"Who You Are and Where You Come From":
Robert Gober and René Magritte
An excerpt from Pepe Karmel's essay for the exhibition, Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images, on view through March 4, 2007.
Rene Magritte, The Red Model, 1937.
Born in Wallingford, Connecticut in 1954, Gober studied at the Tyler School of Art in Rome and at Middlebury College in Vermont. In 1984, he had his first solo exhibition at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York. His sculpture and installations rapidly attracted worldwide attention. In 1991 and 1992, he was invited to create major installations for the Jeu de Paume in Paris, the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, and the Dia Center for the Arts in New York. In 2001, he represented the United States at the Venice Biennale. One of his most controversial installations was created in 1997 for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Here, he depicted the Virgin Mary standing atop a sewer drain, flanked by open suitcases containing similar drains; a large culvert pierced the torso of the Virgin, as if to suggest that her endless clemency was extended only at the risk of damage to her purity. If the Catholic imagery of this installation derived from Gober's childhood experience as a choir boy, the radical disruption of conventional imagery reflected the influence of Magritte and surrealism.2
For an artist of Gober's generation, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Magritte was an inescapable presence, visible everywhere on posters and album covers as well as museum walls. Gober's original ambition was to be a painter rather than a sculptor. "In high school," he recalls, "I wandered into the Yale Art Gallery. I remember looking at my first Magritte paintingthe one of a man in a bowler hat. I thought, 'I could do that.'" Years later, when he was preparing an installation for a 1991 exhibition at the Jeu de Paume, in Paris, he remembered Magritte's 1959 painting State of Grace, which depicts a cigar at the same scale as a bicycle. The centerpiece of his installation became a sculpture of a giant cigar, eight feet long. More recently, when Gober was invited to organize an exhibition in Houston at the Menil Collection by combining his own works with objects from the collection, he included three pictures by Magritte. However, the link between Gober's work and Magritte's cannot be reduced to a simple matter of "influence." The relationship is complex and often indirect.3
Beginning in 1982, Gober executed a series of sinks that became his first "trademark" images. These look as if he might have bought them at a plumbing supply store, much like the one where Marcel Duchamp bought the urinal for his 1917 readymade Fountain. But in fact Gober's sinks are sculptures, made from plaster over lathing and painted with enamel to simulate the look of porcelain. In some cases he has altered the shapes of the sinks, but even where they look perfectly "normal" there is something unsettling about them, beginning with the fact that they have no faucets or pipes attached. They are conspicuously nonfunctional in a way that makes us think twice (or three times) about everything they might recall or suggest.
Gober's sinks evoke a profound ambiguity. On one hand, they function as an architecture of purification, a setting in which dirty things are made clean again. By the same token, however, they are places where dirt is collected. Gober's first sinks, without taps or drains, were followed by sculptures of drains imbedded directly in the wall. It seems as if he wanted to focus the viewer's minds on different, contradictory moments in the process of purification. The pristine whiteness of the sinks is preserved or restored by gathering up the filth and sending it down the drain, which becomes a repository for everything we fear and reject.4
By 1986, Gober could sense that the image of the sink was "going away," and that the end of the series was in sight. He "laid the image to rest" by burying the sinks in the earth, so that their bowls were invisible while their backsplashes rose straight out of the ground like tombstones. The funereal association was reinforced by the drawing he did for an exhibition announcement, where the words "ROBERT GOBER / new work" appear to be engraved on the backsplash like the name and dates on a slab.5 Gober's allusion to the decorative architecture of death recalls Magritte's Perspective series of the early 1950s, where he repainted famous French paintings, substituting coffins for the "living" figures in the originals. In the right (or wrong) frame of mind, every box is simultaneously a coffin and every vertical slab is simultaneously a tombstone.6
Beginning in 1989, Gober's creative activity shifted increasingly from individual objects to more complex environments. His 1991 installation at the Jeu de Paume and his 1992 installation at the Dia Center for the Arts both incorporated elaborate paintings of forest settings, covering all four walls of the exhibition space. At first glance, this might have seemed like an updated version of the trompe l'oeil murals of gardens that decorated wealthy homes in ancient Rome.7 However, Gober subverted the illusion of a forest by inserting a number of inconsistent elements. At Dia, for instance, there were piles of newspaper stacked around the room, sinks fastened to the sides of the room, and barred windows cut into the upper part of the walls. The sinks and the windows, in particular, had the disturbing effect of converting the "outside" (the forest view) into an "inside."
