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.
I am going to miss the Robert Gober show at Matthew Marks, “Shut up.” “No. You shut up.” which closes today. But I thought I’d seen a part of it before.
The show is full of windows, or rather, the confoundingly meticulous fabrications of fragmentary window/sill mises-en-scenes set in high minimalist-style metal boxes. John Yau’s description of the works is close and precise, and his description of experiencing them is open and profound. It’s a combination that Gober’s work has come to demand.
Beyond, but also alongside it. In the 2014 show at MoMA, Gober punctuated the experience of his seeing his work with a gallery of resonant work by other artists. A recreation of a group show he curated at Marks in 1999, it included an Anni Albers textile, a Robert Beck video, and a pair of truncated nudes by Joan Semmel facing each other across a Cady Noland stockade.
Thinking of this show again also changed the context for the other element of this assemblage: the student-era sketch of a crutch and chair back, dated around 1976. When I first saw it in the online viewing room, Jasper Johns’ shows were still fresh in my mind. Johns, too, had recently mashed up an awkward, injury-related student drawing and a painting. And then he did a whole show of variations. [Another relevant Gober series in the show: found academic drawings of feet, to which Gober added text, or inserted a jail window. These guys and their disembodied body parts.]
But then the chair hit me. Gober sprinkled early works throughout the MoMA retrospective, which ended with a big, c. 1975 painting of an interior. Actually, it’s a chair in front of some windows. Actually, it also includes a painting of a painting of a chair in front of some windows. And while the backs of these chairs may not match, the lines sure do. I have to admire Gober’s continued ability to generate a feeling of uncanny familiarity, if not outright déja vu. If only I’d been able to see it at all.
Here is a Robert Gober story I have not heard before:
Already enamored of art, but largely ignorant of it, Gober was thunderstruck by a visit, at the age of eleven, to the Yale Art Gallery, in New Haven. A spare abstract painting by Ellsworth Kelly so baffled and intrigued him that he remade it in his family’s basement.
Obviously, now, for the moment, even more than to wanting to make Kellys myself, I want to see the Kelly Gober made.
But I can’t immediately find the exhibition history for the Yale University Art Gallery for the general time of Gober’s visit, 1965-6. Yale got its first Kelly in 1966, though, a large (95×60 in.) painting from 1959 called Charter. It was a gift, but it’s not clear if it was shown in 1966. From newspaper announcements, Yale’s practice seems to have been to show selected acquisitions from the previous year in Jan-Feb. Ellsworth Kelly, Red Blue Green, 1963, collection mcasd.org
Maybe I was also interested because Gober’s recollection reminded me of some influential childhood experiences of Kelly himself, which I’d read last year, in a talk given by Yve-Alain Bois:
On Halloween night in 1935, in rural Oradell, New Jersey, the twelve-year-old Ellsworth Kelly was trick-or-treating with friends in their neighborhood after dark. Upon approaching a house from a distance, he said: “I saw three colored shapes–red, black, and blue–in a ground-floor window. It confused me and I thought: ‘What is that?’ When I got close to the window, it was too high to look in easily and I didn’t want to be peeking. I was very curious and came at the window obliquely, and chinned myself up, only to look into a normal furnished living room. When I backed off to a distance, there it was again. I now realize that this was probably my first abstract vision–something like the three shapes in your Red Blue Green painting.”
Which is fine. Bois’ talk is about Kelly’s extraordinary ability to draw upon forms and perceptions from his life and to transfer them to his work. This was one of five possible strategies Kelly had developed in seeking an alternative for composition, a way to “invent how not to invent.”
Maybe Gober’s sculptural verisimilitude operates in a similar way. I don’t know, and I have only just begun thinking about it. But it’s interesting to think about these two artists, who each see childhood experience with abstraction as formative to the development of their work.
