"Who You Are and Where You Come From":

Robert Gober and René Magritte

An excerpt from Pepe Karmel's essay for the exhibition, Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images, on view through March 4, 2007.

Robert Gober, Untitled, 1990. 

Since 1980, surrealism has exercised an increasingly powerful influence on contemporary art, mingling in unpredictable ways with the legacies of more recent movements such as pop art and minimalism. These divergent tendencies are fused in the brilliantly disturbing work of Robert Gober. His sculptures and installations combine seemingly incompatible elements, "displaced in real space and time like a Magritte made real," as Joan Simon has written. What recalls Magritte in Gober's work is not just the juxtaposition of incongruous items, but also the obsessive attention to the material qualities of things and the revelation of an ominous aura surrounding everyday objects. Converting the literal space of the gallery into a symbolic arena, Gober extends and transforms the tradition of minimal and postminimal installation.1

Rene Magritte, The Red Model
, 1937.

Born in Wallingford, Connecticut in 1954, Gober studied at the Tyler School of Art in Rome and at Middlebury College in Vermont. In 1984, he had his first solo exhibition at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York. His sculpture and installations rapidly attracted worldwide attention. In 1991 and 1992, he was invited to create major installations for the Jeu de Paume in Paris, the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, and the Dia Center for the Arts in New York. In 2001, he represented the United States at the Venice Biennale. One of his most controversial installations was created in 1997 for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Here, he depicted the Virgin Mary standing atop a sewer drain, flanked by open suitcases containing similar drains; a large culvert pierced the torso of the Virgin, as if to suggest that her endless clemency was extended only at the risk of damage to her purity. If the Catholic imagery of this installation derived from Gober's childhood experience as a choir boy, the radical disruption of conventional imagery reflected the influence of Magritte and surrealism.2

For an artist of Gober's generation, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Magritte was an inescapable presence, visible everywhere on posters and album covers as well as museum walls. Gober's original ambition was to be a painter rather than a sculptor. "In high school," he recalls, "I wandered into the Yale Art Gallery. I remember looking at my first Magritte painting—the one of a man in a bowler hat. I thought, 'I could do that.'" Years later, when he was preparing an installation for a 1991 exhibition at the Jeu de Paume, in Paris, he remembered Magritte's 1959 painting State of Grace, which depicts a cigar at the same scale as a bicycle. The centerpiece of his installation became a sculpture of a giant cigar, eight feet long. More recently, when Gober was invited to organize an exhibition in Houston at the Menil Collection by combining his own works with objects from the collection, he included three pictures by Magritte. However, the link between Gober's work and Magritte's cannot be reduced to a simple matter of "influence." The relationship is complex and often indirect.3

Beginning in 1982, Gober executed a series of sinks that became his first "trademark" images. These look as if he might have bought them at a plumbing supply store, much like the one where Marcel Duchamp bought the urinal for his 1917 readymade Fountain. But in fact Gober's sinks are sculptures, made from plaster over lathing and painted with enamel to simulate the look of porcelain. In some cases he has altered the shapes of the sinks, but even where they look perfectly "normal" there is something unsettling about them, beginning with the fact that they have no faucets or pipes attached. They are conspicuously nonfunctional in a way that makes us think twice (or three times) about everything they might recall or suggest.

Gober's sinks evoke a profound ambiguity. On one hand, they function as an architecture of purification, a setting in which dirty things are made clean again. By the same token, however, they are places where dirt is collected. Gober's first sinks, without taps or drains, were followed by sculptures of drains imbedded directly in the wall. It seems as if he wanted to focus the viewer's minds on different, contradictory moments in the process of purification. The pristine whiteness of the sinks is preserved or restored by gathering up the filth and sending it down the drain, which becomes a repository for everything we fear and reject.4

By 1986, Gober could sense that the image of the sink was "going away," and that the end of the series was in sight. He "laid the image to rest" by burying the sinks in the earth, so that their bowls were invisible while their backsplashes rose straight out of the ground like tombstones. The funereal association was reinforced by the drawing he did for an exhibition announcement, where the words "ROBERT GOBER / new work" appear to be engraved on the backsplash like the name and dates on a slab.5 Gober's allusion to the decorative architecture of death recalls Magritte's Perspective series of the early 1950s, where he repainted famous French paintings, substituting coffins for the "living" figures in the originals. In the right (or wrong) frame of mind, every box is simultaneously a coffin and every vertical slab is simultaneously a tombstone.6