The painted walls in these installations recall an incident from Gober's childhood, when his family's house was repainted after a fire, and the painter, aspiring to be an artist instead of a mere craftsman, painted a trompe l'oeil scene in one room. Gober, still a boy, was very impressed. His adult decision simultaneously to recreate this trompe l'oeil view and to subvert it recalls the canvases in which Magritte depicted a landscape painting set on an easel in front of a landscape, with the view on the canvas merging seamlessly into the "real" view around it. The breakdown of the border between representation and reality induces a kind of mental vertigo.
A similar vertigo is induced by Diane Arbus's 1966 photograph, A lobby in a building, N.Y.C., which reproduces a photomural of a river running through the countryside, framed by birch trees. What keeps Arbus's photograph from being simply a copy of the photomural (a Sherrie Levine before Sherrie Levine) is a series of small clues about the photomural's setting, in particular the strip of molding at the bottom of the image and the dark line rising through the image where it wraps around the corner of the room. These serve the same purpose as the legs of the easel and the raw edge of the canvas inside Magritte's painting, distinguishing between two levels of reality within the image. Gober clearly knew Arbus's photograph when he created his 1991 and 1992 installations. It is reproduced in the 1972 monograph of her work, which appears in one of his early still-life drawings.8 Gober was deeply impressed by Arbus and her use of photography as a way of "being able to look at everything that you weren't supposed to."9
The barred windows of Gober's 1992 Dia installation not only subvert the "reality" of the surrounding environment but also pose an existential question: "Are you in nature that's a prison or are you in a prison cell that's a forest?"10 Pressed for an explanation of this imagery, the artist refers to Jean-Paul Sartre's 1944 play, No Exit, in which a man and two women, all recently deceased, find themselves together in a windowless room stuffed with bourgeois furniture. At first they are surprised by the absence of the fires and instruments of torture that they expected to encounter in hell. But as they get to know one another, they realize that spending eternity with people they detest will be punishment enough. "Hell is other people," the man famously concludes. Gober's installation suggests a corollary: that anyplace, even a pristine forest, can be a hell if you are imprisoned by your own imagination.
Within this disconcerting setting, the windows (which have also been exhibited separately) evoke a poignant ambiguity. Looking up through the bars, one sees a patch of wall painted and lit to evoke a beautiful blue sky. The high window creates a feeling of imprisonment, but at the same time a strange sensation of joy and liberation. The emotional tension of Gober's installation recalls Magritte's The Dominion of Light, showing a darkened street beneath a bright blue sky.11 The obvious "joke" here lies in the combination of realistic but incompatible elements, but the picture's enduring popularity derives from its emotional complexity, its suggestion that depression and elation canindeed must coexist in our experience. If a forest can be a prison, a prison can also be a forest.
In 198789, before arriving at the window motif, Gober had created a series of sculptures of doors that art historian Sarah Whitfield has linked to Magritte's painting of the same motif.12 Indeed, the door as a symbol of liminalitythe transition from one state to anothercan be traced beyond Magritte to Danish symbolist Vilhelm Hammershøi and the German romantic Caspar David Friedrich. If Gober's sinks and windows seemed to derive primarily from the surrealist tradition, his door sculptures demonstrate his ability to work simultaneously in the traditions of surrealism and of minimalism.
