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Robert Gober’s 40-Year Retrospective at MOMA

The back of a man’s bowler-hatted head. A trio of hooded Klansmen smoking cigars. Dennis Hopper in a gas mask, screaming. These are just a few images that might come to mind when we consider the flipside of “normal.” To those unforgettable visuals — executed by (respectively) René Magritte, Philip Guston, and David Lynch — it’s possible to add another 20th-century icon of angsty unease: Robert Gober’s sink sculptures. Functionless, tomblike, and white as old dentures, the handcrafted fixtures are eerily reminiscent of steers’ skulls sucked dry and bleached by scorching idiot winds.

Inspired by a dream and executed between 1983 and 1986, the 50-odd porcelain pieces launched a 40-year career that has produced rafts of other commanding objects. But while Gober’s more complex works have explicitly tapped timely traumas and upped the ante on the use of uncanny effects, few match the enigmatic force of his plumbing parts. Encountering the homely, sparely constructed, resolutely handmade basins can still trigger the sensation of standing in front of a freshly condemned property or, if you’re in a memorializing mood, of visiting Arlington National Cemetery.

In “Robert Gober: The Heart Is Not a Metaphor,” currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, 12 of Gober’s sinks rightly take center stage among a sprawling exhibition that includes other discrete objects, three room-size installations, and a single exhibition of other artists’ pieces the sculptor organized at a Chelsea gallery in 1999. Put together by MOMA curators Ann Temkin and Paulina Pobocha, this first large-scale U.S. survey makes a claim for Gober as an AIDS-era postmodernist who stayed true to that epoch’s anti-illusionist conventions. Yet that pat tagline proves inadequate. However much the show’s curators and catalog writers (not to mention the artist himself) urge the viewer to “focus less, or at least not first, on finding ‘meaning’ or a ‘theme’ in the work,” Gober’s broadly narrative efforts pour out alternative storylines like an indefatigably leaky faucet.

Despite its rich formal qualities, Gober’s work is of the kind wrongly celebrated chiefly for being on the right side of history. An AIDS activist and a 1980s New York art world regular, he actively sublimated the horror and estrangement of the Reagan–Bush years into surrealist-inspired, 3-D synecdoches for the era’s deep malaise. From collective anxiety, Gober hatched a shopworn aesthetic that in MOMA’s environs evokes Grandma’s house seen through funhouse-quality bifocals. In one gallery, for instance, you encounter a bare light bulb made from enamel, beeswax, and rope; another contains a playpen slanted weirdly like Hans Holbein’s famous anamorphic skull. A third space tucks a slipcovered armchair dozily into a corner, the better to whisper its odd secret: It’s undersized and therefore deviant.

Because they’re planed, painted, and stitched into significant irregularity, Gober’s hand-wrought objects burst with disquieting metaphors in a way his larger environments do not. One untitled installation at MOMA includes a wedding gown, cast plaster bags of kitty litter, and hand-printed wallpaper with images of a sleeping white man and a hanged black one. Lacking the focus of Gober’s discrete pieces, the life-size diorama setup carries the weight of urgent socio-political issues. Yet even now — at the height of the gay-marriage triumph — the piece feels like it robs the viewer of Gober’s more allusive mysteries. A prediction here for future Gober appreciation: When we remember his work 30 years from now, it will be for the weird hum emanating from his trippy single sculptures, not because he hewed to once-fashionable minimalism or was a charter member of ACT UP.

As Hilton Als points out in the catalog that accompanies Gober’s survey, the artist, like the photographer Diane Arbus, has long believed that he can “make a whole work out of a divided self.” That divided self is America’s house divided, an idea that takes on literal dimensions if we consider Gober’s first mature artwork — a finely detailed dollhouse. After some research, the artist realized Greek Revival style was the first indigenous form of American architecture. A light bulb came on: “To me this seemed so perfect and quintessentially American in its hypocrisy,” he told an interviewer, “that slave owners would use a temple to represent themselves.”

The dollhouse and other objects in this exhibition contain America’s foundational hypocrisy, along with the great theme of the counterculture’s mass alienation. Those subjects are the essential narratives Gober suspends in the dark amber of his illusionism.

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Robert Gober’s Angsty Minimalism Hits MOMA in October

Coco Chanel may seem an unlikely muse for Robert Gober: The Heart Is Not a Metaphor, the first American retrospective of the New York-based artist, which opens at MOMA in October. But we can imagine at least one Chanel aphorism suiting exhibition organizer Ann Temkin, the museum’s chief curator of painting and sculpture.

