Though Henri Matisse and Robert Gober are artists of different backgrounds, eras, and styles, each of their shows at the Museum of Modern Art—Matisse’s The Cut-Outs and Gober’s The Heart is Not a Metaphor — prove that an artist’s ideas transcend the artist’s skill. Matisse, who was a decrepit old man in the 1940s and 50s when he made the cut-outs, was physically incapable of painting grand works like The Dance (1909), so he cut shapes into colored paper as a way to exercise his creativity. Gober, an avant-gardist sculptor who derives influence from Marcel Duchamp, displays empty sinks and wallpaper in his show. Though the works in both shows may seem simple to create and engineer, they are not rudimentary by any means. While Matisse’s cut-outs are joyful and uplifting, Gober’s sculptures are graphic, chilling, and disconcerting—but despite the difference in tone, Matisse and Gober share an ability to bring their ideas to life.
Matisse’s cut-outs take on a variety of forms, including stained glass windows, magazine covers, and tapestries. In Matisse’s Jazz (1947), a book of 250 prints, one cut-out is captioned, “No leaf of a fig tree is identical to another.” This statement mirrors an idea of Matisse’s show—no one cut-out can be exactly the same as another.
The cut-outs were made during the dark World War II era, yet these works are buoyant and colorful. Matisse seemed to use his art as a means of coping with his deteriorating physical state and the hostile wartime environment in Europe. In order to cover up a stain in his apartment, Matisse created Oceania, The Sky (1946), which features a wall-sized beige background dotted with white ocean-like cut-outs. To create this work, Matisse reminisced about a trip he took to Tahiti in 1930.
When Matisse depicts people in his cut-outs, they always exude a joyful energy, similar to his earlier paintings. In his Blue Nudes series (1952), the color blue is associated at first glance with sadness, but when looking more closely, the viewer can see that the blue reflects the ocean, something that comforted Matisse and is represented in many of his other cut-outs.
Matisse’s show has vivid audiovisual aspects, which allow the viewer to see Matisse’s process of creating the cut-outs—most immediately recognizable is the amount of dependence he had on his helpers to place the cut-outs on their canvases, since Matisse was physically handicapped. Beside the Blue Nudes in the gallery is a video that shows Matisse making wave-like creases on the nudes with a scalpel, further establishing the presence of the oceanic imagery.
Though the final years of Matisse’s life weren’t joyful, his work was—but other artists like Robert Gober express their worldly anxieties differently. Gober’s show The Heart is Not a Metaphor, which contains forty years of work, is blatantly disconcerting. The two shows are vastly different in how they react to the world’s injustices, yet both are still effective.
The first room of The Heart is Not a Metaphor features several sculptures of sinks from the 1980s, which are reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917). Gober made fifty of these sculptures between 1983 and 1986, the height of the AIDS epidemic. The lack of plumbing in the sinks suggests a failure in their function; one can never truly be clean. The most vivid of Gober’s sinks are Two Partially Buried Sinks (1986), which features two sinks set inside of a patch of grass to look as though they are gravestones. Though the sculpture is simple, made of just two sinks turned vertically and stuck into the ground, its meaning is layered and evocative, forcing the reader to reconcile the presence of death alongside everyday objects. The piece suggests not only that AIDS is a deathly ailment, but also that Gober’s society had become desensitized to death. Works like Two Partially Buried Sinks, which are more reliant on their concepts than their form, permeate The Heart is Not a Metaphor.
The next three rooms in the show are installations in which the entire walls are covered in wallpaper with repeated imagery. From far away, the first room after the sinks seems to display a typical eighties suburban-style wallpaper, but upon closer look, there are two repeated images: a man dead in his sleep, and a man being hung on a noose tied to a tree. This seems to represent the suffocating reality of the American demise and compliance with suburban life. Bags of cat litter are placed by each wall, as if they’re absorbing domestic excrement. In the center of the room is a wedding dress, presenting an ominous sense of commitment to this debilitating, dull suburban lifestyle.
Through out the show, Gober places wax lower-halves of bodies with real human hair and clothing around certain rooms. One of the most memorable and discomforting wax works is an untitled sculpture of a large suitcase. Inside the suitcase is the top of a sewage drain, which the viewer can see beneath to find swampy muck. Only from one side of the suitcase can the viewer see that the lower-half of a wax man is holding a wax baby over the swamp, as if about to drown the baby.
At the very end of the exhibit are two doors on either side of a Christ-like fountain—perhaps a literal homage to Duchamp’s Fountain. Each door is slightly open, and when looked into, there is a wax figure taking a bath, along with a newspaper strewn across the floor. This makes the viewer feel as though they’re intruding on a private moment in a perverted manner. The work is also very similar to Duchamp’s Étant donnés, in which a dying woman is visible through a small peephole in a door.
Before looking through the crease of the door in the final room of The Heart is Not a Metaphor, it’s easy to feel genuine fear of what is about to be seen— a fear of the unknown. But what’s inside the door is just a common reality of life; people take baths. There is nothing perverted about the scene except for the fact that the viewer is peering at the figure through a crease in the door—in other words, the discomfort is only evoked by the viewer’s presence.
We are afraid of our own reality. Matisse is afraid—he used his cut-outs to avoid dwelling on the horrors of World War II. And for Gober to exploit this fear of modern life, he must have felt it himself too. While Matisse helps us live in a dream world of vibrant stained glass windows and swirling oceanic imagery, Gober forces us to walk through a gallery plastered with images of genitalia, dying babies, and grave-like sinks. While Gober confronts fear, Matisse subdues it—in each sense, the artist manipulates his own reality to impose his preferred mode of catharsis on the viewer.