In the fall of 1989, I was standing in front of one of Jackson Pollock’s huge paint-splattered canvases at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) with my girlfriend, now my wife. She asked, “What makes this art?”

Her question echoed my own. The art history and philosophy I had become so comfortable with in graduate seminars suddenly struck me as disturbingly insufficient. It was more than a question about art. It was a theological question, asked by one Christian of another, in front of one of the many strange and ambiguous artifacts that seem to contradict what Christians have traditionally valued in the visual arts.

Christianity, or at least the church, once provided both the context and content for art. But what to make of paint dripped onto a canvas (Pollock), a urinal displayed upside down (Marcel Duchamp), silk-screened images of Campbell’s Soup cans (Andy Warhol), a stuffed shark (Damien Hirst)—not to mention Andres Serrano’s infamous crucifix suspended in golden liquid, titled Piss Christ?

I recalled my wife’s question a few months ago while visiting the MoMA, this time standing in front of a plaster sink made by Robert Gober. What would I say to my students from The King’s College when I brought them to this exhibition a few days later? How could I help them experience this plaster sink as Christians?

I knew my students were tempted to retreat into abstractions like the Good, the True, and the Beautiful when we talked about art. But even apart from the temptation to turn artworks into illustrations of philosophical abstractions, why go all the way to MoMA—or any contemporary gallery? Much easier to use television shows and movies, easily accessible and far more popular. What could we learn, if anything, from these strange artifacts?

My career as a scholar, educator, and curator of modern and contemporary art has been animated by the belief that “all things” are made in and through Christ, as the apostle Paul says in Colossians. Is it possible that “all things” includes not only Renaissance altarpieces but also plaster sinks?

Come Closer

During his 40-year career, Gober has made replicas of the familiar objects that clutter our daily lives—and by installing them in particular contexts, he makes them unfamiliar. He has installed bags of cat litter, a package of diapers, a lawn chair, and a baby crib, as well as eerily accurate replicas of legs and torsos. But the sinks brought the artist to the attention of dealers, critics, and curators in the mid-1980s, and remain his most evocative works.

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Made from plaster, plywood, steel, wire lath, aluminum, watercolor, and semigloss enamel paint, these sinks of various sizes lack faucets and drains. They cannot perform the most basic function of sinks, moving water. “What do you do when you stand in front of a sink?” Gober once said. “You clean yourself. I seemed to be obsessed with making objects that embodied that broken promise.”

Gober’s creative journey to the sinks began when he was supporting his early artistic career through carpentry, welding, and casting—skills he had learned in sculpture classes. Growing tired of working for other people, he decided to make things he could sell. “And immediately, without belaboring it, dollhouses popped into my head.” As he built them, “it was really becoming clear to me that these weren’t dollhouses—what I was interested in was the symbol of the house.”

The house was a potent symbol for Gober. His father built the family home in Yalesville, Connecticut. “This is what I learned a man does,” Gober has said— “build houses.” But Gober’s realization of his homosexuality caused a rift with his parents, as well as with his Catholic faith. Mocked by classmates as “Gober girl,” he recalls that “my dad didn’t like me.”

Does the sink his conflicted father installed in the basement of that house, the sink whose beauty enchanted Gober as a child, explain Gober’s own sink? Are Gober’s childhood pain, sexual identity, and subsequent gay activism what this work is “about”? It’s important that we not stop there. Gober’s wager, the wager of so much of modern art, is that such intensely personal subjects can connect to viewers’ own experiences of pain and vulnerability.

The sink isn’t merely a form of therapy or self-indulgence. It addresses us and provokes our own recollection of broken promises, wounds, joy and pain, the childhood fears and enchantments that have become an inextricable part of us, whether we recognize it or not.

Modern art addresses the viewer as a vulnerable wanderer, a son or daughter of Cain who fears both God and neighbor.

Like so many works in the modern artistic tradition, Gober’s sink asks us to recognize our brokenness. Too often Christian approaches to art and culture tend to deny this frailty, the experience of fragmentation and loss. The classical artist entered the studio to serve the public, fulfilling a commission from the church or the state. But the modern artist enters the studio to deal with his own self and hopes that this struggle, which can never be separated from a struggle with God and the world, can address the struggle of those outside the studio. If classical art addresses the viewer as a member of a vibrant and powerful religious or political community, modern art addresses the viewer as a vulnerable wanderer, a son or daughter of Cain who fears both God and neighbor.

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“We have to be told who we are,” the Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer wrote. The best works of modern art can remind us that we are sons and daughters of Cain. The work of our hands is weak, vulnerable, and fragile, whether we acknowledge it or not. It is effective, if it is effective at all, only as the result of God’s grace.

Look Longer

Christians can recognize even the most seemingly profane of contemporary art as a kind of prayer, a venture on the possibility that someone, and Someone, will visit, observe, and respond with grace. But to hear this prayer, Christians need to recognize their own vulnerability and fragility rather than expecting art to affirm our piety and power.

Even Paul seemed to have taken time to visit the artistic works of Athens, observing there a monument dedicated to an unknown god. Far from denigrating the Greeks for their blindness, he commended them for their search, offering to name the God they sought. The landscape of modern and contemporary art is littered with altars to unknown gods. These paintings, sculptures, and installations create an opportunity for Christians to creatively and lovingly name the one in whom all things are made—for “he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:27).

When asked about the meaning of Gober’s work, the artist Charles Ray said, “It asks me to be near. To come closer and look longer or to come back tomorrow and look again. The work whispers, ‘Be with me.’ ”

At the heart of Christian faith is the belief that the world’s Maker has heard that prayer—has come close to his own estranged creation. So a few days later, students in tow, I came back to look at that sink, to remember that paint-splattered canvas I stood before in 1989, letting these works whisper to us. With them, I wanted to make sure that if Christ were speaking to us in these galleries—asking us to come closer, to look again, to be with him—we would have ears to hear.

Daniel A. Siedell is the art historian in residence at The King’s College in New York and Associate Professor of Christianity & Culture at Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

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