Property from an Important Private European Collection
Robert Gober’s Untitled is a seminal work, one of the first in his rich and evocative oeuvre to incorporate actual running water. Submerged beneath the gallery floor, the artist creates a haunting, elegiac experience, as the sounds of flowing water as it bubbles and gurgles through a self-contained sewer system penetrate the otherwise quiet reverence of the gallery space. “The sound the water makes as it falls and empties,” the artist David Salle has written, “takes over your mind” (D. Salle, quoted in “Drain Man,” Town & Country Magazine, December 2014/January 2015, p. 236). Peering down into the world Gober creates, the shock of discovering a pale, waxen figure whose chest has been embedded with a silver drain is unnerving, yet the motif of the sunken drain would continue to inform Gober’s work for decades to come. “At first it appears to be nothing but a common sewer grate,” New York Times critic Roberta Smith has written, “except that its thick steel bars are uncommonly beautiful—handmade, like all of the everyday objects Mr. Gober re-creates” (R. Smith, “Robert Gober,” New York Times, May 6, 1994, p. C19). In Gober’s hands, ordinary objects become imbued with poetic qualities like love, loss and redemption, and Untitled, like the sinks before it, is a signifier of these and the many compelling themes that underpin his work. Having debuted at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York in 1994 to rave reviews, Untitled later featured in the Carnegie International of 1995, and has since been included in numerous exhibitions around the world. An early, transformative piece, the present lot is number one from a small edition of two (plus one artist’s proof), making it a rare example from a formative period. Number two from the edition is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
“Seldom has a silence spoken so loudly,” David Salle continued in his apt description of Gober’s style. “In the artist’s hands, the familiar becomes the strange” (D. Salle, Ibid., p. 236). Indeed, Gober’s rich visual lexicon is peppered with seemingly ordinary objects—lightbulbs, sinks, limbs, a stack of newspapers, or a giant box of cereal or stick of butter—that emanate a mysterious and unworldly beauty. This is perhaps due to their meticulous hand-made quality, which mimics with exacting verisimilitude the object it represents, while still displaying the tiny inconsistencies and flaws of Gober’s process. Here, Gober has fashioned a sewer grate that’s cast in bronze using the lost-wax method and nestled within the gallery floor. As Roberta Smith has described, the “uncommonly beautiful” metal grate displays a slightly mottled, delicate surface that begs to be touched, so uncannily different from its dirty utilitarian counterpart. Peering beneath the grate, the dual-fold shock of discovering actual running water, as it flows and gurgles beneath the floor, is doubled upon discovery of the waxen figure submerged below, whose hairy chest is punctuated by a common kitchen drain.
“The first time that I used the image of an urban street drain,” Gober has described, “I sent two of my assistants out into the streets around my studio and home to make large black crayon rubbings on white paper of different drains that had caught my eye. As usual, the drain that I ended up creating was a synthesis of all these various possibilities… This was also the first time that I created a sculpture that pierced through that floor” (R. Gober, quoted in T. Vischer, (ed.), Robert Gober: Sculptures and Installations, 1979-2007, exh. cat., Schaulager Basel, 2007, p. 346). Untitled follows directly upon the heels of Gober’s highly-acclaimed show at the DIA Center for the Arts in 1992, which featured running water for the first time. Gober continued to showcase water in various permutations well into the following decades, from small tidepools filled with leaves or sea urchins, to a cascading waterfall coursing down a flight of stairs. So, too, would the sewer grate endure as a potent visual motif in his work, as he continued to create hidden vignettes beneath the floor.
Almost hidden from plain sight, the viewer’s first encounter with Untitled is largely an aural one, as the sounds of burbling water prompt an automatic response to locate its source. The work invites one of the closest, most intimate encounters between the spectator and the gallery object, since the viewer is required to almost kneel down beside the grate in order to view its contents. “Half the people may walk away without seeing it,” Gober has remarked (R. Gober, quoted in D. Miller, “A World of Choices,” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 29, 1995, p. G-7). Yet those who stay are invited into a private world that evokes the intimacy of the body with a closeness that verges on voyeurism. “You have to kneel down to see what’s down inside the confined space—a pale, nude torso of a naked man… It’s a horrifying image, a human who has become part of a sewer. But the starkness of the bare room is also strangely beautiful” (C. Temin, “Global Bounty,” Chicago Tribune, 17 December 1995, section 7, p. 13). Indeed, much of Gober’s work brings together aspects of the real world in dreamlike scenarios that verge on nightmare: sinks that lack water, butter or cereal inflated to Alice in Wonderland magnitude; distorted baby cribs in slanting or x-shaped alterations; body parts severed—Wizard of Oz-like—by the very gallery walls that contain them. By deliberately distorting the objects Gober re-creates, he allows them to function as symbolic metaphors, breaking free from the reality of our perceived world and moving into a liminal space—one that exists somewhere between reality and dreams.
In the present work, Gober’s figure is likewise suspended within a liminal space, which is compounded by the fact that we can see him, but he’s lost to us: “The tension in the situation arises from our shared awareness that, once the object disappears, it’s way beyond recovery,” Richard Flood has written. “The pathos in Gober’s sculpture is that the lost object is not only unrecoverable but is also lodged in plain view; it refuses to be swept away” (R. Flood, “The Law of Indirections,” in Robert Gober: Sculpture and Drawing, exh. cat., Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1999, p. 26). As an artist who survived the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, Gober experienced first-hand the deep and fathomless sense of loss as loved ones ravaged by disease were swept away in its wake. Their sudden disappearance is echoed by the figure that Gober so lovingly recreates in Untitled, whose pale and waxen body has been entombed beneath our feet.
