Gilbert & George
British Sculptors, Photographers, Digital, Performance, and Conceptual Artists
George: January 8th, 1942 - Devon, England
Summary of Gilbert & George
As one in life and art for 50 years, Gilbert & George make work that is often huge, extremely brash and noisy - it literally screams for your attention. They tackle tough subjects such as death, religion, power, the monarchy, patriotism, identity and sexuality, often combining these into one dazzling composite image. Chuck in a few swear words (and possibly a bodily fluid or two) and you have the essence of Gilbert & George.
Nowadays an elderly gay couple in their Seventies, Gilbert & George can often be seen in formal suits strolling around Spitalfields, the area of East London that they have made their home. This is not to say the artist duo has settled down for a quiet life. Happy to be known as confrontational, Gilbert & George continue to make work that defies the norm, often delighting in the response to their controversial images and provocative slogans.
- Critical to the understanding of Gilbert & George is the fact that these two individuals function as one artist. The two men began working together at art school in 1967- and have lived and worked together in a carefully restored house in East London ever since. Mostly identically dressed in formal tweed suits, Gilbert and George's genteel, ordered appearance and ascetic lifestyle is curiously at odds with their riotous and often garish works of art.
- Gilbert & George are iconoclasts, attacking the beliefs that art holds most dear. They believe that art and life should be brought closer together and their 'living sculptures' were one early way of bridging this gap. Living and working together as an artist duo was a further way of creating this necessary merger - art becomes life and life becomes art. Their democratic approach encompasses the idea that it doesn't matter what your background is or where you come from, art is for all.
- Their art is deliberately controversial and designed to offend as they believe that good taste is the scourge of modern life. While they are unafraid to tackle difficult subjects head on, they are sometimes reluctant to be pinned down about their own opinions and have made some conflicting statements about their views over the years. One consistent idea running through their work is the need to strive towards a world that is free from dogmatic religion and political correctness.
- They employ shock tactics in order to get their message across. Swear words, scatological references and bodily fluids - all previously not considered to be part of art's lexicon - have been employed by Gilbert and George to calculating effect.
- Their color is bold and at times eye-wateringly bright. Often when building digital compositions they use hallucinogenic colors in lurid combinations. Their whole aesthetic is a deliberate anti-aesthetic, designed to grab and goad the viewer in equal measure. In recent times they have made repeated use of large-scale, bold graphic style photo-based imagery, constructed through a digitally manipulated process.
- As a gay couple who document themselves in their art, theirs is a celebration of otherness with early works showing them eating breakfast and getting drunk at home on gin. These early works have a gentler, poetic quality in keeping with the image they have cultivated of themselves as aesthetes and lovers of history.
- The fact that they live in London is crucial to the appreciation of Gilbert & George's art. From early works in the 1970s that feature images of angry crowds and homelessness to later works that reveal a London divided along religious lines, they have used their art to chronicle Britain's capital city for over five decades.
Progression of Art
George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit
George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit is a double color portrait of the artists dressed smartly in suits with ties and flowers in their lapels. George on the left hand side is smoking a cigarette. Both are smiling for the camera - the sort of cheesy smile that you might make for a photographer at a wedding. Yet, disrupting any sense of propriety, cut-out letters announcing George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit are emblazoned across their chests.
This is a pivotal work in the artists' career. It was at this point, the duo decided that there would be no separation between themselves and their art. Aware that what they were proposing was quite bold, they decided to anticipate any potential criticism by labeling themselves pejoratively. Here the terms cunt and shit are not just designed to offend but show that the pair refused to be dependent on the art industry's opinion, arguably the work's main legacy.
The artists whose background was in sculpture, classified most of their early work including George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit as magazine sculptures. These were works published in newspapers, magazines, and occasionally as postcards. This work was shown in an invitation-only pop-up event at Robert Fraser Gallery in May 1969 before becoming a magazine spread. As revealed by the duo, the magazine version, published in the journal Studio International, was in black and white against their wishes. At the time, fine art photography was almost always black and white and color photographs were considered tacky. The words cunt and shit were also censored and appeared covered.
2 photographs, color, on paper on printed paper - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
The idea for living sculptures - the artists creating their art using their own bodies - first started when they were students. Gilbert & George performed Singing Sculpture over a number of years and was their first success. For this performance they painted themselves in bronze and dressed in suits to sing and dance to a 1930s song titled Underneath the Arches. In the original song, performed by popular vaudeville artists Flanagan and Allen, two men discover some pleasure in the fact they have no homes to go to and have to sleep outside in the open air. Gilbert & George's version saw the artists dancing robotically like puppets.