Gober's meticulous re-creation of an ordinary paneled door leans casually against the wall, echoing the work of minimal and postminimal sculptors of the 1960s. Traditionally, the vertical thrust of sculpture has served as a symbol for the vitality and independence of the human spirit. Sculptors such as John McCracken and Richard Serra jettisoned this rhetoric, making work that casually submitted to the force of gravity or struggled against it with obvious effort.13 Nonetheless, they took care to differentiate their work from conventional sculpture: McCracken reduced his work to planes of pure color, polished to a transcendent gleam, while Serra crudely shaped his early sculptures from industrial materials such as rubber and lead.
Gober addresses the same sculptural issues using what seem everyday objects: a door or a sheet of plywood. But there is something deceptive about this ostentatious avoidance of "art." Gober's sculptures are not readymades but meticulous re-creations; a sheet of plywood, for instance, is made from plywood veneer wrapped around a chipboard core. It is, as Gober puts it, "a hyper-realistic sculpture of an abstract object." Gober was drawn to plywood, in particular, by its role in minimal art. In the 1960s, Tony Smith and Robert Morris had used plywood to construct geometric shapes, which they then painted black and grey. Later, Donald Judd constructed a long series of sculptures from raw plywood. In adopting this material, Gober was, as he puts it, "taking the available forms of minimalism and fusing them with other -isms."14
Gober's use of plywood also provides a link to Magritte, who was surprisingly interested in the role of wood as a traditional support for painting. In several 1927 pictures, including The Prince of Objects, it seems as if part of the image has been wiped away to reveal the striated lines of the wooden panel on which the picture is painted. The wavering lines of the wood grain echo the depicted forms even as they disrupt the illusion of realism. And the revelation of the material support is itself a deception: the pictures in question are painted on canvas.15
1. As Sarah Whitfield points out in "Magritte and his Audience," Magritte's imagery anticipates the work both of pop and minimal artists such as Jim Dine and Robert Morris, and of younger artists such as Gober and Allan McCollum. See Magritte, exh. cat. (London: South Bank Centre, 1992), 11-23. For a more detailed discussion of Gober and Magritte, see Joan Simon, "Robert Gober et l'Extra Ordinaire," in Robert Gober, exh. cat. (Paris: Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, and Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, 1991), 9-10. (I am grateful to Whitney Museum of American Art curator Joan Simon, and to her assistant Stephanie Schumann, for providing me with a copy of this hard-to-find catalogue essay.) See also Gober's comments about Magritte in Craig Gholson, "[Interview with] Robert Gober," Bomb, no. 29, Fall 1989; reprinted in speak art! the best of BOMB magazine's interviews with artists, ed. Betsy Sussler (New York: G+B Arts International, 1997), 94. Regarding the influence of minimalism on contemporary art, see Lynn Zelevansky, Sense and Sensibility: Women Artists and Minimalism in the Nineties, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1994). Return to text.
2. On Gober's childhood and his attitudes toward the Catholic Church, see Simon in Robert Gober (Paris 1991), 16. Return to text.
3. Gober's recollection of discovering Magritte in high school is from an informal interview with the author on December 21, 2005. The link between Gober's cigar and Magritte's State of Grace is discussed by Simon in Robert Gober (Paris 1991), 11. For Gober's 2005 exhibition The Meat Wagon, which juxtaposed his own work with pictures by Magritte (including The Survivor , The Song of the Storm , and a drawn version of The Red Model ) and a wide variety of objects from the Menil Collection, see Robert Gober: The Meat Wagon, exh. cat. (Houston: The Menil Foundation, 2006). Return to text.
4. Another aspect of the meaning of Gober's sinks lies in their reference to the daily labor of housekeeping. This is something he alluded to in a painting from his student years, showing a woman washing dishes in a sink; see the Untitled picture reproduced in Robert Gober: Sculpture + Drawing, exh. cat. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1999), 57. The woman washing dishes is seen from above; only her forearms and a sliver of her torso are visible, so that attention is focused on the sink. Joan Simon notes how often the themes of housecleaning and toilets appear in the art of the 1980s work of artists such as Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach, and Meyer Vaisman. Return to text.
