It’s not every day that New York’s Museum of Modern Art has to hire a plumber to help install an exhibition. But in the case of Robert Gober’s forthcoming retrospective, flowing water and all that it evokes – cleanliness, baptism, life as well as its destruction – are inextricable from his deeply personal, profoundly political art. So on a warm summer day in his Chelsea studio, Gober and his assistants are inspecting an empty tank – part of a surreal, untitled 1995-1997 sculpture of a suitcase sitting open on the floor, its unlikely contents a sewer grate revealing a mystical tide pool below – to ensure that it will still hold 150 gallons of water without springing a leak.
“Breaking a hole through the floor of MoMA is no small thing to do,” Gober admits, to say nothing of piping water precariously close to other valuable artworks.
Giving a tour of the garage-like space, Gober, 59, points out a table covered in lifelike mottled green wax apples. “It’s a months-long process to achieve something kind of simple,” he says with a chuckle. Lined up in the back are new functioning sculptures of sinks, which he cast from the originals shown in a landmark exhibition at the city’s Dia Art Foundation in 1992. Gober recently refabricated them in iron and enamel at a bathroom-fixture company, because the aeroplane paint he used 22 years ago proved too weak for prolonged submersion in water.
Gober’s oeuvre of such idiosyncratic, seemingly banal iconography – there are also cribs, legs, kitty litter, doors – coupled with his reticence about speaking to the press have made him one of contemporary art’s more enigmatic figures. His impact has been substantial: Gober’s preoccupations as a gay, Catholic man in the age of Aids helped give rise to identity art, as well as to work that confronted the body in new ways and contemplated the psychological intensity of the domestic environment. His doors obstruct; his playpens feel like cages; his human limbs and torsos are missing the rest of their bodies.
“He’s been enormously influential in giving [other] artists confidence in dealing with their queerness in their work,” says Richard Flood, director of special projects and curator at large at New York’s New Museum. “He became a huge hero for emerging from the [Aids] plague years with work that made people stop and think.”
Gober, who wears glasses and a neatly trimmed silver goatee, is circumspect about his Catholic upbringing in a working-class Connecticut town. “I think the benefit of a Catholic childhood is your belief in visual symbols as transmitters of information and clues about life, whether it’s the mystery of life or life in general,” he says. “You grow up trying to interpret, worshipping, visual symbols. It’s a body-soaked imagery that you’re looking at.” Christian iconography, such as a massive cross-shaped pipe cutting through a playpen in a new sculpture for MoMA, frequently appears in Gober’s work.
He had no real exposure to art as a child. As a student at Middlebury College, Vermont, in the early 1970s, when post-minimalism and conceptualism dominated, Gober made realistic paintings of such mundane subject matter as stacks of dishes. “There was a little bit of a ‘f*** you’ to it,” he says.
After graduating, Gober moved to New York and, while working in construction, met the artist Elizabeth Murray, who needed a new assistant. Through Murray, Gober met curators, including Kathy Halbreich, now MoMA’s associate director, as well as collectors and Murray’s dealer, Paula Cooper. “I got an eyeful,” he says.
His own attempts to paint failed to satisfy him, partly because of his then-gritty neighbourhood. “I was on Mercer Street, on the outer boundary of the Bowery, when the Bowery was filled with hopeless alcoholics,” he recalls. “My problem painting from my life was I found that you can’t paint dirt without romanticising it.”
In a conceptual riff on the medium, though, he tracked the evolution of one small painting over the course of a year, repeatedly applying paint or scraping it away and photographing the thousands of incarnations, from a bare interior with a window to a waterfall, a drain, a man’s chest, a woman’s chest, and so on. Edited down to 89 images, “Slides of a Changing Painting” was projected on a wall for his first solo show in 1984. “It was met with a yawn,” Gober says. “I put it away and kind of forgot about it.”
Yet the imagery continued to bubble to the surface. Flood calls “Slides” the “Rosetta Stone” of Gober’s oeuvre. Gober says it wasn’t until five years later that he realised the drain sculpture he’d been struggling to get right was pictured in the earlier piece. He has since returned to “Slides” again and again, like a visual journal.
When he abandoned painting, “I said to myself, ‘Well, Bob, what would you like to make?’ and immediately I said, ‘What about dollhouses?’ ” He planned to sell them as dollhouses, but “it wasn’t long before I found out I wasn’t making dollhouses, I was making sculptures. It was the symbol of the house that I was interested in. Then I was off and running.”
Soon after came his painted plaster sinks that hung on the wall but had no taps: each was like a frustration dream in 3D. To many viewers, the sinks looked anthropomorphic, an opinion Gober has at times disputed. “Look, they’re vessels that fluids pass into and out of. In that way they are comparable to bodies,” he says. “People said the holes look like eyes. To me the rounded tops of the sinks would be more like shoulders, and the holes would be nipples. They’re more literally like bodies. But they were sinks – sculptures of sinks.”
The sinks were a direct response to the Aids crisis. “I was a gay man living in the epicentre of 20th-century America’s worst health epidemic, and the sinks were a byproduct of that,” he says. “What do you do when you stand in front of a sink? You clean yourself. Yet they were about the inability to [do that].”
Then, for the Dia installation, he plumbed the sculptures, turning on the faucets and letting the water run in a room painted like a forest but with prison windows high on the walls. “It was a very hopeful yet complicated statement to make them functional,” he says.
It would be an oversimplification to conclude that all of his work is about his sexual orientation, which he says is “knitted into me” but “doesn’t define everything”. In a 1989 installation, Gober juxtaposed a white wedding dress with wallpaper featuring a black man hanging from a tree and a white man asleep in bed. When it was shown in Washington, DC, the African-American guards were aghast. “I had a lot to learn,” admits Gober, who was humbled to hear their interpretation of the lynching as his desire, rather than “my inherited amorphous guilt”. “I was trying to explain that it’s an image of a historic American crime. [One guard] said, ‘I believe you, but why, in the only image of a black man in the entire museum, is he hanging from a noose?’ ”
The wedding gown sprang in part from Gober’s time as an altar boy fascinated by weddings, and from his perspective as an adult banned from the rite. “This was decades before there was any talk of gay marriage.” Today, Gober and his partner of more than 20 years, painter Donald Moffett, have chosen not to wed. “This is an institution that deliberately tried to hurt me,” he says. “Why would I want to be a part of it?”
Gober’s art is poignantly metaphorical but he says it’s not a conscious effort. “When I’m at my best I’m working blind, going by my instincts,” he says. Such was the case with his series of wax limbs embedded with human hair. Gober made his first after becoming captivated by a handsome fellow passenger’s exposed shin on a plane journey. “It was about the challenge of making a sculpture about that moment where the sock doesn’t meet the pants and you see the flesh and the hair of the person,” he says.
To be sure, Gober’s work, as Flood puts it, “requires your curiosity to work over time”. But Gober is irked by some viewers’ notion that an artist intends a work to mean “one thing”. “What bothers me is that people are not comfortable [enough] in front of a work of art to say, ‘What does it bring up in me?’, as opposed to trying to figure out what they’re supposed to be thinking.
“I think art is about human existence,” he says. “Almost by default I’m expressing my experiences as a human.”
‘Robert Gober: The Heart Is Not a Metaphor’, MoMA, New York, October 4-January 18 2015, moma.org
Photographs: Tim Knox, Geoffrey Clements/Corbis