In this work the duo furthered their aim of breaking down the distinction between life and art by making a link to prewar Britain, a time when there was a lot of poverty and many people were marginalized within society. It also managed to engage a wider public through a popular song. In identifying with the lyrics of Underneath the Arches and with tramps who live underneath the arches rather than in fancy hotels, Gilbert commented "that song was about our existence. The words described what we were like (...) we didn't have anything."
Performed many times all over the world between 1969 and 1991this Singing Sculpture normally lasted six minutes, however in a few versions, it became an endurance piece and lasted for eight hours or more.
The work was important for rejecting the idea of 'a formalistic art based on shapes and colors' at a time when the artists were experimenting with new media as well as ways of avoiding the commodification and fetishization of the art object.
Performance art (bronze paint, tape recorder, cane, glove)
The Tuileries installation consists of life-size charcoal drawings of trees lining the walls of a living room, with the same imagery plastered all over the furniture as well. The size of the room is based on the living room of the gallerists that first commissioned the piece. The furniture is based on pieces from the artists' home - the two chairs can also be seen in their early video Gordon's Makes us Drunk (1972). Although the pair used the term sculpture to categorize all their oeuvre, this installation is one of their few works that actually features three-dimensional sculptures.
The overall effect of this installation is of a secluded wooded copse. This is significant because the duo is deliberately referring to the homosexual practice of cottaging - gay men having casual sex in woods. The Tuileries was a well-known hang-out for the Parisian homosexual community in the early 1970s. In one of the three large backdrop-like drawings, there is a life-size self-portrait of the couple strolling at the park. By inserting themselves in such a setting, Gilbert & George proudly declare their homosexuality. Yet, as art critic Blake Gopnik noted, these charcoal drawings are melancholic. and this "sadness has an important social dimension: It's how it felt to be a gay couple in 1960s in Britain."
Additionally, the domestic scale of the furniture together with the surrounding drawings, make The Tuileries an immersive experience, one in which the viewer experiences the park with the artists. Creating inclusive and accessible works of art is one of Gilbert & George's main concerns, and although a somewhat utopian idea, their proposed 'Art for All,' was at the time revolutionary. Regardless of your background, your race, or your sexual orientation - the duo invited you to take a stroll in The Tuileries.
Charcoal on paper, and charcoal on paper mounted on wood, eight parts - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Coming, a grid of nine black and white photographs, is from the period before the artists' discovery of color. The title, slap in the middle of the image, tells us that this image is about ejaculation and that the white liquid splattered across four of the squares is semen. Four pictures placed on each of the corners depict portraits of both artists making hand gestures that can only be intended to have a sexual meaning. The artists have arranged the frames in the design of a cross, touching on one of their other favorite subjects: religion.
In Coming, the discrepancy between the artists' oblivious facial expression and their pornographic hand gesture is simultaneously uncanny and hilarious. The semen's splatter is more cartoonish than explicit. In an art gallery context, it could also reference Jackson Pollock's drip paintings. As noted by art historian Robin Dutt, such work is unbelievably scandalous exactly because "it appears so temperedly playful and coolly mischievous." Besides its pioneering combination of sex and playfulness, Coming also deserves to be praised for its unapologetic portrayal of homosexuality very early on.
This is a relatively subtle work by Gilbert & George's standard and is a far cry from some of the later works that feature much more graphic content. Over the years, the pair have plundered a huge variety of homo-erotic material including photographs and illustrations of phallus, anus, full nudity, and close-up masturbation. Some of the most indecorous include: Sperm Eaters (1982), Hard Cocks (1982), Fingered (1991), and Bum Holes (1994). In challenging taboos they want to forge a bond with everyone. They also believe that their role is to make the images rather than analyze them, seeing the role of interpreter belonging to the viewer. They have said that "Sex as subject in art is in some ways forbidden. The corner porn shop has in some ways more freedom because the artist has to justify it morally. We believe that the power of living is sex. There is nothing else".