5. Robert Gober, Untitled (1991), reproduced in Robert Gober, exh. cat. (London: Serpentine Gallery and Liverpool: Tate Gallery, 1993), 20. Gober made a similar allusion to his own mortality in a 1991 multiple where he reproduced a page from a 1960 issue of the New York Times, including a fake story recounting his own death by drowning at the age of six. Return to text.
6. It should be noted that the association between sinks and morbidity is not unique to Gober, but seems to be a part of the modern collective unconscious. For instance, the Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles used a sink in his installation Red Shift (1967-84). The viewer enters a room where all the furnishings are redthe carpet, the sofa, the bookshelves, the paintings on the walls. At the far end, there's a dark corridor where the red carpet becomes a puddle of red liquid. Around the corner, at the end of the corridor, the viewer discovers that the red liquid is coming from the drain of a spot-lit sink, with reddened water flowing out of the faucet. The installation is a reference to the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil in these decades: people continued making art, but in a sense everybody who participated in such bourgeois activities had blood on his hands. Meireles's political message seems very distant from Magritte's more abstract revolution in consciousness. See Dan Cameron's discussion of this work in Paulo Herkenhoff et al., Cildo Meireles, exh. cat. (London: Phaidon, 1999), 83-93. Return to text.
7. Compare, for instance, the wraparound garden painted for the Villa Livia around 30 BC, now on display in the Palazzo Massimo in Rome. It should be noted that the landscape of Gober's Jeu de Paume exhibition was based on "found" wallpaper patterns, so it functioned simultaneously as reality and as appropriation. See the wallpaper patterns reproduced in Robert Gober (Paris 1991), 9. Return to text.
8. Robert Gober, Untitled (1976), reproduced in Robert Gober (Minneapolis 1999), 55. Return to text.
9. Gober, interview with author, December 21, 2005. Return to text.
10. Ibid. Return to text.
11. There is a more literal antecedent for Gober's high windows in one of Magritte's lesser-known paintings, Natural Encounters (1945), which shows a pair of surreal figures standing in front of a wall pierced by two high casement windows revealing patches of blue sky. See David Sylvester et al., René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 2 (Antwerp: Mercatorfonds and Houston: The Menil Foundation, 1993), no. 595. Return to text.
12. Whitfield, in Magritte (London 1992), 18-19, and see Magritte's The Unexpected Answer (1933). Return to text.
13. Compare Richard Serra's Doors (1966-67), reproduced in Rosalind E. Krauss, Richard Serra, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1986), pl. 1. Return to text.
14. In fact, there is a literal link between Judd's plywood work and Gober's sculpture. Gober was determined to use the coarsest commercial grade of plywood veneer for the surface of his work, but it turned out that none of the companies that produce such veneer were willing to sell it in anything less than industrial quantities. Finally, the intervention of Peter Ballantine, who had overseen the fabrication of Donald Judd's plywood sculptures, persuaded Judd's supplier to sell Gober a single truckload of veneer. Return to text.
15. In addition to The Prince of Objects, see Sylvester, Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 1 (1992), nos. 183-87. Later, in a gouache from 1938 or 1939 (Fortune Telling, in Sylvester, Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 4 , no. 1143), Magritte combines the door motif and the wood motif, depicting a door that fades imperceptibly from a bluish white to the textured brown of bare wood. Return to text.
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Pepe Karmel is an associate professor of fine arts at New York University; he writes frequently on Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, minimalism, and contemporary art.
This excerpt is from the catalogue for Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images, an exhibition on view at LACMA from Nov. 19, 2006, to March 4, 2007. The catalogue is copublished by Ludion and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Robert Gober, Untitled, 1990, beeswax, cotton, wool, human hair, and leather shoe,
27.3 x 52.1 x 14.3 cm, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, Joseph H. Hirshhorn Purchase Fund, 1990, © Robert Gober,
photo © Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution (HMSG 90.15), by Lee Stalsworth.