In 2005, Robert Gober curated a show at the Menil Collection in Houston. In his catalogue, Robert Gober Sculptures and Installations, 1979-2007,” for the Schaulager show, Gober says, “Initially, I was only interested in curating from the collection and not including my own work, but when I began investigating the contents and the storage of the Menil Collection, I saw what [then chief curator] Matthew Drutt was already seeing. My work and the work in the collection shared affinities and themes. Catholicism, Surrealism, race, and a belief in the everyday object.”
The exhibition’s title, “The Meat Wagon,” comes from a codicil to John de Menil’s will. It’s awesome.
To my Executor
c/o Pierre M. Schumberger
I am a religions man deep at heart, in spite of appearances. I want to be buried as a catholic, with gaiety and seriousness.
I want the mass and last rites to be by Father Moubarac, because he is a highly spiritual man. Within what is permissible by catholic rules, and within the discretion of Moubarac, I want whoever feels so inclined to receive communion.
I want to be buried in wood, like the jews. The cheapest wood will be good enough. Any wood will do. I want a green pall, as we had for Jerry MacAgy. I would prefer a pickup or a flat bed truck to the conventional hearse.
I want the service to be held at my parish, St. Annes, not at The Rothko Chapel, because it would set a bad precedent.
I want music. I would like Bob Dylan to perform, and if it isn’t possible, any two or three electric guitars playing softly. I want them to play tunes of Bob Dylan, and to avoid misunderstanding, I have recorded suggestions on the enclosed tape. The first one, Ballad of Hollis Brown is evocative of the knell (nostalgic bell tolling). Then at some point Blowin’ In The Wind, The Times They Are A-Changin’ and WIth God On Our Side, because all my life I’ve been, mind and marrow, on the side of the underdog. Then Girl From The North Country to the rhythm of which the pall bearers would strut out of the church. Father Duploye could also be asked to sing Veni Creator in latin, to the soft accompaniment of a guitar.
I would like the funeral director to be Black.
I would like the pall bearers to be Ladislas Bugner, Francesco, Francois, Miles Glaser, Mickey Leland and Pete Schlumberger.
I would like George to stand with Dominique, Christophe, Adelaide, and Phil. Simone Swan, Helen Winkler, Jean Riboud, Ame Vennema, Rossellini and Howard Barnstone will be part of the family. Also Gladys Simmons and Emma Henderson.
I want no eulogy.
These details are not inspired by a pride, which would be rather vain, because I’ll be a corpse for the meat wagon. I just want to show that faith can be alive.
Date: November December 13, 1972
/s/ John de Menil
The Rothko Chapel had only been dedicated in 1971. John de Menil died on June 1, 1973. His wife Dominique, who exerted a formative influence on my views of art in the times we met between 1990 and 1995, died in 1998.
The Venice Biennale is finally over open, and not a day too soon. For a bunch of whiny Americans, anyway. In the Times, Carol Vogel complains about having to see art “amid relentless heat intensified by the power needed for lighting and video installations.” Meanwhile, artnet’s Walter Robinson, an apparent Venice virgin, complains about having to see art in “some historic buildings,” the heat and the dearth of video. [After the massive sucking sound that was 2001’s video choices, less is definitely more, Walter.]
Lisa Dennison, chief curator of the Guggenheim (“Where the sponsor’s always right!”), complained to the Times about the curators having too much say. [Or the Guggenheim not having enough: they apparently lobbied hard for Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle to be chosen for the Guggenheim-owned American Pavilion. Fred Wilson got it instead.]
Wilson has an African street vendor selling fake purses at the entrance to his installation of Venetian Moor-related art. Via Vogel: “Richard Dorment, an American who is an art critic for The Daily Telegraph of London, said he was speechless when he saw the pavilion. ‘To put a seller of handbags in front of a pavilion is condescending to both Americans and Venetians,’ Mr. Dorment said. ‘This is a person, not a work of art. Where are the days when major American artists represented our country?'”
