Another edition from the series is in the collection of the artist (exhibition copy).
"Most of my sculptures have been memories remade, recombined and filtered through my current experiences." (Robert Gober, quoted in Karel Schampers, "Robert Gober," Robert Gober, exh. cat., Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 1990, p.33)
"I do remember feeling a great sense of relief when the leg sculpture began to take form in my studio because it opened a door." (Robert Gober, quoted in T. Vischer, ed., Robert Gober: Sculpture and Installations, 1979-2007, exh. cat., Schaulager Basel, May-October 2007, p. 255).
Created in 1992, Robert Gober’s Untitled (child’s leg) is one of the most iconic works in the artist’s oeuvre. Along with the sinks and urinals, the present sculpture explores the complex psychological associations and deeply-felt personal memories of the artist’s past, making it a haunting and provocative relic from the era in which it was produced. At once tender and mysterious, the little leg is striking in its precise verisimilitude, from the fine, delicate hairs on its skin, to the worn quality of its leather sandal and dirty sock. Lying on the floor like a forgotten toy, the small leg emanates from the gallery wall, a strange and enigmatic presence like something out of a dream. Gober painstakingly fabricated the sculpture by hand using wax and human hair, cast from the leg of a four-year-old boy. In a touch of whimsy, Gober used pull-tabs from Budweiser beer cans as the sandal buckles. Though the work so closely mimics the effect of an actual human leg, the difference in encountering the cool, hardened wax of the sculpture versus the warmth of actual human skin produces a shocking contrast; it recalls the uncanny feeling that the Surrealists’ termed frisson—the unexpected, chill-producing effect that two seemingly illogical objects could produce when combined. Like Gober’s best works, Untitled (child’s leg) ushers forth infinite associations, translated from the artist’s personal memories into the viewer’s own subconscious mind. Gober created only four legs within the edition (plus one artist’s proof), and later in his career would incorporate the legs in even more surreal situations, issuing forth from a man’s lower body or a sink (as in the Philadelphia Museum’s Untitled, 1999). Gober recalls, “When I first cast [the] leg... I never imagined I would find so many uses for it over the years” (R. Gober, quoted in T. Vischer, ed., Ibid., p. 372).
In 1989, after having spent most of the 1980s working on his signature white plaster sinks, Gober began an important series of works based on the male body. A provocative single-leg sculpture, created in 1990, was cast from Gober’s own leg and clad in trouser, sock and shoe. The artist had just returned from an important and successful exhibition at the Kunsthalle Bern. He recalls:
“I got the idea while flying in a small plane in Europe. I had been in Bern and gone to see the Natural History Museum and it struck me as odd that contemporary people were omitted from the dioramas. Then, I’m on a small tightly packed commuter plane and across the aisle from me is this handsome business man with his legs crossed. His sock didn’t meet his pants on his crossed leg and I was transfixed by this hairy bit of leg. It seemed so vulnerable and exposed but an odd moment to make sculpture of” (R. Gober, quoted in Ibid., p. 255).
The series of male legs Gober subsequently created gave way to a flourishing of work in the early 1990’s in which Gober exhibited widely to critical acclaim. He recalls: “I do remember feeling a great sense of relief when the leg sculpture began to take form in my studio because it opened a door.” (R. Gober, quoted in T. Vischer, ed., Ibid., p. 255). In 1992, Gober decided to cast a small child’s leg, which is especially significant to the artist because it was closely related to a personal memory from his own childhood: “my mother... used to entertain me as a child with tales from the operating room where she worked as a nurse before her children were born. Her very first operation was the amputation of a leg. The doctor turned and handed it to her and she didn’t know what to do” (R. Gober, quoted in Ibid., p. 255).
Untitled (child’s leg) is especially significant to the artist since it emanates from a profound personal memory recalled from his childhood. Though Gober’s sculptures might be compared to Duchamp’s readymades, which made use of commercially-manufactured objects that the artist then elevated to the status of “High” art, Gober painstakingly crafts his own work by hand, so that it is forever imbued with his own personal touch. Whereas Duchamp placed his La Fontaine on a pedestal, thereby transforming the piece from low object to “High” art. Gober, by contrast, places his sculpted body parts directly on the floor: “Never on plinths or pedestals, the truncated bodies and legs lie directly on the floor or just off it, and they are placed up against the wall, as if they had emerged from it, or are trapped by it” (T. Vischer, ed., Ibid., p. 25).
To fabricate the sculpture, Gober enlisted the help of Gayle Brown, a seamstress that he had employed from time to time in the studio. Gayle’s four-year-old son Louis Moser provided the model for the project. His left leg was wrapped in a plaster cast that took hours to set—a long and tedious process for a young boy to endure—while he watched videos in the artist’s 10th street studio. Melted wax was then poured into the mold left by the boy’s cast, and human hair was gently inserted into the warmed wax using a special tweezers-like tool that Gober and his assistants fabricated especially for the enterprise. The sandals were hand-sewn out of leather, then distressed to indicate the wear and tear that a young child would inevitably do to his shoes. The resulting sculpture is remarkably lifelike, and it belies the complicated, painstakingly hand-made process of its construction.
The striking verisimilitude of Untitled (child’s leg) works in tandem with the personal history of Gober’s remembered childhood to heighten its visual impact. As the critic Hal Foster has pointed out, the sculpture functions as a sort of diorama, in which Gober recreates a past event “in a hyper-real way” in which aspects of the remembered image are exaggerated in order to convey the image that much more forcefully. (H. Foster, “An Art of Missing Parts,” October, vol. 92, Spring 2000, p.130).The leather sandal, sock and exacting details of the sculpture are all too familiar, too realistic and all at once the tableau that Gober creates is no longer benign but unsettling. The longer one views the alienated leg, the more associations arise. Where did this leg come from? Where is the child to which it belongs? Was he subject to some unnameable, violent act? The horror of these unknown possibilities haunt the work in a palpable way, which Gober accentuates by creating such a convincing facsimile of an actual leg. In this way, we realize that to gaze at such a leg is a little sadistic, given that the subject is a child. It recalls the paintings of Balthus, in which the viewer is privy to some secret interior scene. Like all of Gober’s sculptures, sex and sexuality lurk in the corner. However, there is always the chance that the leg is a fake, and part of a cruel joke devised by Gober himself. It is specifically this odd familiarity—that Freud described as the uncanny—that fuels Gober’s sculptures. Hal Foster writes: “More effectively than any other artist today Gober elaborates Surrealism’s aesthetic of convulsive identity and uncanny space” (H. Foster, Ibid., p. 133).
Given the artist’s recent career-spanning retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the present moment offers a unique opportunity to re-investigate Gober’s work. Along with other important artists of his generation, like Christopher Wool, Gober created subtle, innovative works that engage in a dialogue while speaking to the postmodern era in which they were produced. Like his best works, Untitled (child’s leg), evokes the fragility of the body in Gober’s strange, tender and personal methods. Rendered in wax—an ephemeral material that evokes the liturgical candles of Gober’s Roman Catholic upbringing—the sculpture may also evoke the fleetingness of childhood and the unenduring nature of existence itself.