Robert Gober

by Craig Gholson

Robert Gober, Two Partially Buried Sinks, 1986–87, cast iron and enamel, 24 x 72 x 2 inches / 22 inches between units. Photograph by Andrew Moore, courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery. Inset: Robert Gober © Zoe Leonard, 1989.

Robert Gober’s sculptures call everyday objects into question. And what he discovers in calling the common into question, is the disquieting, the disarming, the unnerving and the disconcerting. Taking objects—a bed, a crib, a door, the accoutrements of a pet—which, while anonymous are also universal, he plays with the tension between the neutered forms and the strong emotional and physical connotations we attach to them. In the alchemy of transforming these objects, Gober transforms a viewer’s emotional and physical reality; the common made uncommon.

Craig Gholson What would you say if someone called your work perverse?

Robert Gober I would like that, and I would say that they were right.

CG What about it makes you think it’s perverse?

RG (pause) How can I answer that?

CG Maybe you could try and define what perverse is?

RG (pause) You know, this interview is going to be a problem, because I’m not innately drawn to coming up with sentences about my work. What I cull is more of an emotional feeling, and to me it’s not important to put that into words. Or at least to put it into words to make it communicable to a general readership. That’s not where you’re going to gain an understanding of my work. I’m not gifted that way. I’m not drawn to it. Right now.

CG Did you study art?

RG Yes. Although, I went to a liberal arts college.

CG Where you read art criticism?

RG Sure.

CG So you did have to talk about work in that way, but it’s something you just decided wasn’t valuable for yourself.

RG It’s something that you learn to protect; your relationship with your work and you can only talk about it so much before certain things get spoiled. What is, for the first time a discovery of putting something into words, loses meaning the second time.

CG No, I understand absolutely. A lot of times when I’m beginning to write a piece, I know that if I talk about it too much, I never write it, because, in a way it is out in the world already.

When I was preparing the questions I realized that I had loaded them all with such heavy, heavy, information. I couldn’t figure out a way to talk about the humor in your work. It’s much easier to talk about the more psychologically-charged elements of it.

RG The humor, to me, is very important. A lot of times in the studio, I push the pieces until they make me laugh. It’s a way to let people enter into the piece, where you can give them more complicated and fraught material. It’s a disarming device, but it’s also a pleasure that comes with the piece.

Robert Gober, Tilted Playpen, 1987, wood and enamel paint, 22½ x 45 x 45 inches.

CG Your work has that heavy, serious side to it, but it also is very playful. It has an ironic level to it. How would you define irony?

RG How would you define it?

CG I would say it’s a comment on something while still being that thing.

RG But yet giving you different information, a different slant on it. I don’t think irony’s all that an important an issue. It’s such a given now. I mean, what isn’t ironic?

CG I had a list of some ironies that I thought about in your work, like the idea of hand-made ready-mades . . .

RG Right.

CG Banal objects as art objects.

RG Right.

CG Basic forms deformed; the intimate personal thing that looks mass-produced; the cradle as a grave; the nurturing parent as sadist . . .

RG That’s all true. I guess I don’t think about irony; it’s such a given. I mean, can art be interesting and not be ironic these days? Maybe, I don’t know.

CG The Dadaists and the Surrealists were very involved in verbal aspects in their art-making, like Magritte having a painting that says, “This is not a pipe,” underneath the pipe. That is obviously ironic, but what ends up being irony in the latter part of the 20th century is just to call a piece Untitled. The literal has become ironic.

RG It’s true.

CG Did you consciously decide not to deal with the verbal in your work?

RG Do you mean as literally as using words in the art?

CG Yes.

RG Is it a conscious decision? Well, there’s words in that piece, in the cat litter, although they’re tangential. They’re subsumed within a structure of the sculpture, but I guess that’s the first time.

CG Do you have a title for this piece?

RG Probably Cat Litter.

CG Your earlier pieces were titled. All the sink pieces had titles to them. Gradually, you moved into calling them Untitled.

