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The Museum of Modern Art is again a building site with construction on the location of the somewhat un-functional Tod Williams/Billie Tsien’s American Folk Art Museum. Ironically or innocently, Richard Gober’s first American retrospective exhibition, curated by Ann Temkin, extends this construction metaphor: a reconstruction of the 1992 Dia installation with its painting-by-numbers North Fork forest scene, prison bars, light bulbs and water, extrudes from the second floor galleries as a temporary plywood extension. Two Partially Buried Sinks (1986–7) in cast iron and enamel paint, like headstones in a cemetery, is interred in turf on scaffolding on 54th Street but visible through a window in the same gallery, where a laminated fir and particle board, Plywood (1987) leans against the wall.
And then of course there are the sinks. Gober made over 50 sink sculptures and many drawings of sinks between 1983 and 1986. Normally these are bathetic in their alignment of individual and world events but a fascinating chronology in the exhibition catalogue gives some interesting anecdotal information. Under ‘1960’ there is a reference to Gober’s mother’s cleaning woman, Jenny, who compulsively washes her hands in the large enamelled cast-iron sink installed by Gober’s father in the basement. Under the 1984 entries we learn from Kevin Larmon that when visiting one of his friends, Lazlo, who was dying of AIDS (only so named in July 1982), Gober found ‘he felt he was constantly washing his hands and that the sinks partially grew out of that experience’.
Each sink started as a cartoon on the wall before Gober constructed it from plywood (including at one point his kitchen counter) and steel, covered with wire lath, which he plastered and then painted in multiple coats of Benjamin Moore’s Dulamel semi-gloss enamel, straight from the tin, to imitate the appearance of enamel. The sinks lack faucets and plumbing. The first sink appeared in a group show at the Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, in September 1984, but the first one-man sink show took place at the Daniel Weinberg Gallery, Los Angeles in January 1985. All the sinks except for Corner Sink from this show are included in the second gallery of the exhibition. Every sink sold in the Weinberg exhibition: ‘I always imagined them hung in corporate boardrooms’ (Gober).
In the next phase Gober’s sinks became more distorted, stretched and contorted – more abstract but less minimal – as in The Sink Inside of Me (1985). To the sink and urinal repertoire were added sculptures of beds, armchairs (Slip Covered Armchair, 1986–7) and playpens.
There is something very painterly about Gober’s sinks – not least in the layers of enamel paint. From 1–5 May 1984 Gober showed Slides of a Changing Painting at the Paula Cooper Gallery in a two-projector-with-dissolve evening installation – during the day it was a Robert Mangold exhibition. Gober said: ‘I wanted to make many images, a surfeit of images, and images that weren’t for sale’. The paintings were made on a small Masonite board and photographed as the imagery developed. The slides – some 1000 – were edited down to three sections of 23, 42 and 24 slides for the Paula Cooper show. Another piece is now in the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
Revisiting the slides in 1990 Gober realized that they contained a repertoire of images he had used subsequently. Stills from this piece intersperse the MoMA exhibition catalogue.
Gober’s first room-sized installations, both untitled, were made in 1989 for the Paula Cooper Gallery and these are recreated in Gallery Four, with wallpaper of a sleeping white man and a lynched black man in first space and of genitalia in the second. In the first there is a bridal gown made of silk satin, muslin, linen and tulle on a welded frame and hand-painted hydrostone plaster Fine Fare Cat Litter bags; in the second, there is Bag of Donuts made of dough and synthetic resin and cast-pewter drains set in the wall.
The year 1989 also saw the first appearance of the human figure in Gober’s sculpture with Untitled Leg, inspired by the sight of an exposed hairy section on a businessman’s leg on a commuter plane. The hair comes from a wig supplier and is implanted on the warmed beeswax cast of Gober’s own leg. The shoe is from Brooks Brothers, bought by a cross-dressing friend of one of the studio assistants, who then walked in them for a couple of weeks. These leg sculptures connote surrealism and fetishism, especially the later ones using the cast of a young boy’s leg, such as Untitled (1994–5) with the legs as fuel in a fireplace. Duchamp’s Étant donnés (1946–66),unveiled at Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1969, is referenced by Gober’s 1997 suitcase lying open on the floor, revealing a sewer grate leading to a subterranean pool with, just visible, the legs of a man and baby.
The weakest sections of the exhibition are the recreation of a group show that Gober curated in 1999 at Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, and the last installation responding to the attacks of 11 September 2001. Whilst it is important to acknowledge Gober’s work as a curator, this is probably done best through secondary documentation rather than showing the work of other artists – Anni Albers, Juan Semmel, Nancy Shaver, Robert Beck and Cady Noland. And why these artists and not Charles Burchfield, whose watercolours Gober curated in 2010 in ‘Heat Waves in a Swamp’ at the Hammer Gallery, Los Angeles? This and the recreation of the Paula Cooper and Dia installations also problematizes the relationship between an institution such as MoMA and the primary and secondary galleries. As for 9/11, it is difficult, even impossible, to make great art about this cataclysmic event and perhaps one should not try.
But the exhibition, brilliantly spaced and laid-out, does end on a compelling, symmetrical note. In Gallery 11, Prayers Are Answered (1980–1) is a plywood, wire lath, cement, plaster and tar church or mission structure, loosely based on a Catholic church on 7th Street and Avenue B in the East Village, but its fresco paintings reveal the harshness of New York life, and not religious scenes. In the final room, Gallery 13, is one of the dollhouses, Half Stone House (1979–80) that Gober made to survive financially. It connects with the 1975 painting of the Connecticut house where Gober grew up, at the entrance of the exhibition. The separated wooden door and door frame, Untitled Door and Door Frame (1987–8) echoes Untitled Closet (1989) in the first Gallery. We are back with the building metaphor.