Since Gober's first meticulously crafted sculptures produced in the early 1980s, the artist has continued to broaden the nature of representation in Contemporary art with his challenging and complex works. Untitled, executed in 1990, is an unique and important piece within the artist's oeuvre, and may be understood as a key component in his intricate and unfolding personal iconography. This truncated, three-dimensional rendering of a male torso made of organic elements such as beeswax, pigment and human hair is one in a series of works in which the artist has depicted various parts of the human anatomy.
Untitled, like many of Gober's works, draws its tension from the dichotomy between what the object appears to be and what it actually is, an opposition of the familiar and the irrational. Through a laborious process and with characteristic technical virtuosity, Gober has re-created the human form with a level of verisimilitude that has become typical of his work. The startlingly realistic qualities of this wax torso, however become convoluted by its absurdly distorted nature. Upon closer inspection it becomes clear that the Untitled torso is, in fact, molded from the shape of a bag. This type of imagery, in which seemingly recognizable forms become profoundly enigmatic, derives from the Surrealists, who also frequently represented ambiguous and fragmentary body parts in their work.
Magritte's painting La philosophie dans la boudoir, 1947, which depicts what appears to be a female torso, transforms the ordinary and banal into the psychological and illusionary. (fig.1). Its fetishizing elements further emphasize notions of desire, as well as, Freudian ideas about sexuality, memory and loss, themes which Gober also examines. Carrying on the legacy of the Surrealists, and drawing upon other art historical sources ranging from Duchamp to Minimalism, Conceptual and body art, Gober continues his dialogue with issues such as AIDS, sexual identity, death, and morality. Within this context, the torso, rendered in the shape of a "bag" has been likened to a body bag, and thus has been interpreted as a symbol of death. The weight of the bag, its heaviness and implied contents mimic the torso as the center of human gravity and its corporeal vulnerability is exposed. This work may be linked to Gober's own biography--how the body is vulnerable both to disease as well as psychological and societal pressures.
Untitled torso could also be a formal reference to Gober's earlier work, entitled Cat Litter, 1990 which while similar in size, scale and shape, appears much more Duchampian in tone. Gober himself has described the bag of cat litter, which was featured in his highly acclaimed exhibition at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York in 1989, "as a metaphor for a couple's intimacy." He says, "when you make a commitment to an intimate relationship, that involves taking care of that other person's body in sickness and in health." (R. Flood, Robert Gober, London 1993, p.10). While this everyday object may appear to be a reference to Duchamp's concept of the ready-made, Gober's works are never this simple. Not only are all of his sculptures meticulously hand-made, but his objects are also imbued with much more personal meaning.
The torso has also been compared to Bruce Nauman's work, Henry Moore Bound to Fail, (back view) made in 1967 (fig.2 previous page). This wax over plaster cast of the artist's arms tied behind his back is a witty reference to the frustration and insecurity of a young artist attempting to create something original, or as Robb Storr has described it, "a deadpan salute to sculptural tradition." ("Beyond Words" Bruce Nauman, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1993, p.50). Gober's torso shares certain formal affinities with the Nauman sculpture, however, unlike Nauman's blatant statement, Gober's work is much more subtle and evocative. The reductive and minimal quality of many of Gober's works belie their complex, paradoxical and enigmatic content and this work is no exception.
Gober's signature minimalistic Untitled Sink, for example, which has also been described as Duchampian in character, addresses a variety of humanistic concerns by juxtaposing functionality and dysfunction. The spare white sink, represents the familiar; however the lack of a faucet, knobs and plumbing renders the object useless, like a torso disconnected from the rest of the body. This nonfunctional aspect could suggest a feeling of impotence, dysfunctionality, castration anxiety or helplessness, which appears to be a common thread throughout the artist's work. Furthermore, Untitled Sink, unlike the ready-mades of Duchamp, appears to have a human quality about it. Not only is the hand of the artist evident in its construction, but Sink itself appears anthropomorphic, mimicking the cropped torso.
In an important exhibition in May of 1999 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, chief curator Richard Flood presented the first comprehensive examination of more than 100 of Gober's drawings within the larger context of his sculptural practice. Here, the first example of Gober's re-occurring image of the torso was presented. A central element of this exhibition was a rarely seen projection installation entitled Slides of a Changing Painting, 1982-1983 (fig. 3). This work clearly foreshadows much of the imagery and emotive impulse of Gober's work of the past fifteen years. In creating this piece, Gober painted a succession of pictures on a small single board during the course of a year. He photographed each image and then painted over the same board as he proceeded. The end result is a "memoir" of this painting's metamorphosis that continues to inform the artist's work to this day.
Slides of a Changing Painting has been described as one of Gober's earliest mature works and, "has taken on a fundamental importance and place within Gober's work, worthy of close attention." (G. Garrels, "Slides of a changing painter" in Robert Gober: Sculpture and Drawing, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, p.36) The central motif in this work is a cropped male torso, similar to his Untitled sculpture. The constantly shifting succession of images begins with a man's chest with a river running through it and gradually permutates into a diseased or wounded body, an interior setting with stairs and finally a woodland scene. The incessant references to water in his work are suggestive of purification, and the holes and wounds suggestive of disease. In her essay on Robert Gober, Lynne Cooke describes this transmutation--she writes, "Very often the metamorphosis from one to the next carried with it an imprint both psychological and compositional that informed the subsequent iconography." (L. Cooke, Robert Gober, Dia Center for the Arts)
Many of Gober's later sculptural works, such as his Untitled torso, were developed from this original compendium of visual icons. This complex yet subtle work sets up a dialectic between reality and illusion, and reverberates with the larger social and political implications that Gober has consistently sought to examine.