RG There was a phase when the sinks were mutated and distorted. It felt very useful for me to give them poetic titles, because I could load up the information even more. But in certain instances, it seemed better to hold back and not direct people.

CG As a playwright, one of the things that immediately strikes me about your work is that it has a narrative to it. I see an object and it has a history; it seems like a summation of personal experience. I see an emotional object. Do you think that there is a narrative to your work?

RG Yes, I do. There’s a narrative unfolding.

CG And is it a personal narrative?

RG I don’t think that it could be anything but. You try to place it into a larger consciousness; you try to place it within perhaps an historical perspective, a broader American view. But, definitely, it’s always a personal narrative.

CG So when you look at a specific piece, does it take you to an emotional location or a physical location?

RG You mean like a memory?

CG Yes.

RG That’s one experience. It’s not enough to make the piece interesting as a sculpture. It has to be resonant for me. It has to entertain me.

CG Did you have a dog when you were a child?

RG Yes, I had two dogs at different times: Suzie and Mitzi.

CG And what kind of dogs were they?

RG Suzie was kind of a long-haired mutt, and Mitzi was a beagle.

CG Was the dog bed piece a dog bed one of them had?

RG No.

CG Your work seems almost inherently anti-editions. Can you imagine doing editions?

RG Yes. This whole show will be editions. Like anything else, what starts out as a liberating gesture, ceases to be if you do it enough. At first it was liberating not to do interviews, to make that choice. But after a while those decisions that initially free you, like not to do editions, just to do unique pieces, become as much of a cliche . . . as anything else. So I thought this whole show would be a challenge to do multiples and interviews.

Robert Gober, Untitled (Bed), 1986, wood, cotton, wool, down, enamel paint, 36½ x 43 x 77 inches. Collection Elaine Dannheisser.

CG In looking through your review file, a number of the discussions of your work seemed to center around whether it was cynical or not. Do you think it’s cynical?

RG No. Do you?

CG No.

RG I don’t think art is inherently cynical. I think it’s inherently hopeful.

CG Definitely. It’s curious that they would read that, though. Do you think it’s a function of being a journalist?

RG God knows. I think part of the problem with the discussion that’s clustered around my work has been the fact that I haven’t given them a structure to bounce off of and to comment upon, so until pretty recently it’s been very rare that someone has written something original or smart.

CG Were you raised Catholic?

RG Mmm-hmm.

CG Do you think that your work is informed by any kind of Catholic guilt?

RG I think that when you’re raised a Catholic—at least in the way that I was, which was very strict Catholicism—that when you make the choice to reject how you were brought up, the rest of your life becomes a redefinition.

CG As an ongoing process.

RG Yes. At least right now, for me.

CG Are you still Catholic? Do you go to church?

RG Thank God, no.

CG Do you believe in God?

RG I don’t think so. Do you?

CG Yes.

RG Really?

CG Not God God, but a spiritual force, definitely.

RG Oh, I envy people who do.

CG I’m sure being a Catholic probably drove it right out of you.

RG The Church was a very sick place. The Church that I knew was an extremely hypocritical institution. That might be where I got my initial inspiration of perversity, growing up within the Catholic Church.

CG Well, if anybody could do it, they could. Your work is extremely psychologically charged, but, at the same time, it’s almost anonymous, in a way, because of what the objects are.

RG Yeah.

CG It’s a depiction of a kind of universal individuality.

RG Mmm-hmm.

CG Now, that could be a definition of spirituality.

RG Huh, interesting.

CG Could you imagine that the psychological, for you, is spiritual?

RG Yes . . . Yes.

CG And do you see a difference between the spiritual and the psychological?

RG (pause) Sure. But there are points where they intersect. And that might be the point of an artwork—sometimes. (pause)

CG What are you thinking?

RG I think it was Tim Rollins who said that to him, paintings were like prayers. Beautiful.

Robert Gober, Untitled, 1988, wood, steel, enamel paint, 30 x 32 x 59 inches. Saatchi Collection, London.