[Rowrr. Dorment apparently lived up to his name; his sniping ignores 1) the inside of the pavilion, which many people praised, 2) the major majorness of the 2001 show’s Robert Gober, and 3) Maurizio Cattelan showing a buried person–an Indian fakir, whose praying hands stuck out of the sand–in 1999. And besides, in 2001, Venice was plastered by billboards for some museum exhibition which pulled the same street vendor stunt as Wilson.]
People, if you’re looking for Pitti, it’s in Florence. Venetian art parties rank below even Cannes film premieres on the Burdens Likely To Evoke Sympathy scale. It’s a lesson well learned by the Guardian’s Cannes crank, Fiachra Gibbons, who clearly looked on the bright side in Venice. His reports are giddy fun, from his Black Power shoutout for Wilson’s work, and Chris Ofili’s British pavilion to his star-struck love letter to Lala, the diva chimpanzee star of “Spelling U-T-O-P-I-A”, by my pals Elmgreen & Dragset. [There’s something for the blogosphere to figure out: at what point does “in the interest of full disclosure” become “shameless touting of my connection to famous friends”? Ask me tomorrow when I post about my friend, Olafur Eliasson.]
As I sit here in New York, recovering from my A/C-induced cold, I’m working on an “I Survived the Venice Biennale” T-shirt, for those who truly suffer for art. Stay tuned (or feel free to send a design suggestion or two).
While on vacation, we took a weekend trip to Venice to see the Biennale, a sprawling exhibition of contemporary art. With some exceptions, the art was a tremendous disappointment. Chicken & egg, I don’t know, but most of the work either strained to stand out and provide some immediate, breakout, experience right then and there; or else it required time, consideration, and contemplation which the festival format inexorably discourages. In this oppressively large exhibition, the apparent subtlety and understatement of two installations appealed to us greatly: Robert Gober’s installation in the American Pavilion and a cafe project/installation credited to the artists Olafur Eliasson, Tobias Rehberger and Rikrit Tiravanija. Understatement is problematic, though, and in ways that concern me as I try to make a documentary that is, itself, unpretentious yet affecting and lasting. Also, these works made me even more aware of how important/complicating are the expectations/experience a viewer brings with him. Let me explain a bit:
In each room of the Jefferson-esque pavilion, Gober carefully places a few objects or assemblages that appear to be found or flotsam, but which turn out to be meticulously hand-crafted re-creations: styrofoam blocks, plywood, an empty liquor bottle. In the corner of each room, there was a white, plastic-looking chair. Were they part of the piece? Gober’s certainly done chairs before. [see an image] [read an essay] We debated, looked for evidence of the chairs’ handmade-ness (which we found), but decided they weren’t. (Clue: they weren’t lit like the other objects. Sure enough, they were for the guards.)
After walking ALL over the two main exhibition venues in Venice’s August heat, we took refuge in the “Refreshing Cafe,” which was credited to the three artists above. The cafe was a series of tables, some white lacquer columns/stools, and a counter/bar under an overturned swimming pool-like form propped up by pistons. It was a rare and welcome retreat from the heat and from the overwrought video art of the show. It wasn’t really clear what the contribution of the artists was, but an improvised cafe with a few mod-looking furniture pieces certainly seemed in keeping with the other works of these artists. Just last night, though, I ran into one of the three and complimented him on having made one of the few pieces we liked in the whole show. Turns out that not only did the three of them not really do anything with the piece, what they did do had been completely altered by the exhibition authorities, calling the existence of the “work” into question.
This is kind of unnerving; when understatement is the goal or medium of a work, how do you differentiate it from (or not mistake it for) the “non-art” around it? Do you?
What does this mean for the artist and the creation process?
When looking at/for art, do we readily give artists we like/know more latitude, more time, the benefit of the doubt? Does this blind us to other experiences or discoveries? Is it a sign of dulling of critical approach or increasing orthodoxy?