A Middlebury College graduate will join a select set of living American artists when the Museum of Modern Art celebrates his career with a full-scale retrospective. Titled "Robert Gober: The Heart Is Not a Metaphor," the show of 130 works in a variety of mediums opens at the Manhattan museum on October 4.
"Early on," trumpets a MoMA press release, "Gober's sculptures declared themselves an indispensable part of the landscape of late-20th-century art."
That oeuvre includes objects such as household furniture, sinks and body parts — all made by hand — as well as room-size installations that have included running water. "Gober's meticulous sculptures explore sexuality, relationships, nature, politics and religions," writesNew York's Matthew Marks Gallery, which represents him. "His work is often based on memories from his childhood or on familiar subject matter from around his home or studio."
A New York Times review of a 2007 Gober retrospective in Switzerland situated him "at the forefront of a generation that emerged in the 1980s and devised new ways to fuse the personal and the political, the accessible and the mysterious." Times critic Roberta Smith added that "Gober's fraught, gender-bending, body-oriented form of protest sculpture" had been drawing "a chorus of superlatives" from visitors to the show at Basel's Schaulager Museum.
A couple of Burlington-area classmates of Gober's offered recollections of his time at Middlebury (1973-1977) and in New York City in the years immediately afterward.
"You could tell he was a rare visionary," says Johanna Boyce, a clinical social worker and therapist. Figure drawings he made in college had "great emotional depth," Boyce says. She later collaborated with Gober on dance pieces she choreographed in New York 30 years ago. He created sets that Boyce describes as "beautiful and evocative abstracted vistas."
Dean Corren, the Progressive/Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, got to know Gober through the art department at Middlebury. The two were living a few blocks apart in Manhattan's East Village in the mid-'80s when Gober agreed to build the first model of an underwater turbine Corren had invented. Lamentably, Corren relates, Gober's rendering, which was used to craft the blades for the actual turbine, was subsequently discarded by officials at New York University, where it had been stored.
Connecticut native Gober, now 60, was dogged in his ambition to become a professional artist, Corren recalls. "I couldn't imagine the world dissuading him from pursuing his art. In a way," he says, "that made it inevitable he would receive recognition."
Awareness of Gober's work — in the art world and beyond — exploded in 1997 when he exhibited in Los Angeles what is probably his most infamous piece. It's a concrete, life-size sculpture of the Virgin Mary, arms outstretched, with a culvert pipe running through her belly. Times critic Smith called it "a masterpiece." Other viewers have chosen less positive terms to describe it.
"Robert Gober: The Heart Is Not a Metaphor," Museum of Modern Art, New York City. October 4 through January 18, 2015. moma.org
The original print version of this article was headlined "Midd Grad Takes Manhattan"