CG Yes. Do you consider all of your pieces childhood-oriented?

RG No. For instance, I don’t think the piece of plywood necessarily has anything to do with childhood. Nor does a sink, necessarily. Although I think that until recently, a child’s perspective informed a great deal of my work.

CG Yes, definitely. Your studio is across from a graveyard. Would you consider yourself obsessed by death?

RG You make it sound pejorative.

CG What brought that to mind was that the sinks sometimes look like tombstones, they have a tombstone curve to them. And in fact, Two Partially Buried Sinks is basically a grave. “To sink” is a downward motion. The doorway pieces are essentially passages from one room to another, which could read as from life to death.

RG For the most part, the objects that I choose are almost all emblems of transition; they’re objects that you complete with your body, and they’re objects that, in one way or another, transform you. Like the sink, from dirty to clean; the beds, from conscious to unconscious; rational thought to dreaming; the doors transform you in the sense that you were speaking of, moving from one space through another. But about being obsessed with death, it sounds a bit . . . depressed.

CG (laughter) Yes, it does.

RG Of course, it’s hard living in New York right now not to be. It’s always on your plate.

CG Yes, as I choke on a sip of water. One idea that occurred to me was that nostalgia might be equivalent to terror for you.

RG Oh, how interesting. How interesting. Yeah.

CG You think so?

RG I think it’s a very interesting comment.

CG The objects that you choose are in your past, from your history. Then you twist them in a way where everyday objects have a nightmare quality to them. Or as seen in a dream. Is that true of your reality? If you look at a chair, does it have this kind of horror for you?

RG (laughter) Only when I’m inspired.

CG Do you get images from your dreams?

RG I wish it were that simple. Once in a while; yes and no. With the sink, only after I was making it as a series did I realize that I had had, years before, a recurring dream about finding a room within my home that I didn’t know existed. That room was full of sinks, but it was very different—there was sunlight pouring in the room, and there was water running in all the sinks. They were functional. So it was an image that I had a recurring dream about, but it’s not like I woke up and I said, “Gee, that would make an interesting sculpture.” It’s after-the-fact. You look back and you see all these different influences: dreams, people you’ve known, things you’ve read.

CG That’s curious, because your work seems to be very much about making the unconscious conscious; pulling those objects from somewhere really deep inside. Taking the nonreal and making it real and then making it unreal again.

RG Yes. That’s true.

CG You were familiar with Duchamp’s urinal?

RG Sure, who isn’t?

CG That’s the other thing that reviewers always bring up.

RG I know. They say it preoccupies me, but to me what’s interesting is that it seems to be preoccupying them. They’re the ones who are always writing about it, not me. It’s not a piece that particularly lives in my soul. It’s an interesting piece, it’s a great piece, but it seems to be on their minds, not mine.

Robert Gober, Cat Litter, 1989, plaster, ink, latex paint, 16½ x 7¾ x 4½ inches, edition of 7. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery.

CG Do you like the Surrealists?

RG To a degree. When I was a teenager I loved Dalí.

CG But not now.

RG I don’t think about them now, no. Not much.

CG It’s interesting that you liked them as a teenager because I think that it is work that is almost inherently adolescent—offensive behavior to challenge a cultural norm, an authority figure, the father. At a certain point in your life, it seems very puerile.

RG Right, but that’s a staple of the avant-garde, isn’t it? Of shocking the bourgeoisie.

CG But your work does that and then does something else, as well. It gets into more interesting terrain.

RG How so?

CG The sink pieces must have mortally offended some people.

RG Someone put their cigarette out in one.

CG That’s a comment, isn’t it?

RG Of a sort, yes.

CG But they have a deeper meaning. There’s something else going on there other than just offending someone’s sensibilities. Whereas with the Surrealists, I often get the sense that it is not about much more than that.

RG Even someone like Magritte? I think he transcends what you’re talking about.