See also: The 2014 Fall (Arts) Issue: An Index

Chanel wisely counseled that a woman should remove one accessory before walking out the door. For Temkin, who is tasked with orchestrating Gober’s enigmatic sculptures and room-sized installations exploring themes of domesticity, childhood, religion, sex, and death, restraint guides her approach to the 130-odd works that span the artist’s career, from student days to the present.

“In planning the rooms, every time we took one thing out, it would be like, ‘Now the room’s really great,’ ” Temkin says. “So if we put nothing in this show, it’ll be the best show of all.”

Temkin’s quip has its truths: When installed well, a Gober holds a room. But many of his deceptively simple works, especially the signature sinks, the neo-minimalist children’s playpens, and his eerie, lifelike wax legs (complete with human hair), pose challenges to museums. The problem is how to ensure that things like body parts jutting out of walls avoid taking on the aspect of a surrealist joke. Hey ma, don’t trip on that dude’s leg!

“The work is not really the two feet by three feet that it occupies,” Temkin says. “It’s that, plus this psychic force that it requires around it. If that psychic force isn’t afforded by the available space, the piece can risk silliness, or decorativeness. So one of the big concerns is to leave a lot of space, literally, for the viewer.”

Those concerns mean that MOMA galleries that normally house up to 20 paintings will contain just a few Gobers each. There should be plenty of room for his painstakingly crafted sculptures, many of which look like readymades but aren’t, plus his more recent multi-sensory room-sized installations. MOMA will also recreate several of his other large-scale works, including a 1992 Dia Art Foundation exhibition featuring wallpaper printed with a dense forest and the artist’s signature sinks and prison bars.

Since coming to prominence in the mid 1980s, Gober, 59, has enjoyed exhibitions across the United States and in Europe. He represented the U.S. in the 2001 Venice Biennale and was the subject of a major retrospective in Switzerland in 2007. But this is his first hometown show.

Though Gober started off studying to be a painter, and his MOMA show will include his touchstone work, Slides of a Changing Painting, from 1982 to ’83, he ultimately found his voice in three dimensions.

Gober and his generation — including such sculptors as Charles Ray, who started off minimalist but turned to hyper-realism — mark an important shift in the history of the art form. They returned to sculpture a sense of human experience — for Gober, that meant references to childhood, religion, and homosexuality — that the Minimalists before him, like Richard Serra, Carl Andre and Donald Judd, had eschewed.

“For Gober, coming of age in the early ’80s, the potential of sculpture for—it’s a bad pun, it’s unintended—carving new territory was rich,” Temkin says. “For a couple of generations at that point, abstraction had really dominated sculpture. So there was a whole lot of room to delve into this territory that once again could include imagery, whether it be things or bodies.

“Today we take for granted that sculpture can be something that is representational or figurative and can have a narrative,” the curator continues. “But 30 or 40 years ago, that would have been quite unthinkable. If it wasn’t Judd or Andre or Serra, if the terms weren’t dictated by them, it just wasn’t modern.”

Though Gober seemed to reject the ideology of that earlier generation, he was well aware of his predecessors. Many Gober works—such as his variations on children’s playpens, which are clean wooden objects that might pass for Sol LeWitts—can be read through a minimalist prism. They just happen to also include a frisson of childhood drama—of vulnerability, imprisonment, and irrationality. Gober’s is an angsty minimalism.

The artist’s images of fragmented bodies, birth, and androgynous figures, which might give a Freudian pause, are deeply indebted to the feminist artists of the 1970s and ’80s. Gober was well versed in the work of Yvonne Rainer, Jenny Holzer, and Louise Lawler, all of whom inserted autobiography and social commentary into their artwork.

In recent decades, Gober has produced ever more ambitious and encompassing installations. Many are total sensory experiences, and several include an unusual element: running water.

One example is an untitled work that debuted in a 5,000-square-foot space at Chelsea’s Matthew Marks Gallery in the spring of 2005 and is now part of MOMA’s collection. It includes a bronze crucifix with water pouring from Christ’s nipples and two figures soaking in bathtubs with running water. The uncommon liquid prerequisite has led Temkin and her team to hang the show on the second floor instead of the museum’s sixth-story special exhibition spaces.

“On the second floor, if there is some kind of disaster, the only thing it’ll ruin underneath is the lobby,” Temkin says of her show’s location. “You don’t want any plumbing problems to happen over a Picasso.”

