"The butter stick looks like a familiar object, but something about the scale is not quite right, and it has no smell. … These disjunctive attributes lead us to another Gober theme, the sublimated body and its losses. … Considered in this light, the butter stick is a truly odd piece. …a body unwrapped and hence exposed." George Howell
The meticulously crafted sculptures of artist Robert Gober are some of the most enigmatic, haunting creations of the postwar era. His sinks, urinals, disembodied limbs and other domestic objects emanate from the gallery floor or wall with a strange and mysterious presence. For his fifth solo show at the Paula Cooper Gallery in 1994, Gober created an evocative installation that resonated with critics, who wrote: “Sinister, beautifully crafted and vulnerable all at once, the sculpture showed Gober at his best” (A. Aukeman, “Robert Gober,” Artnews, November 1994, p. 154). For the exhibit, Gober created an oversized stick of butter, exquisitely modeled from beeswax and wood that rested upon a large-scale glassine sheet, which he then detailed in felt-tip marker to replicate the exact paper wrapping of Breakstone’s butter. Like the Sinks and Urinals, Gober’s butter is a powerful visual icon that reappears throughout his oeuvre, and it embodies the uncanny feeling that a familiar object can evoke when transformed and manipulated by the artist’s hand. The present work is one of two that were exhibited at Paula Cooper in 1994, which Roberta Smith described as “virginal, almost sacred” when she reviewed the work for The New York Times (R. Smith, “Art in Review,” The New York Times, 6 May 1994, p. C19). The other butter sculpture from 1994 is owned by the Whitney Museum of American Art, and a later incarnation, executed in 2003, is owned by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.
Throughout his career, Gober has transformed prosaic objects into evocative works of art, and he often selects the most innocuous or overlooked domestic items that nonetheless tap into the viewer’s subconscious memory. Beginning with the Sinks and Urinals of the 1980s, Gober rendered a mass-produced, utilitarian object completely by hand, painstakingly re-creating their porcelain look using the humble materials of wood and plaster. In Untitled, Gober again replicates the uniform, pre-packaged stick of butter by hand-molding beeswax over a wooden support. The hours of handicraft required to emulate the uniform appearance, in color, sheen and texture, of butter are staggering, not to mention the exacting detail of the glassine sheet that perfectly evokes the butter’s wax-paper wrapper. Rather than create an exact replica, however, Gober always devises a bizarre twist in rendering the final product. In Untitled, Gober enlarges the stick of butter to nearly life-size, and displays it on the floor. Measuring nearly four feet wide, the oversized stick of butter takes on oddly human proportions, as its waxen body lies prone upon the sheet-like wrapper. Solitary and enigmatic, its presence hits the viewer like a strange embodiment from some bizarre dream.
Indeed, the beeswax surface in Untitled is delicate and sensitive to the touch, its appearance easily marred by curious hands, so there is a vulnerability that mirrors the human condition. Several critics have illustrated this experience: “The butter stick looks like a familiar object, but something about the scale is not quite right, and it has no smell…These disjunctive attributes lead us to another Gober theme, the sublimated body and its losses…Considered in this light, the butter stick is a truly odd piece…a body unwrapped and hence exposed” (G. Howell, “Object Installation: The Two Sides of Robert Gober,” Sculpture, June 2001, no. 5, pp. 44-45).
By altering familiar products with strange new attributes, Gober invites the viewer into a closer examination with each work that verges on the sublime. In Untitled, the tender, waxen surface of the sculpture’s beeswax facade recalls the smooth sheen of butter itself, yet it doesn’t precisely mimic its surface. Instead, there is a chilling reaction that results from the difference in surface textures between Gober’s butter and the actual thing. One instinctively understands that to touch Gober’s butter is to receive a strange shock of a totally new and different object.
The work directly preceding Gober’s butter sculptures was an installation that he completed for DIA that consisted of running water, a first in the artist’s oeuvre though he had hinted at the importance of water since the first sinks and urinals. Gober’s interest in water as a transformative element might relate to his Catholic upbringing and the symbolism of transubstantiation within the church. Butter, too, is a wholly spiritual substance, able to shift its shape from solid to liquid, and coming into being through the magical process of churning, which has long been considered a symbol of sexual potency. In India, clarified butter or ghee has been a symbol of purity for more than 3000 years, its sacred nature traced to the Rigveda circa 1500-1200 BCE.
Butter embodies a sense of purity and wholesomeness that also harkens back to childhood, a sort of nostalgic innocence that recalls bread-and-butter suppers and the baking of cakes and cookies. Its packaging and manufacture have not changed much in the sixty years since Gober’s childhood in Wallingford, Connecticut, in the 1950s. Truly, Gober’s work has long chased the domestic objects of a bygone era, from the child’s crib to the seemingly mundane sink or empty shoe. He has often said: “Most of my sculptures have been memories remade, recombined and filtered through my current experiences” (R. Gober, quoted in K. Schampers, “Robert Gober,” Robert Gober, exh. cat., Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 1990, p. 33). Indeed, butter evokes a nourishing, wholesome quality that few other foods can match. Perhaps the ultimate comfort food, butter is delicious and velvety in texture, sumptuous when added to nearly any ingredient or simply spread on toast. It is a powerful, formative food enjoyed by countless cultures around the world. Gober’s butter, though, has been transformed and altered, enlarged to monstrous proportions and rendered non-edible. As such, it might recall lab-engineered “Frankenfoods,” or trans-fats and cholesterol, all of which serves to remind us: butter is actually quite bad for you.
Whether obvious or latent, Gober’s work also possesses an erotic quality that results from the rather anthropomorphic nature of the objects he depicts and their sumptuous, labored-over surface. In the present work, the bareness of the butter stick and its prone position upon the floor mimic the appearance of a nude body, the opened butter wrapper like a sheet unveiled to reveal nakedness beneath. In this way, the work recalls the organic, sensual vulnerability of Eva Hesse’s tactile abstract sculpture, or the titillating effect of Duchamp’s Étant donnés, whose nude female body and splayed limbs produced a wild shock when spied through a pair of peepholes in a wooden door. Indeed, several critics have remarked upon the sexual nature of Untitled, especially Jerry Saltz, who upon reviewing the work in the Paula Cooper exhibit in 1994, proclaimed: “Even though the butter sticks are food, they have a suggestive erotic presence and conjure a particularly hot scene from the movie Last Tango in Paris, in which Marlon Brando tells Maria Schneider to ‘get the butter.’ She does, and he proceeds to sodomize her. This is that butter writ large” (J. Saltz, “Robert Gober at Paula Cooper,” Art in America, November 1994, p. 133).
Whether wholesome or depraved, spiritual or profane, Gober’s Untitled resonates with viewers through the complex allegorical associations it evokes. It taps into a collective, shared mythology that registers with viewers on a subliminal level. Indeed, as one reviewer described: “On their own, Gober’s singular objects are mute, yet they yield rich associations if we are willing to unwrap them” (G. Howell, op. cit., p. 45).