René Magritte, The Red Model, 1937, oil on canvas, 183 x 136 cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, © 2006 C. Herscovici, London, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
"Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see."
Surely the most celebrated Belgian artist of the twentieth century, Rene Magritte has achieved great popular acclaim for his idiosyncratic approach to Surrealism. To support himself he spent many years working as a commercial artist, producing advertising and book designs, and this most likely shaped his fine art, which often has the abbreviated impact of an advertisement. While some French Surrealists led ostentatious lives, Magritte preferred the quiet anonymity of a middle-class existence, a life symbolized by the bowler-hatted men that often populate his pictures. In later years, he was castigated by his peers for some of his strategies (such as his tendency to produce multiple copies of his pictures), yet since his death his reputation has only improved. Conceptual artists have admired his use of text in images, and painters in the 1980s admired the provocative kitsch of some of his later work.
Magritte wished to cultivate an approach that avoided the stylistic distractions of most modern painting. While some French Surrealists experimented with new techniques, Magritte settled on a deadpan, illustrative technique that clearly articulated the content of his pictures. Repetition was an important strategy for Magritte, informing not only his handling of motifs within individual pictures, but also encouraging him to produce multiple copies of some of his greatest works. His interest in the idea may have come in part from Freudian psychoanalysis, for which repetition is a sign of trauma. But his work in commercial art may have also played a role in prompting him to question the conventional modernist belief in the unique, original work of art.
The illustrative quality of Magritte's pictures often results in a powerful paradox: images that are beautiful in their clarity and simplicity, but which also provoke unsettling thoughts. They seem to declare that they hide no mystery, and yet they are also marvelously strange. As Magritte biographer David Sylvester brilliantly described, his paintings induce "the sort of awe felt in an eclipse."
Magritte was fascinated by the interactions of textual and visual signs, and some of his most famous pictures employ both words and images. While those pictures often share the air of mystery that characterizes much of his Surrealist work, they often seem motivated more by a spirit of rational enquiry - and wonder - at the misunderstandings that can lurk in language.
The men in bowler hats that often appear in Magritte's pictures can be interpreted as self-portraits. Portrayals of the artist's wife, Georgette, are also common in his work, as are glimpses of the couple's modest Brussels apartment. Although this might suggest autobiographical content in Magritte's pictures, it more likely points to the commonplace sources of his inspiration. It is as if he believed that we need not look far for the mysterious, since it lurks everywhere in the most conventional of lives.
Most Important Art
Rene Magritte Artworks in Focus:
The Treachery of Images (1929)
The Treachery of Images cleverly highlights the gap between language and meaning. Magritte combined the words and image in such a fashion that he forces us to question the importance of the sentence and the word. "Pipe," for instance, is no more an actual pipe than a picture of a pipe can be smoked. Magritte likely borrowed the pipe motif from Le Corbusier's book Vers une architecture (1923), since he was an admirer of the architect and painter, but he may also have been inspired by a comical sign he knew in an art gallery, which read, "Ceci n'est pas de l'Art." The painting is the subject of a famous book-length analysis by Michel Foucault. One might also compare it with Joseph Kosuth's handling of a similar problem of image, text, and reality in his 1965 installation One and Three Chairs.Read More ...
Rene Magritte Overview Continues Below
Rene Magritte was the eldest of three boys, born to a fairly well-off family. His father is thought to have been in the manufacturing industry, and his mother was known to be a milliner before her marriage. Magritte's development as an artist was influenced by two significant events in his childhood; the first was an encounter with an artist painting in a cemetery, who he happened across while playing with a companion. Magritte later wrote, "I found, in the middle of some broken stone columns and heaped-up leaves, a painter who had come from the capital, and who seemed to me to be performing magic." The second pivotal event was the suicide of his mother in 1912 when Magritte was 14. According to the apocryphal account, Magritte was present when her body was fished out of a river, her face covered completely by her white dress. While current scholars believe this to be no more than a myth propagated by his nurse, the image of a head uncannily concealed by a contour-hugging cloth reoccurs throughout the artist's oeuvre.
