When a work by Robert Gober sold for a record $830,750 at Sotheby's in November 2000, it was no surprise that it was one of the artist's iconic Sink sculptures. During 1985, in Los Angeles, Gober presented a show of wall sculpture that resembled porcelain fixtures -- sinks and urinals. The work recalled Duchamp, yet seemed alien to anything that anyone had ever seen before.
The sinks, without their metal plumbing, emphasize the plain forms that we come into contact with on a daily basis, but are largely unaware of. Gober's hand-made versions quickly put us in touch with the mundane, but somehow make us think of the sublime.
He went on to up the ante by turning his attention to hand-fashioned wax body parts -- such as a super-realistic leg that was cut off at the trunk, placed on the ground, and installed to appear like it was coming out of the wall. What's more, some of the hair-covered legs had candles protruding from them. Others had wax sink-drains inserted into them.
One could go on and list more of Gober's unique repertoire of forms, but the point is that he immediately became the most talked-about sculptor to come out of the 1980s.
The art market also stood up and took notice. From day one, Gober was a success at auction. In many ways, he had the perfect market. Since he insisted on hand-fabricating his work (as opposed to Jeff Koons, for instance, who hires artisans to make his sculpture), relatively little work was produced.
Add to that the fact that many of his best pieces were acquired by museums and you end up with a market crying for available work. When a substantial Gober appeared at auction, it was a mini-event.
Even during the market's downturn in the early 1990s, Gober's prices held up. As the market improved in the late 1990s, collectors began to conclude that his work would likely survive the test of time.
By 1998, Gober had broken the $500,000 barrier. A very difficult work, Untitled (Man in Drain), that necessitated cutting a hole in the floor to install, sold for $552,500 (Christie's Nov. 1998). During the same sale, a tiny multiple of a child's shoe made of wax with hair "growing" on the inside, sold for $40,250 -- a strong price for a work in an edition of 15.
At this stage in his career, Robert Gober is playing for higher stakes than merely doing the requisite gallery show every two years. He's now focused primarily on complex museum installations. If anyone is curious about the compelling nature of these works, pick up the catalogue from his exhibition for the Los Angeles MOCA in 1997. Gober mesmerized the audience with an installation that included running water, tide pools complete with starfish and sea urchins, human figures and a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary -- with a drainpipe inserted in her midsection.
Then there was his memorable early 1990s installation at the Dia Center in Chelsea where he took an entire room, outfitted it in bronze sinks with actual running water, painted the surrounding walls to resemble a dense forest, created tiny windows that appeared to let in daylight, and finally covered the windows with bars. The viewer was caught in an unsettling world where he was simultaneously indoors and outdoors, while experiencing freedom and confinement. A catalogue documenting the show can still be purchased from Dia's bookstore.
By creating complex installations at major institutions, Gober is likely to build a large audience for his work -- and build expectations as well. A great show means massive press and strong demand at auction. The converse is also true for a poor showing.
Since Gober will be representing the United States at this summer's Venice Biennale, he will be under even greater scrutiny. Past artists to be honored as the American representative include Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Diebenkorn. At the age of 47, Gober finds himself in some pretty fast company. However, one can't help but think that he is up to the task and, in many ways, is just getting started.