In Peter Schjeldahl’s review of Robert Gober’s 2014 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, he told a story of an 11-year-old Gober so “thunderstruck,” “baffled,” and “intrigued” by an Ellsworth Kelly painting he saw at the Yale University Art Gallery, that he went home and “remade it in his family’s basement.” I was psyched, and I would like to see it, I wrote at the time, as I tried to figure out what Kelly Gober had seen–and what Kelly Gober had made.
A few weeks ago, hero Matt Shuster answered at least the second question: RTFM. Turns out there is a photo of Young Gober’s Kelly in the basement in the detailed narrative chronology contained in The Heart Is Not A Metaphor, the exhibition catalogue for the MoMA show. Which I’d stashed, wrapped, and lost track of in 2014.
And now we know [and could have known this whole time, you don’t need to remind me.] Gober’s Kelly is red on blue, and looks to be about three feet square, which is pretty big for an 11-year-old, but probably smaller than the Kelly he remembered. It sure does look like a Kelly, though.
But which one? And where did he see it? And when? Because it turns out not to be so clear.
Schjeldahl dated the story to 1966, and interpolated Gober’s age based, I think, on the year heading in the chronology, which was created by Claudia Carson, Gober’s registrar and archivist, and MoMA associate curator Paulina Pobocha, in conjunction with the artist and many others.
The recollection is the last item in a section labeled 1966 on the previous page, and it immediately precedes a label of 1969. The anecdote above it, where Gober’s dad declares his vote for George Wallace, seems to land near the end of 1968, but the museum visit itself is not dated:
During a shopping trip to New Haven, Gober separates from his mother and sister and goes into the Yale University Art Gallery.
Robert Gober: Yale Art Gallery was the first museum I went to, apart from the Peabody Museum, which was a natural history museum. I remember seeing a Magritte, and I think it was the back of a man’s head with a bowler hat, and I remember thinking, Well, I could do that. But it was probably true because his style was always so flat-footed in terms of realism, and that was part of his magic. And then I remember a Duane Hanson, and I remember being really puzzled by an Ellsworth Kelly. It was a painting. I couldn’t figure out whether it was a joke or it was really smart, but it was way beyond me, like a language I didn’t know how to read. I remember I went home and in the basement of our house I remade the painting to try to understand it.[Robert Gober: The Heart Is Not A Metaphor, 2014, 105.]
If this is late 1968, Gober was 14, not 11. But the only relevant mention of Yale on Ellsworth Kelly’s exhibition history is May-June 1967, when the Gallery showed works acquired from the collection of Helen & Robert Benjamin, including the 1959 Kelly, Charter [below].
I don’t think this is the painting that puzzled Gober. If it was, he certainly remembered it differently. Did the Benjamins show a Red on Blue Kelly that Yale didn’t acquire? Did Yale show a Kelly from someone else that didn’t get onto Kelly’s CV? Did he see the Kelly he painted at another time or place?
The other artists Gober mention help clear things up until they don’t. Yale definitely has a flatly painted Magritte of the back of a guy’s head, and I don’t doubt for a second Gober could have painted it any time he wanted. It’s called la boîte de Pandore, from 1951, and Yale acquired it in 1961. Duane Hanson, though, is trickier. His CV only includes one exhibition at Yale, a 1974 group show titled 7 Realists [none of whom was Kelly]. Yale’s two Hanson sculptures, from 1973 and ’74, were only acquired in this century.
So while Gober’s formative early visit to Yale still could have involved the Magritte, by 1974 when Yale showed Hanson, Gober was already 20, taking junior year abroad in Rome, immersed in art. And by 1975, he was making paintings of his own paintings.
Maybe Yale’s or Kelly’s archives hold information to be found. Maybe the next volume of Yve Alain-Bois’ catalogue raisonée will stick a pin on the map as it reveals the trajectories of Kelly’s Reds on Blues criss-crossing Connecticut in the sixties. But there’s not another art- or museum-related entry in the MoMA chronology that fits Gober’s tween/teen encounter with a Kelly. So, like with Twombly, who told how his first painting was a copy of a Picasso–but not, it turns out, this copy of a Picasso, which apparently dates from 1988–the fact of Gober puzzling out a Kelly in his family basement remains wrapped in the puzzle of when and where he saw one.
That said, it would be absolutely fantastic–and I would somehow be a bigger fan than I already am, and I’m literally tearing up as I type this, even though I don’t think it’s what happened–it would be absolutely fantastic if it turns out Gober’s snapshot of his Kelly in his childhood basement is all a secret autobiographical fabrication, the retrospective creation of an artistic found family, where 2014 Gober dangles the feet of 1966 Gober in the cool, artmaking tidal pool of Coenties Slip, letting the tormented middle schooler know to hang on, it will get better, when you finally open the cellar door.
In any case, I very much want [to see] that Gober Kelly, which is installed in my dream gallery, alongside the Twombly Picasso–and the Sturtevant Gober.
[Thanks for the Update: in correspondence with the artist’s studio, it sounds like the venue was indeed Yale, if the exact timing of the adolescent visit (or visits) is uncertain. Also, the painting was destroyed at some point after the photo of it was taken.]