Gober Kelly Red Blue

Pic of the “copy of an Ellsworth Kelly painting that Gober made from memory as a teenager,” illustrating his recollection of his first visit to an art museum, in his 2014 MoMA catalogue

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.

Ellsworth Kelly’s first screenprint, Red Blue, 1964, 24×20 in., published in a portfolio, in an edition of 500, by the Wadsworth Atheneum, in Hartford. It was produced by Ives-Sillman, in New Haven. There are so many of these around and visible, it feels like the likeliest explanation, except for the size difference, and the medium, of course. But there is another.

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.

A 90 x 66 in. painting shares color, composition, title, and date with the print. Catalogued as Red Blue (EK335), it was in MoMA’s 1973 Kelly exhibition [above] when it was owned by the Morton Hornicks. It was also shown–thanks to the esteemed Yve-Alain Bois for the insight–at the Tenth Anniversary Exhibit of the Brandeis Creative Arts Award, at the Aldrich Collection in Ridgefield, CT, in Apr-June 1966. The current owners, Thomas Lee and Ann Tenenbaum, promised it to the Whitney.

But which one? And where did he see it? And when? Because it turns out not to be so clear.

Ellsworth Kelly, Red Blue, 1962, 90 x 69.5 in., which the Cleveland Museum of Art bought straight from Betty Parsons in 1964, which feels bold. Except that Kelly was absolutely popping in the early 1960s, showing and getting acquired everywhere, so maybe Cleveland’s just keeping up.

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.

Ellsworth Kelly, Red on Blue, 1963, ink on paper, 7×5 in., shown in a beautiful online exhibition, Blue Curve, in Sept-Oct 2020 at Matthew Marks

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].

Ellsworth Kelly, Charter, 1959, oil on canvas, 8 x 5 ft., a 1966 gift of Helen Benjamin in memory of her husband Robert, to the Yale University Art Gallery

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?

Rene Magritte, la boîte de Pandore, 1951, oil on canvas, 17.5 x 21.5 in., collection: Yale University Art Gallery

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.

Screenshot from 2015 T Magazine spread at Nicola del Roscio’s Gaeta house, with the 1939 Picasso Twombly painted over one of his own works in, turns out, 1988, not the early 1950s. image: NYT

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.

Robert Gober, Untitled, 2000-2001, a sculpture of a storm cellar and door built by the artist’s father first shown at Venice (with a chain across it), here installed at Matthew Marks in 2018.

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.

Sturtevant, Gober Partially Buried Sinks, 1997, as installed at Matthew Marks in 2022

[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.]

Previously, related: Gober & Kelly: Portraits of the Artists as Young Men
Turns out this is not Cy Twombly’s First Picasso
Roberts Gober & Logan
Some Other Art At The 1964 World’s Fair