Installation view featuring Robert Gober's Untitled, 1991, wood beeswax, leather, fabric, and human hair, 13 1/4 by 16 1/2 by 46 1/8 inches, at the Museum of Modern Art. Photo courtesy of MoMA.

Famously enigmatic American artist Robert Gober is the subject of "The Heart is Not a Metaphor," a retrospective of the 60-year-old artist's wide-ranging output. The survey, opening this weekend at New York's Museum of Modern Art (Oct. 4, 2014-Jan. 18, 2015) comprises around 130 works, starting with a 1975 painting of the Connecticut house the artist grew up in and a sharply tautological hand-painted Dulamel paint can that heralds the Americana-infused remade readymades that would come later. The show also includes trademark works like Gober's wax replicas of clammy, disembodied men's legs, often protruding from walls and sometimes augmented with candles or drains, and his sculpted sinks.

"The Heart is Not a Metaphor" restages several of Gober's immersive environments of the late 1980s and 1990s, which feature hand-printed wallpaper. The pattern of one of these repeats a dozing white man paired with a lynched black man, implying that racial violence recurs just as constantly as the image repeats, and that much of white America sleeps through it. Another features drawings of male and female genitalia and papers the walls of a room at whose center is a sculpted bag of donuts on a white plinth, a hue that dominates Gober's work and suffuses it with notions of purity despite the sometimes louche imagery. The newest work in the show is X Pipe Playpen, a 2013-14 playpen made unusable by crisscrossed black tubing protruding from the bars. It is one of a group of neo-surrealist sculptures based on domestic furniture that also includes a crib holding an enormous stick of butter and golden apples.

Gober has never before titled an exhibition of his own work, and he explained at a Tuesday morning preview that this show's title, "The Heart is Not a Metaphor," comes from a passage in Elizabeth Hardwick's 1979 novel Sleepless Nights. The late 1970s and early 1980s were a formative period for the artist. "I was a gay man living in the epicenter of a health epidemic," he said. "It was imperative to say who you were." Having been an altar boy in a devout Catholic family, Gober said the "array of body-rich symbols" he was taught to worship were deeply influential. "Faith is a belief in something that is irrational, and that correlates with a belief in art," he said.

One room recreates the virtual chapel Gober fashioned at New York's Matthew Marks Gallery in 2005 as a response to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It includes a central aisle separating rows of pews and leading to an altar above which hangs a bronze crucifix holding a perched robin and a headless Christ discharging water from his nipples, making him a fountain that inevitably recalls Fountain, the first readymade Duchamp exhibited. Two partially obscured side chapels contain bathers in tubs, a riff on cleansing echoed by Gober's sculptures of sinks. A suite of eight pastel drawings depicting partial views of embracing couples are executed on reproductions of the front page of the New York Times from Sept. 12, 2001, suggesting the simultaneity of sex and death. Writing in A.i.A. in 2005, Eleanor Heartney pointed out that several aspects of the installation "wove a narrative about sin, purification, redemption and rebirth." As is Gober's custom, everything in the room was made by hand.

The retrospective has been eight years in the works, explained Ann Temkin, MoMA's chief curator of painting and sculpture, who organized the exhibition in close collaboration with the artist. In addition to Gober's own work, the exhibition contains pieces by Anni Albers, Joan Semmel, Nancy Shaver, Robert Beck and Cady Noland in a gallery organized by Gober. He began organizing shows in the mid-1980s as a reaction to being included in group shows where he "didn't feel the contexts were elucidating or rich enough." (He's gone on to organize shows of Forrest Bess as part of a recent Whitney Biennial, for example, and Charles Burchfield at L.A.'s Hammer Museum.)

So, Gober said, "it was like everything else. If you want better, do it yourself!"