Beginning in 1989, Gober's creative activity shifted increasingly from individual objects to more complex environments. His 1991 installation at the Jeu de Paume and his 1992 installation at the Dia Center for the Arts both incorporated elaborate paintings of forest settings, covering all four walls of the exhibition space. At first glance, this might have seemed like an updated version of the trompe l'oeil murals of gardens that decorated wealthy homes in ancient Rome.7 However, Gober subverted the illusion of a forest by inserting a number of inconsistent elements. At Dia, for instance, there were piles of newspaper stacked around the room, sinks fastened to the sides of the room, and barred windows cut into the upper part of the walls. The sinks and the windows, in particular, had the disturbing effect of converting the "outside" (the forest view) into an "inside."

The painted walls in these installations recall an incident from Gober's childhood, when his family's house was repainted after a fire, and the painter, aspiring to be an artist instead of a mere craftsman, painted a trompe l'oeil scene in one room. Gober, still a boy, was very impressed. His adult decision simultaneously to recreate this trompe l'oeil view and to subvert it recalls the canvases in which Magritte depicted a landscape painting set on an easel in front of a landscape, with the view on the canvas merging seamlessly into the "real" view around it. The breakdown of the border between representation and reality induces a kind of mental vertigo.

A similar vertigo is induced by Diane Arbus's 1966 photograph, A lobby in a building, N.Y.C., which reproduces a photomural of a river running through the countryside, framed by birch trees. What keeps Arbus's photograph from being simply a copy of the photomural (a Sherrie Levine before Sherrie Levine) is a series of small clues about the photomural's setting, in particular the strip of molding at the bottom of the image and the dark line rising through the image where it wraps around the corner of the room. These serve the same purpose as the legs of the easel and the raw edge of the canvas inside Magritte's painting, distinguishing between two levels of reality within the image. Gober clearly knew Arbus's photograph when he created his 1991 and 1992 installations. It is reproduced in the 1972 monograph of her work, which appears in one of his early still-life drawings.8 Gober was deeply impressed by Arbus and her use of photography as a way of "being able to look at everything that you weren't supposed to."9

The barred windows of Gober's 1992 Dia installation not only subvert the "reality" of the surrounding environment but also pose an existential question: "Are you in nature that's a prison or are you in a prison cell that's a forest?"10 Pressed for an explanation of this imagery, the artist refers to Jean-Paul Sartre's 1944 play, No Exit, in which a man and two women, all recently deceased, find themselves together in a windowless room stuffed with bourgeois furniture. At first they are surprised by the absence of the fires and instruments of torture that they expected to encounter in hell. But as they get to know one another, they realize that spending eternity with people they detest will be punishment enough. "Hell is other people," the man famously concludes. Gober's installation suggests a corollary: that anyplace, even a pristine forest, can be a hell if you are imprisoned by your own imagination.

Within this disconcerting setting, the windows (which have also been exhibited separately) evoke a poignant ambiguity. Looking up through the bars, one sees a patch of wall painted and lit to evoke a beautiful blue sky. The high window creates a feeling of imprisonment, but at the same time a strange sensation of joy and liberation. The emotional tension of Gober's installation recalls Magritte's The Dominion of Light, showing a darkened street beneath a bright blue sky.11 The obvious "joke" here lies in the combination of realistic but incompatible elements, but the picture's enduring popularity derives from its emotional complexity, its suggestion that depression and elation can—indeed must —coexist in our experience. If a forest can be a prison, a prison can also be a forest.

In 1987–89, before arriving at the window motif, Gober had created a series of sculptures of doors that art historian Sarah Whitfield has linked to Magritte's painting of the same motif.12 Indeed, the door as a symbol of liminality—the transition from one state to another—can be traced beyond Magritte to Danish symbolist Vilhelm Hammershøi and the German romantic Caspar David Friedrich. If Gober's sinks and windows seemed to derive primarily from the surrealist tradition, his door sculptures demonstrate his ability to work simultaneously in the traditions of surrealism and of minimalism.

