New Sculpture merits a sub-title: “Objects from Everyday Life,” as it represents the significant shift in contemporary sculpture based on the ordinary object. The three sculptors in the show—Robert Gober, Jeff Koons, and Haim Steinbach—are among a number of artists working in this way, particularly in the U.S. and England. Many of their counterparts, especially British sculptors such as Tony Cragg, Bill Woodrow, and Edward Allington, transform discarded commercial objects—the refuse of broken and abandoned products of contemporary consumer society. Gober, Koons and Steinbach instead take and make objects of pristine appearance, unbroken wholes. They look back equally to Duchamp, Johns and the Minimalists, particularly Judd and the idiosyncratic Artschwager. Their work thus extends a distinctive American preoccupation with the new.
There is a continuum set down here with Gober and Steinbach anchoring the ends and Koons balanced in the middle. Robert Gober’s sinks fabricated by hand are often unabashedly anthropomorphic. Their titles often allude to emotional states and conditions of being—The Silly Sink, The Scary Sink, The Sink Inside of Me. Early sinks were portraits, locations of memories; porcelain sinks used by both of his grandmothers, an identical work sink installed by his father in a basement shop, and the broom sink from Gober’s first studio. The sinks, however, are silent, their spigots removed, a pair of holes remaining. They are objects distanced from utilitarian purpose; they remain immaculate, alone, receptive to our impressions but enigmatic.
Haim Steinbach “displays” unaltered objects, plucked directly from mass-produced commercial stock. He suggests a multiplicity of readings of objects in isolation from usual contexts and in the relations between objects and the viewer.
In Steinbach’s lead part, two Dracula heads, six digital clocks, and a garden hose in a circular plastic dispenser are displayed across three interconnected shelves. The red digits of the clock “faces” are echoed in the red markings suggesting blood around the mouths of the Dracula heads; both are “memento mori”, signs of death. The coiled orange garden hose in turn “reads” equally as a source of sustenance (the water bearer), as the system of nourishment (the bowel), the system of destruction (the entrails), and the system of reproduction (the alert and protruding phallic nozzle). Time—the clocks in the middle section of the piece—mediates between the severed death heads at one end and the multifarious gardening implement at the other. This sculpture with its post-modern form and bright, decorative color scheme is a contemporary still life, an appreciation of the goods of bourgeois culture but laden with allegorical intent, a re-arrangement with the tradition of 17th-century Dutch painting.
Jeff Koons’ sculptures are as much embodiments of individual states of being as they are reflections of the social order. They relish themselves as objects of display but seek the penetration of analysis. Their surfaces, their skins, are shields that allow exhibitionism but also convey their vulnerability.
The early works, which Koons refers to as the “encased” pieces, include two series. The New Hoover Convertibles, were made of upright Hoover vacuum cleaners enclosed in acrylic Plexiglas cases over a bank of fluorescent lights, and the New Shelton Wet/Dry Double and Triple Deckers, in which commercial vacuums were stacked in Plexiglas cases over fluorescent lights. Initially they appear primarily as critical variations on the marketing of goods, but the contextual shift of encasing the objects, of removing them from an immediate, accessible consideration, and the particularity of the vacuum as an object transforms the works into metaphorical conundrums.
Koons’ other work includes basketballs suspended in water in glass tanks and cast bronze objects—a snorkel and aqualung—that allow man to enter and survive the water. The basketballs in the water tanks suggest immanent states of being, both psychological and philosophical. Koons refers to the cast bronze works as “Tools of Equilibrium.” Their utilitarian purpose has been rendered impotent; their promise of sustaining life has been ossified; they now become instruments of death, which would sink and drown their bearer.