nine individually framed black and white silver gelatin photographs
Polish Cross consists of 10 identical postcards with the image of the former Polish Pope, John Paul II, glued in a cross shape against a background of 20 identical postcards of a crown. Part of the Postcard Picture series, this is a work that brings together the two powerful agencies of religion and the monarchy. The crucifixion is an image that the pair return to time and time again. In this work - as with all their work that contains strong and potentially offensive imagery - the artists' attitude is ambivalent. They have a conflicting view of religion - using blasphemy to criticize the fundamentalist and intolerant aspects of it, while also making some celebratory depictions, including works resembling colorful stained glass windows. Gilbert & George profess to be monarchists and huge fans of the British crown. In a 2002 newspaper interview, they said: "We're the only monarchists among the artists today, because they're all anti-establishment. To be an artist, you have to be anti-establishment. But we're not."
In 1974 the duo began to make rectangular shaped ordered grids, a significant development as they continue to use the repeated arrangement in their work today. Gilbert & George have also been working with postcards and other ephemera for many years and have a huge collection of postcards that they use as material and inspiration. According to the artists, "the form of the postcard lends itself to the expression of finer feelings, stirring thoughts and beautiful views."
Postcard glued to board - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Drunk with God
Drunk with God, part of The Believing World series, is one of the very large works that Gilbert & George started to make in the early 1980s. Rather like a mural, the composition was meticulously planned in sections and then hand-colored. It also marks the moment the pair started using other colors besides just red and black. Their trademark grid pattern here is closer to a window and the intense color gives it the appearance of stained glass. The bright, artificial almost hallucinogenic colors in Drunk with God and the simplified objects make associations with Pop Art. The flowers - a symbol of sex and fecundity - on the upper left corner, for example, resemble those in Andy Warhol's lithographs.
By the 1980s, queer culture became less marginalized, entering the mainstream and appropriately the pair made a shift in size and scale to create this celebratory extravaganza. At this point, the artists chose to contemplate the social and spiritual condition of man through a series of important photographic works. This work, with its epic, cosmic vision of the world, depicts the artists as both observers and creators. Drunk with God's complex narrative can't be deciphered completely; the duo also do not offer any further explanation. Clearly this is a dream-like world one enters when intoxicated. However, symbols of drunkenness such as the lost keys after a long night out, the money irresponsibly spent, and the excrement are all there. The out-of-scale hand represents God and the artists are omnipresent, being depicted in several sections of the work. Young men stand as representatives of ideal manhood. Drunk with God mischievously aspires to grandeur by conflating the idea of religious or spiritual suffering with the all-too-human suffering caused by being drunk.
hand-dyed gelatin silver prints
Blood on Piss
This abstract image from the The Fundamental Pictures series is the result of photographs of blood and urine taken through a microscope. The negatives are then painted and manipulated to create this geometric composition in bright colors. The red and yellow combination is meant to catch the viewer's attention as it is used in cheap advertisements and by mainstream companies such as McDonald's. George remarked that "it is the least artistic color combination. In museums, you see very few paintings in red and yellow." Again, underscoring the artists' desire to stand out and subvert the norm.
The fact that bodily fluids were used in The Fundamental Pictures series inevitably brings up medical issues including the fear of infection. Although the pair say they did not deliberately think of the AIDS epidemic when creating the work, they are not opposed to this association. They have lost some of their friends from the disease and, in 1988, put together 'For AIDS,' a fundraising exhibition in which all the proceeds went to associations helping people with the illness. Blood on Piss is definitely a provocation against society's taboos, requiring the viewer to re-think what is forbidden, disgusting, or pornographic. The image is simultaneously beautiful and scatological. As author Robin Dutt remarked "What Gilbert & George had done is to deliberately translate the solid material world to the almost always unseen, echoing the somewhat mystical concept that within us are so many unseen universes."
Hand-dyed gelatin silver prints
BEARDGATE is part of Gilbert & George's recent series, THE BEARD PICTURES. In this image they depict themselves wearing beards made of barbwire. The beards form a gate in the middle of the composition. Across the series, the artists present themselves wearing beards of every conceivable shape and color, manipulating the photographs of themselves in such a way that they become somewhat diabolic. The pair color themselves red, have dark pits for eyes and sport pointy horns - these are violent and trashy images that evoke a kind of sci-fi aesthetic.