Gober's meticulous re-creation of an ordinary paneled door leans casually against the wall, echoing the work of minimal and postminimal sculptors of the 1960s. Traditionally, the vertical thrust of sculpture has served as a symbol for the vitality and independence of the human spirit. Sculptors such as John McCracken and Richard Serra jettisoned this rhetoric, making work that casually submitted to the force of gravity or struggled against it with obvious effort.13 Nonetheless, they took care to differentiate their work from conventional sculpture: McCracken reduced his work to planes of pure color, polished to a transcendent gleam, while Serra crudely shaped his early sculptures from industrial materials such as rubber and lead.

Gober addresses the same sculptural issues using what seem everyday objects: a door or a sheet of plywood. But there is something deceptive about this ostentatious avoidance of "art." Gober's sculptures are not readymades but meticulous re-creations; a sheet of plywood, for instance, is made from plywood veneer wrapped around a chipboard core. It is, as Gober puts it, "a hyper-realistic sculpture of an abstract object." Gober was drawn to plywood, in particular, by its role in minimal art. In the 1960s, Tony Smith and Robert Morris had used plywood to construct geometric shapes, which they then painted black and grey. Later, Donald Judd constructed a long series of sculptures from raw plywood. In adopting this material, Gober was, as he puts it, "taking the available forms of minimalism and fusing them with other -isms."14

Gober's use of plywood also provides a link to Magritte, who was surprisingly interested in the role of wood as a traditional support for painting. In several 1927 pictures, including The Prince of Objects, it seems as if part of the image has been wiped away to reveal the striated lines of the wooden panel on which the picture is painted. The wavering lines of the wood grain echo the depicted forms even as they disrupt the illusion of realism. And the revelation of the material support is itself a deception: the pictures in question are painted on canvas.15


1. As Sarah Whitfield points out in "Magritte and his Audience," Magritte's imagery anticipates the work both of pop and minimal artists such as Jim Dine and Robert Morris, and of younger artists such as Gober and Allan McCollum. See Magritte, exh. cat. (London: South Bank Centre, 1992), 11-23. For a more detailed discussion of Gober and Magritte, see Joan Simon, "Robert Gober et l'Extra Ordinaire," in Robert Gober, exh. cat. (Paris: Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, and Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, 1991), 9-10. (I am grateful to Whitney Museum of American Art curator Joan Simon, and to her assistant Stephanie Schumann, for providing me with a copy of this hard-to-find catalogue essay.) See also Gober's comments about Magritte in Craig Gholson, "[Interview with] Robert Gober," Bomb, no. 29, Fall 1989; reprinted in speak art! the best of BOMB magazine's interviews with artists, ed. Betsy Sussler (New York: G+B Arts International, 1997), 94. Regarding the influence of minimalism on contemporary art, see Lynn Zelevansky, Sense and Sensibility: Women Artists and Minimalism in the Nineties, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1994). Return to text.

2. On Gober's childhood and his attitudes toward the Catholic Church, see Simon in Robert Gober (Paris 1991), 16. Return to text.

3. Gober's recollection of discovering Magritte in high school is from an informal interview with the author on December 21, 2005. The link between Gober's cigar and Magritte's State of Grace is discussed by Simon in Robert Gober (Paris 1991), 11. For Gober's 2005 exhibition The Meat Wagon, which juxtaposed his own work with pictures by Magritte (including The Survivor [1950], The Song of the Storm [1937], and a drawn version of The Red Model [1964]) and a wide variety of objects from the Menil Collection, see Robert Gober: The Meat Wagon, exh. cat. (Houston: The Menil Foundation, 2006). Return to text.

4. Another aspect of the meaning of Gober's sinks lies in their reference to the daily labor of housekeeping. This is something he alluded to in a painting from his student years, showing a woman washing dishes in a sink; see the Untitled picture reproduced in Robert Gober: Sculpture + Drawing, exh. cat. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1999), 57. The woman washing dishes is seen from above; only her forearms and a sliver of her torso are visible, so that attention is focused on the sink. Joan Simon notes how often the themes of housecleaning and toilets appear in the art of the 1980s work of artists such as Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach, and Meyer Vaisman. Return to text.