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SWAMP ROCK

Molly Hamilton and Robert Earl Thomas have been bringing nature to life as Widowspeak with their yearning, nostalgia-laced jams for a while now, so it seems fitting that they perform outdoors in MoMA’s sculpture garden tonight. Regular museum admission grants listeners access to the special performance, which is held in conjunction with the MoMa Nights and PopRally series. After forming the band in 2010, Hamilton and Thomas released Almanac in early 2013 through the obscurity-loving Brooklyn label Captured Tracks. Their music leans on Americana until it breaks, then glues it all back together with pieces of psych rock and heady, delicate guitar work. Their latest record, The Swamps, highlights Hamilton’s gossamer croons with increased percussion and even more off-kilter rhythms, channeling the murkiness that the album’s title suggests. This intimate, novel venue lends itself to a unique performance not to be missed.

Thu., Aug. 28, 6:30 p.m., 2014

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THEESatisfaction

If there were a song to play every time the seasons changed, it could probably be “Queens” by Seattle rap duo THEESatisfaction. The tune’s positive energy and strength of purpose undeniably evoke change, transition, and internal growth, a vibe further enhanced by the duo’s left-field, cosmic style of R&B-meets rap. That singular sound characterizes all the music created by Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White, the two friends/lovers who have been writing, producing and performing as THEESatisfaction since before 2008 when they self-released their first EP. The Queens Supreme also lent their vocals to Shabazz Palaces’ Black Up record prior to signing with Sub Pop, who issued their debut album awE naturalE in 2012. Their ceaseless beats will also make anyone dance, even while standing in the sculpture garden at MoMA. Rain or shine, THEESatisfaction is a non-stop flow of pure energy, so whatever you do, don’t funk with their groove.

Thu., Aug. 21, 5:30 p.m., 2014

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Shots to the Head: Christopher Williams Decks You with Sly Photographic Contrivances

Thank you, MoMA, for all the dizzying vinyl graphics buzzing around the entrance to the Christopher Williams show. The truncated excerpts from the exhibition catalog, printed in hypersaturated red, yellow, and black make no curatorial claims and only marginal sense, so diving straight into Williams’s alluring photo-conceptualist pictures — and the occasional hunk (literally) of exhibition wall — is remarkably easy. If you see the words “Christopher Williams: The Production Line of Happiness,” you simply go on in.

Inside, this strange work is made stranger by the absence of explanation…and not a single wall label.

Williams produces images, but he isn’t a photographer, and he rarely releases a shutter. He’s more like an editor or a film director, mining archives or hiring others to stage and take his pictures. (The museum is screening some of his films in a concurrent program.) And like a good editor, Williams can be manipulative, even dictatorial. Here, per his instruction, these 100-odd pictures hang low, as if his intended audience were in wheelchairs. The rest of us have to hunch, reminded that what lies ahead shouldn’t be taken at face value.

The tremendously appealing Falke sock, for instance. In 2009’s Untitled (Study in Red) / Dirk Schaper Studio, Berlin / April 30, 2009 — yes that’s the title, and it hints at what the artist is up to — Williams offers us a close-up of an arched foot shod in a crimson sock. To make it, he enlisted a Berlin commercial-photo operation that counts Alfa Romeo and Deutsche Bank among its clientele. The studio applied all the product-hawking trappings: a woman’s sexy foot, her hands slipping the sock on suggestively; flat lighting; a brand name running along the sock’s sole. But if you look closer, you’ll see remnants of a blister — or is it a wart? — at the base of the model’s Achilles tendon. And her nails: She could really use a manicure. There is too much real here, not enough Photoshop — an advertisement masquerade that gives itself away in its lack of manipulation.

Though the most recent photo-based work here is from 2013, the Williams aesthetic, with his color schemes that echo photo-company logos and his obsession with the products and places of postwar consumer culture, is a nostalgic one. These concerns seem quaint in our Internet epoch, and the show is reassuring in its preoccupations with images, image making, and the fantasies of consumption.

What’s not to love, after all, about a pair of photos of a wholesome young woman with Kodak-yellow towels swaddling her hair and body? One version has her smiling sweetly, the other toothily grinning (echoing image pairs are a Williams signature). Both look like shampoo ads. Or, hang on…maybe not. You can’t see her hair. Perhaps it’s body wash. But she’s not lathering up. Her smile has got to be selling something. But what? Up in the top left corner, a card pokes into the scene. It’s a Kodak three-point reflection guide, an editorial tool that ensures colors come out right, and it tips us off to the production outside the frame. But what’s she selling?