While BEARDGATE is an attack on the recent hipster trend of young men sporting facial hair, it also provoked more controversial matters. The series was not well received with some critics and viewers feeling that that it was offensive to racial minorities, most specifically Arab immigrants and other religious figures. The work was seen as opportunistic in using the European immigrant crisis as a source of inspiration. As with other controversies they have managed to provoke, Gilbert & George are reluctant to say very much. Gilbert, however, when asked specifically about this work said "It has to be aggressive in some way: we are provoking thought. We invented a new way of making pictures for ourselves that can speak very loudly and confrontationally. We are pressing buttons."
Biography of Gilbert & George
Both men came from relatively modest backgrounds. Gilbert was born Gilbert Prousch in 1943, in the Dolomites - the Alpine region of northeastern Italy. He came from a family of shoemakers and his first artistic endeavors were in traditional Alpine wood carving. George was born George Passmore in 1942, in Plymouth, moving early on to a small town in Devon, England. George was raised by a single mother who worked as a waitress, and gave him elocution lessons. George's childhood was similar to his partner's, he remembers living without heat, bathroom or hot water. Often the school lunch would be his only real meal of the day. His family was quite religious, which led his older brother to become a vicar. By age 15, George had quit school. He was, however, already studying art at the renowned Dartington Hall School, while also working at a bookshop.
Early Training and Work
Gilbert first studied at Wolkenstein Art School in the Swiss Alps, then he moved to Hallein near Salzburg in Austria. After that, he studied for six years at the Munich Academy of Art before settling in London and enrolling at St Martin's School of Art.
George moved to London in the early 1960s and worked in various low-paid jobs including Selfridges department store, in a bar, and as a baby sitter. He enrolled at Oxford Technical College before going onto St Martin's in London. There are rumors that before moving in with Gilbert, George had a wife and family. The artist never confirmed nor denied the rumors, which remain a mystery.
The two met at St Martin's in 1967, while studying sculpture. As noted many times by the couple "it was love at first sight." Coincidentally, the year they met was also when the UK decriminalized homosexuality. They quickly became romantically and artistically involved. At the time, the London school had a great reputation with a number of students (and teachers) who either were well-known or about to become so. Richard Long and Barry Flanagan were amongst their fellow students.
From the beginning, their experience of art school propelled Gilbert & George to react 'against the orthodoxy of their times'. As curator Margarida Vieira notes, "their early reaction to the teaching system was to address art's close relation to life." As young artists, they did not have the financial means to rent a studio and buy expensive art supplies. Proving that necessity is the mother of all invention, they decide to be their own art, creating the so-called 'Living Sculptures' from their own bodies.
Their first few years after graduating were not easy. It was a herculean task to convince gallery owners to give them a show when all they had to present was a 'life box' filled with memorabilia and themselves as sculptures. This lack of interest meant they often presented their work in unusual spaces such as sandwich shops and factories. Conversely things started to look up after they were turned down by an international art show. They decided to go to that art show opening as living sculptures - wearing metallic heads and standing between the guests. There, an important German dealer spotted them and finally gave them a show. Their first sale happened after a potential buyer saw a large charcoal drawing at their Düsseldorf exhibition. Jokingly, they charged £1000 - the highest sum they could think of. The work was sold with no questions asked and they professed to be "totally amazed."
By 1975, the pair were accomplished enough to purchase their house in Spitalfield, a neighborhood in East London. This run-down area is now gentrified and filled with young hip creative professionals. And major artists such as Tracey Emin and Rachel Whiteread currently live in the area. Gilbert and George restored their 18th century townhouse by themselves, which took them more than three years and they often state that it was the hardest work they have ever done. They still live in the same house together with a huge collection of antiques, children's books, pottery, and furniture. The pair believe that cooking is counter-productive (too much to clean) and for this reason their house doesn't have a kitchen.
For the couple, with success came excessive drinking. They admitted, on many occasions, how much they enjoyed the freedom attached to being drunk. At this point in their career, alcohol intoxication became a recurrent theme in their work. The video Gordon's Makes us Drunk (1972) is among these works, and celebrates their love for gin. During these turbulent years, they became increasingly destructive, even getting into pub fights and as a result they no longer drink alcohol.
In 1980 after a year without working on anything new - they were too busy preparing for their first retrospective - their work was reborn. After expanding their color palette, they started focusing solely on photography and not on their performance-based 'live sculptures.' In 1986, they won the renowned Turner Prize.
