In 2002, Robert Gober interviewed Vija Celmins at her Long Island home. He asked her about her work habits: “Do you work every day?” Celmins said she didn’t. “I have always had a very complicated relationship with working—starting and stopping,” she said. Gober admitted that he hadn’t “really worked in a year and a half.”1 It is funny to read their anxious exchange about working (and not working) after seeing Vija Celmins / Robert Gober, the two-person show currently on view at Matthew Marks Gallery, in which their tenderly labored works invite viewers close.
Both artists have been celebrated for decades and both are on the gallery’s roster. Beyond that, the short press release makes no argument for why they should be considered in tandem. Both often take familiar or ubiquitous objects as their subjects (sinks, spiderwebs)—this is not unique to them, given that Celmins began her career when Pop was taking hold and Gober’s early years coincided with the Pictures Generation. Yet there’s no Sherrie-Levine-esque critical distance to their remaking and re-presenting. They are not commenting on the readymade or aesthetics of commerce. They instead give so much fastidious attention to something “typical” that it becomes intimately strange.
The earliest artwork in the exhibition, Celmins’ Porsche (1966–67), is an oil painting of an L.A. freeway as seen from inside the car. The image is mostly gray and blue—smoggy—and based on a photograph she took while driving (many of her paintings start as photographs). While capturing the hazy monotony of freeway driving, the lushness of the paint makes the scene feel deep enough to fall into. This painting hangs opposite Celmins’ white-on-black Night Sky #22 (2015–18) and black-on-white Reverse Night Sky #1 (2014). Star-like dots on a deep, densely layered ground, these paintings give off an aura, their repetitive simplicity almost demanding that a viewer linger. At the back of the room, Gober’s Untitled (functioning sinks) (1992), a white-painted cast bronze sink with idiosyncratic fixtures, gushes constantly, water coming from two faucets and draining out a pipe that disappears into the gallery’s wall. This sink, like so many made by Gober, is delightfully imperfect, with a handmade-looking surface that belies its pristine whiteness.
The best Gober work in the show is, I would argue, a painted piece of gypsum polymer made to look like a torn fragment of a packing blanket—the kind used to wrap and protect artworks or furniture. Mounted an inch or two from the wall, Untitled (2006–7) floats stiffly, and shares a small side room with Celmins’ Blackboard Tableau #11 (2007–15), a sculptural recreation of a tablet-sized blackboard, empty but for the slight white haze left behind by wiped-away chalk. Together, these two painstakingly crafted objects are eerie. They feel leftover, or cast off, from a larger story, the details of which we are left to imagine.
Both Celmins and Gober have always felt to me quietly rebellious in their insistence on slowness—Celmins, who had Ed Ruscha and James Turrell among her peers, veering away from the bold, iconic shapes and imagery, while Gober, whose sinks have often been linked to the AIDS crisis (and the public obsession with hygiene in that moment), chose what Peter Schjeldahl called “poetic indirection.” 2 The works in Vija Celmins / Robert Gober, all indirectly poetic, radiate an insistent, quiet energy, as if whispering “if you stay a while, I’ll help you feel and see what I feel and see in this vast, confounding world.”
Vija Celmins / Robert Gober runs from October 29–December 23, 2022 at Matthew Marks Gallery (1062 N. Orange Grv. and 7818 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90046).