The distinct cruciform shape of the drain that’s embedded in the figure’s sternum is highly significant to the artist’s work, one that Gober has recreated in several sculptures and drawings since its original inception, and its particular cross-shaped design is based on a remembered drain from his childhood. The cross might then symbolize the removal of dirt (cleanliness is next to godliness), yet another potent reminder of Gober’s Catholic upbringing, as well as invoking orifices or wounds. Considered in its context, the drain might take on additional meaning, perhaps as a stigmata or invoking the tell-tale lesions of AIDS-related Kaposi’s sarcoma. In Untitled many conflicting motifs coexist side-by-side, together in the poetic, self-contained world Gober depicts—hygiene, cleanliness, the purifying rituals of baptism and the effluvia caught and trapped by the sewer, unseen but nevertheless a daily presence in all of our lives, are all redolent, vying for the viewer’s attention.
Gober maintains vivid childhood memories from his youth in the suburban enclave of Wallingford, Connecticut, where he was raised as a devout Catholic, at times serving as an altar boy during mass. His earliest works examined the domestic trappings of the suburban family home, beginning with the doll houses of the 1970s and the sinks of the mid-1980s. His now famous Slides of a Changing Painting (1982-1983) established much of the imagery that would go on to form his rich visual lexicon (the torso and drain motifs featuring in Untitled can be traced to these slides). Childhood and suburbia have remained insistent themes, infused with clear memories the artist has “carried with him,” and remade into sculpture, whether washing peaches in the giant, basin-like sink in the basement of his childhood home or going to the beach as a child and splashing in the water. Seemingly innocuous domestic objects—and functional ones at that—sinks, drains, and sewer grates are imbued with Gober’s personal memories but exist in a shared consciousness, making the viewing experience a profoundly personal one that varies with each spectator. Though harmless enough, these objects are often tinged with sinister allusions—made overt and grisly in the present work—in which something unsavory lurks beneath the surface. In the white picket fences and clean, manicured lawns of suburbia, Gober reminds us that what we might see on the surface often contradicts what lies beneath.
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Property from an Important Private European Collection
signed, titled, numbered and dated 'R. Gober 1993-94 UNTITLED Ed. 1 of 2' (on the side of the pump); signed, titled, numbered and dated again 'R. Gober 1993-94 UNTITLED Ed. 1 of 2' (on the side of the brick box); signed, dated and numbered again 'R. Gober 1993-4 ED. #1 of 2' (on the side of the grate)
Robert Gober (b. 1954)
New York, Paula Cooper Gallery, Robert Gober, May-June 1994 (another example exhibited).
Pittsburgh, The Carnegie Museum of Art, Carnegie International 1995, November 1995-February 1996, pp. 28, 86-88 and 244 (another example exhibited and illustrated in color).
Athens School of Fine Arts, Everything That's Interesting is New: The Dakis Joannou Collection, January-April 1996, pp. 116-117 (illustrated in color and installation view illustrated in color).
Seattle, Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, INSIDE: Louise Bourgeois, Robert Gober, Mona Hatoum, Gary Hill, Ilya Kabakov, Annette Messager, Lucas Samaras, April-June 1997 (another example exhibited).
Houston, The Menil Collection, Robert Gober: The Meat Wagon, October 2005-January 2006, pp. 92-93, 96 and 100 (another example exhibited and illustrated in color).
Miami, Institute of Contemporary Art, Robert Gober, December 2017-February 2018 (another example exhibited).
R. Smith, "Robert Gober," New York Times, 06 May 1994, p. C19.
H. Schwartz, "Robert Gober: The Remorse and Conscience", Flash Art, Summer 1994, no. 177, p. 96 (illustrated).
R. Jones, "Robert Gober," frieze, September/October 1994, no. 18, pp. 70-71.
A. Perchuk, "Robert Gober," Artforum, October 1994, p. 101 (illustrated).
A. Aukeman, "Robert Gober," ARTnews, November 1994, p. 154.
D. Miller, "Robert Gober: Enviromental Artist," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 29 October 1995, p. G7 (installation view illustrated).
D. Miller, "Out with the Old," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 03 November 1995, p. 15.
C. Temin, "Global Bounty: Carnegie exhibits a feast of the visual arts," Chicago Tribune, 17 December 1995, section 7, p. 13.
R. Flood, "Real Life Rock: Richard Flood's Top Ten," Artforum, February 1996, p. 24.
Distemper: Dissonant Themes in the Art of the 1990s, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institute, 1996, pp. 46-47.
C. Gispert, ed., Historia de Arte: Volumen XVI: Últimas tendencias, Barcelona, 1997, p. 2969.
Robert Gober, exh. cat., Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, 1997, p. 52 (illustrated).
Robert Gober. The 1996 Larry Aldrich Foundation Award Exhibition, exh. cat., Ridgefield, Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, 1997, p. 27.
R. Smith, "Religion That's in the Details," New York Times, 19 November 1997, p. E1.
D. Joselit, "Poetics of the Drain", Art in America, vol. 85, December 1997, pp. 64-71.
Robert Gober: Sculpture + Drawing, exh. cat., Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, 1999, pp. 25-26, 40, 131-132 and 136.
J. Dietch, ed., Monument to Now: The Dakis Joannou Collection, New York, 2004, pp. 147-148 (illustrated in color).
R. Ferguson, ed., Robert Gober, Los Angeles, 2005, p. 53.
T. Vischer, ed., Robert Gober: Sculptures and Installations 1979-2007, Basel, 2007, pp. 344-347, no. S1993.02 (illustrated in color and installation view illustrated).
Robert Gober: The Heart is Not a Metaphor, exh. cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2014, p. 82.
Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1998