as the actual formal characteristics. The formal qualities also have a subtle deviation from minimalism, as the work is hand wrought and meant to replicate the nature of an actual cardboard box of cereal, so its lines are not rigid and straight but have the slight slopes of an item with evidence of human use.
    Untitled, 1993 – 1994, with its realistic rendering, is a perfect example of Robert Gober’s ability to take an everyday and ordinary object, such as a sink or a stick of butter, andmove the viewer to take a look at it anew.The viewer is compelled to see the ordinary object in Gober’s extraordinary way. But this is not illusionism for its own sake, “Gober’s idolatry of the real unhinges rather than confirms our assumptions about the subjects he chooses. As his objects shed their cloaks of everyday associations they reveal themselves as brooding vessels, whichmany see in terms of the Freudian symbolism of sexuality, death, and mourning,” (T. Fairbrother, “We are only as sick as the secrets we keep,” Robert Gober, Rotterdam, 1990, p. 43). The meaning of the object is not a fixed prosaic thing, but something fluid and complex, with many layers of meaning, including the unpleasant and imperfect.The cereal box has been the ignored item on the table, always present in our daily life; the silent observer of our routine and interactions around the breakfast table. Gober brings to our attention that such everyday items are imbued with an aura, a mystery. He leads us to question what is around us.
    Gober’s appropriation of an everyday commercial object may remind viewers of Andy Warhol’s famous Brillo Boxes, his recreation of the packaging for Brillo Box soap pads, or the more closely aligned Kelloggs boxes of cereal created in the 1960s. However, Gober does not seem to share this Pop interest in consumerismnor is he trying to point out the emptiness of the world asWarhol’s empty box may imply. Quite the opposite. Robert Gober’s Untitled, 1993 – 1994 is so intellectually and emotionally loaded that there is no trace of emptiness. Though it at first lookmay appear to be just a blown up version of a found object, this is not a readymade, a la Duchamp, but a handcrafted work of art with subtle meaning. Gober is not questioning the status of art object, but creating something much more intensely personal.
    Robert Gober finds the universal within his own unique experience. “He assigns an evident biographical quality to his work. Many of his objects deal with childhood recollections. ‘Most of my sculptures have been memories remade, recombined and filtered through my current experiences’.The sinks, beds, chairs, urinals and playpens which he calls ‘domestically, nondescript motifs’, form a kind of personal mythology, acting as metaphors for the world he grew up in. And in a general sense they act as eloquent symbols of our existence, as an iconography of fundamental human experience. There is something touching, innocent, nostalgic, about his domestic objects. They have a melancholy undertone without being sentimental.” (K. Schampers, “Robert Gober,” Robert Gober, Rotterdam, 1990, p. 33). With its particularly 1950s American imagery, the Farina box could be a relic from Gober’s own childhood. This could have been the cereal box that witnessed all of his mornings and earliest negotiations with the outside world. The artist notes: “When I was small I apparently had little interest in eating. My mother took me to the doctor who said that it was nothing to worry about, that I was healthy and would eat when I was hungry. Instead, she and my maternal grandmother used to force me to eat. I remember gagging to the point of vomit on fried eggs.” (T. Vischer, ed., Robert Gober: Sculptures and Installations 1979-2007, Basel, 2007, p. 352).
    Gober’s sculptures have a simplicity and lightness, and even some humor about them. Untitled, 1993-1994 does have a bit of camp sensibility as there is something absurd about a cereal box with the perfect little blond-haired blue-eyed boy blown up to comic proportions, but there is also a fragility to the piece that leads to the artist’s existential themes of vulnerability and mortality. “Some of Gober’s objects are funny; and their humor is of a daily nature, the perversion of the familiar. But Gober wouldn’t be as compelling an artist as he is if humor were his only playground, and there is obviously also a disturbing quality to these enigmatic objects. It is the very doubleness that is of interest: homey and unhomey, unsettling and humorous, shocking and banal,” (H. Molesworth, “Stops and Starts,” October, No. 92, Cambridge, 2000, p. 159)
    Robert Gober’s Untitled, 1993 – 1994 does have a Surreal playfulness to it. Indeed, his work draws many comparisons to Renee Magritte. The cereal box could also be a pipe. “Gober’s sculpture continues Magritte’s quest to explore the human condition by going beyond conventional reality. What recalls Magritte in Gober’s work is not just the juxtaposition of incongruous items, but also the obsessive attention to the aura surrounding everyday objects.” (P. Karmel, Magritte and Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2006, p. 163). Gober’s Untitled, 1993-1994 is more than just a surprise and an altered state of viewing.This work has a haunting quality that is both complex and beautiful, miraculously achieved through such a deceptively simple form.




Wood, vinyl, and acrylic paint.

80 x 52 1/2 x 24 in. (203.2 x 133.4 x 61 cm).
Signed and dated “R. Gober 1993-4” on the reverse.

$2,500,000 - 3,500,000 

Contemporary Art Part I

14 May 2009, 7pm
New York