A wooden door frame opens into a room within a room. As one passes through this seemingly unremarkable entryway, the frame’s other half, an unhinged door, is propped against the facing wall. Cut into the door, sans doorknob and hardware, are six inset panels arranged in a grid pattern that take the form of two stacked crosses, lending the space a meditative, chapel-like atmosphere. The surfaces of both the door and frame, heavily painted in layers of white, seem to be nicked and dented from years of use, boasting a patina of age and disregard. But things aren’t always as they seem. Untitled Door and Door Frame (1987–1988), an early installation piece by Robert Gober, isn’t the authentic readymade it appears to be: painstakingly hand-crafted, this domestic architectural fragment has never resided in the real world of found objects.
Untitled Door and Door Frame is a recent gift from Walker Board member Mary Pappajohn and her husband, John. The acquisition of this work simply would not have been possible without the Pappajohns’ extraordinary largesse, as the piece has resided in private collections since it was first exhibited and its current market value has skyrocketed to prohibitive heights. Like Gober’s Slides of a Changing Painting (1982–1983) and The Subconscious Sink (1985), already part of the Walker’s collection, the significance of this early installation piece also cannot be underestimated; it represents a landmark turning point in the artist’s oeuvre.
Currently on view in the exhibition Quartet: Barney, Gober, Levine, Walker, the piece was first shown in Utopia Post Utopia, a 1988 exhibition organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. There, it was the container for an ensemble of three other works selected by Gober. In the center of the floor, between the door frame and the door, was Meg Webster’s Moss Bed (1986–1988), a mattress-shaped berm of earth and moss, a quotation from the natural world. On one wall hung Albert Bierstadt’s sublime 19th-century landscape painting Lake Tahoe, California (1867) and on the other was Richard Prince’s framed handwritten joke: ”Fireman pulling drunk out of a burning bed: You darned fool, that’ll teach you to smoke in bed. Drunk: I wasn’t smoking in bed, it was on fire when I laid down.”
Gober’s commingling of these eclectic partners brought the exhibition’s title to life while laying to rest any hope of redemption in a white America that had murdered and dispossessed its First Nation rivals. For all intents and purposes, the bed was already on fire when the tribal nations were broken and the slave ships were welcomed on these shores. The artist’s evocative revision of this dark and unforgotten history reverberates in this piece in which the myth of pastoral utopia is destabilized and Eden is forever lost. When exhibited independently from the other objects, Untitled Door and Door Frame continues to resonate with this early exhibition history while also articulating one of Gober’s abiding concerns—emotional and physical access and a profound sense of absence.