Gilbert & George's work became increasingly scatological in the 1990s. The NAKED SHIT PICTURES in the mid 1990s, with their images of turds were confrontational and deliberately set out to offend but as the pair explained, 'Fundamentally, there's something religious about the fact that we're made of shit. We consist of the stuff. It's our nourishment, it belongs to us, we're part of it, and we show this in a positive light'. In its focus on mortality, some critics admired this work for its ability to strip humanity back to its rawest form.
With the turn of the millennium, the pair embraced computer technology - all of the work done since then is totally digital. In 2008, they were legally married so their rights and assets would be protected, even though they are against such formalities. The same year, they had a major retrospective at Tate Modern. The exhibition was supposed to happen at Tate Britain, the older and British artist focused of the two galleries. However, the artists argued with then Tate director, Nicholas Serota, saying that limiting all British artists to Tate Britain was discriminatory. Gilbert & George won that argument and the retrospective took place at Tate Modern. Still, triggered by their damaged relationship with the British institution, they purchased an old brewery close to their house to serve as a non-profit to house all their work. The plan, as they revealed in an architectural model, is for a 6,000 square foot building due to open in approximately two years' time.
In the recent years, Gilbert & George have been involved in a number of controversies because of their conservative political views. The couple has said they admire the former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher because she believed, as they do, in making money and hard graft. Their latest series mocked beards, yet it was unclear whether this was intended to be an anti-fundamentalist gesture or simply the artists mocking the hipster trend of sporting a beard. On January 2018, their exhibition in Belfast in Northern Ireland was received with protests. Their SCAPEGOATING PICTURES contained statements such as "fuck the vicar," "Rape a Rabbi," and "Molest a Mullah." Religious groups requesting the closure of the exhibition called the police several times. There was a similar controversy surrounding their show when it opened in Belfast almost a decade earlier.
Currently, both artists still live the same monastic life of the 1960s - with a small circle of friends, wearing the same tweed suits, avoiding art openings, and eating at the same Kurdish restaurant every day. As they themselves have often commented, such a routine based, ascetic lifestyle is what keeps their work pure, unpolluted.
The Legacy of Gilbert & George
Nowadays fondly, and perhaps patronizingly, referred to as National Treasures, Gilbert & George's significance as artists lies mainly in what they stand for rather than in any perceived beauty in their artworks. However, this is not to say that the bold qualities of their graphic and colorful works from the 1980s weren't extremely influential - not only to visual artists but to graphic designers - as the cover of David Bowie's 1984 album Tonight attests.
There is also no denying that Gilbert and George are important figures in British Conceptual art - a movement that first took shape in the late 1960s, when the pair were still at art school in London. Like other conceptual artists, they use whatever materials and whatever form is most appropriate to putting their idea across. Right from the start they worked with ideas derived from their own personal and political stance, whether this was an attack on religion or an affirmation of their homosexuality. In this respect they paved the way for the Young British Artists, the generation that came to prominence in the late 1990s. Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst in particular considered anything 'fair game' when it came to subject matter and used extreme methods and unlikely materials to get their point across. Like Gilbert and George, the ideas based art that the YBAs produced struck a fine balance between aggression and humor.
In almost always featuring in their own work, Gilbert and George invigorated the genre of the self-portrait. Prior to placing themselves at the center of their art, there were few, if any, representations of gay men in contemporary art. Sex between two men (or sex between two women for that matter) was not considered a fitting subject for depiction in art. Gilbert and George rewrote the rulebook by creating a huge body of work that not only often featured both their naked likenesses but also used slogans like 'riot homos' and even images of ejaculation to foreground their sexuality. This full-front assault - and repeated insertion of themselves over and over into their art - has helped to normalize homosexuality and open the door for much of the queer art being made today.
Gilbert & George's long-lasting partnership of 50 years serves as inspiration for artists' duos such as Elmgreen & Dragset, Peter Fischli & David Weiss, EVA & ADELE, and Aziz + Cucher. Both EVA & ADELE and Aziz + Cucher are also queer couples, and with Gilbert & George as their role models proved that non-gender binary couples, working together can achieve great success. Although often attacked for their lack of participation in queer rights movements, Gilbert & George were instrumental in presenting depictions of homosexuality in contemporary art. As argued by the genderqueer writer Zachary Small, they "weren't depicting homosexuality as salacious but as ordinary - one aspect of the duo's work is its pinpointed restraint and poignantly dry British humor."