What Seems To Be Isn’t: Robert Gober’s Untitled (1999)

Robert Gober, detail from Untitled (1991 for Parkett 27) (1999), lithograph on newsprint with handtorn edges, printed on both sides and folded three times, hand-colored with coffee by the artist, each unique, 56.7 x 35.4 cm. Edition of 75. Printed by Maurice Sanchez & Joe Petruzzelli, Derrière L’Etoile Studio, New York. Published by Parkett Editions, Zurich.

Robert Gober confronts us with a page torn from the Metropolitan section of The New York Times, dated Thursday, Oct. 4, 1960. Untitled (1991 for Parkett 27),1 printed on toned newsprint, folded three times and stained with coffee, smacks of the real McCoy—an inconsequential sheet of paper destined for the trash bin or held back for puppy training. It is ordinary—perfunctory layout, no blaring headlines, nothing juicy to strike the eye.

Printed on both sides, the lithograph’s verso gives us the market page with stock reports. The recto has the weather report below the fold and the map shows fair weather throughout the country. There are no storms or turbulent skies on this sunny autumn day in America. Above the fold are five wedding announcements and photographs of three brides and one bride and groom. The newlyweds are all handsome, their whole lives ahead of them.

Gober’s early sculptures—his domestic world of cribs, beds, dollhouses, chairs, sinks and drains—were, as real as they might appear, facsimiles, often awry in shape. They were also, despite their verisimilitude as mass-market commodities, fastidiously handcrafted by the artist. When newspaper imagery appeared in Gober’s art, first with Untitled (1991 for Parkett 27), the same deception applied. Untitled seems to be a real page out of the Times. But no such page exists. It is an imitation, its layout fabricated—a collage patched together from found photographs and found and invented newspaper copy. In actuality, Oct. 4, 1960, was a Tuesday, not a Thursday as stated in the header; the weather report is for Oct. 6, 1960, not two days earlier; two photographs are not those of the brides whose stories they accompany, and so forth.

Untitled is as sly as one of Gober’s sinks. It is a smart riff on reproduction in a reproductive medium, an ontological sleight of hand: a handmade, limited edition “recreation” of a nonexistent, mass-produced “original.” These mind-catching shifts of identity play a critical role in the print’s ultimate meanings. The content that catapults this print out of the mundane into the realm of substantive expression lies half submerged in a series of unexpected details.

Robert Gober, Untitled (1991 for Parkett 27) (1999), lithograph on newsprint with handtorn edges, printed on both sides and folded three times, hand-colored with coffee by the artist, each unique, 56.7 x 35.4 cm. Edition of 75. Printed by Maurice Sanchez & Joe Petruzzelli, Derrière L’Etoile Studio, New York. Published by Parkett Editions, Zurich.

Untitled presents the kind of page one would flip past without reading unless specifically interested in the nuptials, the stock market or the weather. The market is doing okay, the weather forecast is great and everyone’s happy. There is no need to read the details. Or should we? If we do, we discover three short news items interspersed with the wedding announcements. One reports that police in California have discovered a twelve-year-old girl whose parents had forced her to live in a closet filthy with the child’s feces and urine. To the right, a heartrending notice tell us about a teenager who saw his pet dog, brought into a clinic for a routine vaccination, accidentally euthanized by a vet who mistook his dog for another.

Immediately below this story and adjacent to the serene face of a beautiful bride is another sad filler headline: “Boy Drowns in Pool.” A mother discovered her six-year-old son face down in a partially filled backyard pool. The woman, the report ends, was held for questioning by the police. Accidental death? Premeditated? The child’s name is Robert Gober, and the mother’s is Leah, the artist’s mother’s name. The story is dated 1960—the year Gober turned six. The story is, of course, a fantasized imagining of the artist’s own death as a young child under mysterious circumstances. In fact, Gober’s relationship with both his parents was good, his home life benign, but in his art Gober has always been drawn to vulnerability and loss. The handmade and altered domestic objects from the early 1980s speak to the darkness of childhood—real or imagined.

In 1979, six-year-old Etan Patz went missing on his way to school in lower Manhattan. At the time Gober was working in the neighborhood and recognized the boy’s name and family. The incident, which sparked the missing-children’s movement, deeply disturbed Gober. Between 1979 and 1981, more than two dozen children, aged seven to fourteen, most of them boys, were found murdered in Atlanta; when the story first broke Gober produced a small pencil drawing on the subject titled Atlanta. Underlying this heightened sensitivity to the loss of young life was the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which exerted a toll on Gober and other gay men in New York in the 1980s. This devastating loss of friends and fellow artists profoundly affected Gober’s art, leading to solemn, elegiac meditations on death. Untitled (1991 for Parkett 27) and its preoccupation with the death of innocence was deeply personal.

Every print in the Untitled edition bears a brown ring-shaped stain, handcolored by the artist with coffee, suggesting the trace of a coffee mug put down by the reader. Gober registers a human presence, his own, and injects an ambiguous sense of private narrative. The page now open has been folded three times as evidenced by its soft creases, suggesting that the page was of special importance to that prior reader and had been tucked away in a pocket or drawer for safekeeping—though whether as a record of joy or tragedy remains unknown.

Gober has taken the optimistic promise of marriage, whose ideal issue is so often assumed to be children and loving family—and punctuated it with stories of enslaved, devastated or dead children. Within the hopeful waters of existence—sweet vows and sunny skies—lie horror and tragedy. Life is brief, death inevitable. Like the nearly imperceptible insect gnawing on a moribund leaf in the darker register of a vibrant Dutch floral still life, the barely noticeable announcement of a young boy’s demise set within a newspaper page of life-affirming nuptials is a stark reminder of death’s randomness and omnipresence. In Gober’s lithograph, Death, not God, is in the details.

  1. The print was produced for the art journal Parkett as part of its ongoing series of artists’ editions. []