5. Robert Gober, Untitled (1991), reproduced in Robert Gober, exh. cat. (London: Serpentine Gallery and Liverpool: Tate Gallery, 1993), 20. Gober made a similar allusion to his own mortality in a 1991 multiple where he reproduced a page from a 1960 issue of the New York Times, including a fake story recounting his own death by drowning at the age of six. Return to text.

6. It should be noted that the association between sinks and morbidity is not unique to Gober, but seems to be a part of the modern collective unconscious. For instance, the Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles used a sink in his installation Red Shift (1967-84). The viewer enters a room where all the furnishings are red—the carpet, the sofa, the bookshelves, the paintings on the walls. At the far end, there's a dark corridor where the red carpet becomes a puddle of red liquid. Around the corner, at the end of the corridor, the viewer discovers that the red liquid is coming from the drain of a spot-lit sink, with reddened water flowing out of the faucet. The installation is a reference to the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil in these decades: people continued making art, but in a sense everybody who participated in such bourgeois activities had blood on his hands. Meireles's political message seems very distant from Magritte's more abstract revolution in consciousness. See Dan Cameron's discussion of this work in Paulo Herkenhoff et al., Cildo Meireles, exh. cat. (London: Phaidon, 1999), 83-93. Return to text.

7. Compare, for instance, the wraparound garden painted for the Villa Livia around 30 BC, now on display in the Palazzo Massimo in Rome. It should be noted that the landscape of Gober's Jeu de Paume exhibition was based on "found" wallpaper patterns, so it functioned simultaneously as reality and as appropriation. See the wallpaper patterns reproduced in Robert Gober (Paris 1991), 9. Return to text.

8. Robert Gober, Untitled (1976), reproduced in Robert Gober (Minneapolis 1999), 55. Return to text.

9. Gober, interview with author, December 21, 2005. Return to text.

10. Ibid. Return to text.

11. There is a more literal antecedent for Gober's high windows in one of Magritte's lesser-known paintings, Natural Encounters (1945), which shows a pair of surreal figures standing in front of a wall pierced by two high casement windows revealing patches of blue sky. See David Sylvester et al., René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 2 (Antwerp: Mercatorfonds and Houston: The Menil Foundation, 1993), no. 595. Return to text.

12. Whitfield, in Magritte (London 1992), 18-19, and see Magritte's The Unexpected Answer (1933). Return to text.

13. Compare Richard Serra's Doors (1966-67), reproduced in Rosalind E. Krauss, Richard Serra, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1986), pl. 1. Return to text.

14. In fact, there is a literal link between Judd's plywood work and Gober's sculpture. Gober was determined to use the coarsest commercial grade of plywood veneer for the surface of his work, but it turned out that none of the companies that produce such veneer were willing to sell it in anything less than industrial quantities. Finally, the intervention of Peter Ballantine, who had overseen the fabrication of Donald Judd's plywood sculptures, persuaded Judd's supplier to sell Gober a single truckload of veneer. Return to text.

15. In addition to The Prince of Objects, see Sylvester, Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 1 (1992), nos. 183-87. Later, in a gouache from 1938 or 1939 (Fortune Telling, in Sylvester, Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 4 [1994], no. 1143), Magritte combines the door motif and the wood motif, depicting a door that fades imperceptibly from a bluish white to the textured brown of bare wood. Return to text.

* * *

Pepe Karmel is an associate professor of fine arts at New York University; he writes frequently on Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, minimalism, and contemporary art.

This excerpt is from the catalogue for Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images, an exhibition on view at LACMA from Nov. 19, 2006, to March 4, 2007. The catalogue is copublished by Ludion and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


Robert Gober, Untitled, 1990, beeswax, cotton, wool, human hair, and leather shoe,
27.3 x 52.1 x 14.3 cm, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, Joseph H. Hirshhorn Purchase Fund, 1990, © Robert Gober,
photo © Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution (HMSG 90.15), by Lee Stalsworth.

René Magritte, The Red Model, 1937, oil on canvas, 183 x 136 cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, © 2006 C. Herscovici, London, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.