Magritte first began to paint in 1915 and enrolled in the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Brussels the following year. However, he was fairly uninspired by his classes, and his attendance suffered as a result. He did become close friends with a fellow student, Victor Servranckx, who introduced Magritte to Futurism, Cubism, and Purism. In particular, Magritte was drawn to the work of Jean Metzinger and Fernand Leger, both of whom had much influence on Magritte's early work, as is evident from his experiments with Cubism such as his 1925 piece Bather.
In 1921, Magritte performed his obligatory military service and returned home in 1922 to marry Georgette Berger, a girl he had known since childhood. He also began work under Servranckx's supervision as a draughtsman in a wallpaper factory. This job lasted about a year, after which Magritte became a freelance designer of posters and publicity. In 1926, he signed a contract with the Galerie le Centaure in Brussels and was able to make his living as a fine artist for a brief spell. This early period was marked by profound changes in Magritte's work. Around 1925 he first saw the work of Giorgio de Chirico and began to work more distinctly within the Surrealist idiom. Not only were Magritte's images from the mid-1920s reminiscent of the desolate and mysterious mood that de Chirico created in his work, but the younger artist also went so far as to actually transpose many of de Chirico's favorite objects such as spheres, trains, and plaster hands onto his own canvases.
From 1927 to 1930, Magritte lived in Paris and forged strong connections with André Breton's coterie of Parisian Surrealists that at that time included artists such as Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí. He began incorporating more ambiguously organic forms in his work and experimenting with quintessentially Surrealist subject matter such as madness and hysteria. However, Magritte was increasingly disillusioned by the "dark" subjects of his fellow Surrealists. Perhaps most significantly, it was in Paris that Magritte began to experiment with the use of words and language in his paintings.
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By 1930, his contract with the Galerie le Centaure had ended, and, later that year, the gallery shut its doors altogether. Magritte returned to Brussels to take up work in commercial advertising once again. Scholars dispute whether Magritte also supplemented his income during this time by producing faked paintings of established artists and even perhaps forged currency. Regardless, from 1930 to 1937, Magritte had little time to devote to his own art. By the late 1930s however, the growing interest of international collectors, including Edward James in London, led to Magritte's increased financial independence, and he was at last able to give up commercial work almost completely.
Just as Magritte was achieving success and recognition, the Second World War broke out. Although he continued to develop his signature style, he also increasingly deployed a bright, impressionistic palette as a subversive response to the bleakness of the war. He wrote, "The sense of chaos, of panic, which Surrealism hoped to foster so that everything might be called into question was achieved much more successfully by those idiots the Nazis... Against widespread pessimism, I now propose a search for joy and pleasure." In 1946, Magritte signed a manifesto called Surrealism in Full Sunlight, and broke with Breton. This phase was followed by Magritte's brief experiment with an intentionally provocative "savage" style he called "vache" ("cow") that was characterized by vulgar subjects, crude coloring, and is generally regarded as parodying the Fauves. As Magritte expected, his works in this style were phenomenally unpopular. For the remainder of the 1950s and '60s, Magritte returned to his characteristic style and set of subjects. By the end of his life, he enjoyed great success and there were six major retrospectives of his oeuvre in the 1960s alone.
Magritte's work had a major impact on a number of movements that followed his death, including Pop, Conceptualism, and the painting of the 1980s. In particular, his work was hailed as a harbinger of upcoming trends in art for its emphasis on concept over execution, its close association with commercial art, and its focus on everyday objects that were often repeated in pictorial space. It is easy to see why artists such as Andy Warhol, Martin Kippenberger, and Robert Gober cite Magritte as a profound influence.