CG Maybe. At different times in your life, you go back to work and you like completely different things.

RG Isn’t that interesting? Certain things at certain times.

CG It’s the cross between the Surrealist and the Minimalist in your work that gives it an edge. They aren’t two movements that one would think could, in any way, be essentially compatible, and yet you’ve managed to merge them. And not just by sticking one element in there with another.

RG That’s true.

CG This interview is ending up all my theories on your work.

RG That’s fine.

CG No, it’s not. It’s got to stop. Plus, I don’t think I have any more theories.

RG Oh, that’s the problem: You’re at the end of your questions.

Robert Gober, Studio Installation, Three Parts of an X, 1985. Photograph courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery.

CG What’s an area of your work that you think has really been misunderstood or not read properly?

RG The sense of humor doesn’t get mentioned, which, to me, is enormously important.

CG I asked the sculptor Jackie Winsor what she would ask you.

RG Oh, yeah? And what’d she say?

CG She said to ask you what your experience of being an artist was. How you experienced being an artist.

RG (pause) It’s not something I’d wish on anyone. It’s not an easy occupation, if it’s an occupation at all. But in what way being an artist? There’s so many different ways to look at that. I look out my window and I see guys washing windshields. There are so many miserable professions in the world, so, as a job, how can you complain? But I don’t think it’s easy—the exposing of yourself continually to the public. And for what end, you know?

CG For me, the difficult part is having to dredge the stuff up from inside of you. It can be so excruciatingly painful.

RG Yes. And without guidelines. How do you do it, and in what form do you put this information? How do you make it interesting to other people? How do you translate it in formal terms?

CG It’s that Greek idea of hubris, where once you’ve crossed a line, once you’ve brought something up and you have knowledge of it, you can’t go back. And, you know; sometimes you would really rather not know or have to confront that.

RG Yes. (pause) Making sculptures has taken me places emotionally and intellectually I never would have gone.

CG And do you have any regrets about that?

RG Sure . . . (pause) Don’t you?

CG No, not so far.

RG Really?

CG I like to confront my fears. I suppose it could be termed suicidal, but if there’s something that I’m really afraid of, I usually force myself to do it. I use it as an indicator to do exactly that.

RG Yes. I think when I talk about regrets it’s that life is short; there’s only so much time; you can only do so many things. An extraordinary amount of my time is focused on myself and my work, and there’s so many other pleasures available in the world.

CG Do you consider being an artist a selfish job?

RG No, do you?

CG I think it can be. For people who make bad art I think it is. (mutual laughter) Do you have any sense of where you want your career to go?

RG My career? That’s very different than saying your art. What do you mean?

CG Do you have specific career goals?

RG Well, in a certain way you can’t plan opportunities. You never know where they’re going to come from or how they’re going to present themselves. Career goals . . .

CG Is there something you really want, like you really want to have a show at The Modern, or . . .

RG Oh, no. I’d like to work in the theater.

CG Doing sets?

RG Not necessarily doing sets, more conceiving the whole overture of the look of a particular production, whatever it is, in the same way that I’ve created an environment within the gallery. The stage is a logical, and maybe even a more useful platform for that.

CG And would you imagine doing this in relation to someone’s text?

RG In some way. But it’s a vague idea. Who knows? Who knows how it’ll happen?

CG Psychology deals with things as problems; metaphysics deals with things as a journey. Do you have a problem or are you on a journey?

RG Both. Both.

CG Can you define what the problem is?

RG I could avoid the question and say the problem is how to make viable sculptures.

CG But if you weren’t going to avoid the question, what would you say?

RG I couldn’t answer it publicly. There would be no point.

CG Do you have a sense of what the journey is?

RG It’s the same answer as the first one: how to make a viable sculpture. No, that’s not true—it’s more than that, it sounds so corny—it’s the journey of life. It sounds so silly; it sounds so stupid, doesn’t it?


Craig Gholson is a playwright and Associate Editor of BOMB.

Fall 1989
The cover of BOMB 29