Williams’s obsessions take a forensic turn in a recent suite of photos of sliced-up cameras that look as if Damien Hirst got his hands on them. In one, Williams presents a close-up of a Zeiss lens cut in half, as if exposing its guts might unlock the ghost in the machine. Instead, he reveals a baffling metal maze.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, there’s a sub-narrative at work concerning the politics of museum display. It shows up in the occasional piece of museum wall taken from other institutions (and from MoMA), or created to mimic other exhibitions, propped here and there. The effect is briefly disorienting but ultimately forgettable. It’s the pictures, in their outlandish mimicry, that are worth a thousand Kodak moments.

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LADY LUCK

Summers in New York are meant for events like MoMA Nights, when
attendees can enjoy great live music in the museum’s gorgeous Sculpture Garden every Thursday. Kicking off this year’s season, which celebrates women in music, is Brooklyn’s own Au Revoir Simone, the refreshingly dreamy electro-pop band that is fresh off the release of last year’s excellent Move in Spectrums. Their sound is not only perfect for a garden party but also the beginning of a wild summer lineup that includes Ex Hex, La Luz, Frankie Cosmos, and Widowspeak. Since the show is included with museum admission, you can check out the Lygia Clark exhibition or Robert Heinecken retrospective beforehand to stock up on all the culture you’ll need for your week.

Thu., July 3, 5:30 p.m., 2014

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DOWN THE SHORE

This is Rockaway, not Redondo. But Patti Smith is here nonetheless. It’s official: The queen of the downtown scene is kicking off MOMA PS1’s much-anticipated Rockaway Arts Fest with a free concert on the beach. It will also mark the re-opening of historic Fort Tilden Park (once home to a disproportionate number of shore-going hipsters and that creepy abandoned UFO-looking Army thing), still flustered but for the most part recovered from Hurricane Sandy. Works from local and nationally acclaimed artists are on display through August, but for now, enjoy this all-day opening ceremony with theater performances, food trucks, and kayaking demonstrations, all capped off by Smith, a proud Rockaways resident herself. If that’s not enough seafaring fun, head a few blocks inland for the after-party at Rockaway Beach Surf Club, the patio bar and restaurant replete with cornhole and kiddie pools.

Sun., June 29, 8 p.m., 2014

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JUST BREATHE

On any given day, making your way through the mazelike Museum of Modern Art can be a bit daunting. However, beginning today, visiting this institution is a lot more exciting as your very attendance becomes part of an exhibition. “Breathe with Me,” in conjunction with “Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, 1948–1988,” featuring varying ways to learn about art. Some highlights include Rio, in which participants read Clark’s work on a long strip of fabric that “becomes a line of text that flows like a river,” and Sirva-Se, which asks you to communicate using glasses of water attached to different parts of the body, and, through the simple act of passing water from one participant to another, explore issues such as trust, cooperation, silence, and flow.

Mondays-Sundays, 10 a.m. Starts: May 16. Continues through June 29, 2014

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OK COMPUTER

With only a single original member — Ralf Hütter — still at his pre-programmed workstation, electronica pioneers Kraftwerk have effectively become the Google car of contemporary music ensembles, a driverless machine offering effortless efficiency. For their first New York appearance since their 2012 MOMA retrospective, the Germanic foursome deepen their usually flat stage presence by adding pupil-popping 3-D imagery to their computer-generated mantras about rockets, robots, models, and modes of transportation. Slide on some ungainly non-Google glasses and enjoy satellites hurtling through space as the band appears to levitate before you. A custom surround-sound array of floor-to-ceiling speakers will make it all seem almost real.

Tue., April 1, 7:30 p.m., 2014

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Pleased to Meet Xu

With works such as his statuesque, back-bending human installations in Just a Blink of an Eye (2005-07) and his fully-stocked grocery store of pristine empty food packages in ShanghArt Supermarket (2007), Xu Zhen has staked out his spot as the foremost artist on the Shanghai scene, working in video, performance, and photography as well. He’s also an entertaining one: In 8848 – 1.86 (2005) Zhen claimed to have decapitated Mount Everest, but only by 1.86 meters, a questionable chunk of rock he then deposited in a gallery. As the 2014 Armory Show’s chosen commission, we anticipate more of his artsy high jinks. Today you can see his new work first at a preview of the annual modern art fair, followed by the coveted Armory Party tonight. British composer Dev Hynes, now going by Blood Orange, performs alongside a DJ set by Jamie xx. Proceeds benefit MOMA. Preview at noon, Piers 92 and 94 on the Hudson River, Twelfth Avenue at 55th Street, party at 9, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street.

Wed., March 5, 12 & 9 p.m., 2014