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Gilbert & George (British)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

British sculptors. Gilbert Proesch (b Dolomites, Italy, 17 Sept 1943) and George Passmore (b Plymouth, Devon, 8 Jan 1942) met in 1967 as students at St Martin’s School of Art in London. By 1969 they were reacting against approaches to sculpture then dominant at St Martin’s, which they regarded as elitist and poor at communicating outside an art context. Their strategy was to make themselves into sculpture, so sacrificing their separate identities to art and turning the notion of creativity on its head. To that end Gilbert and George became interchangeable cyphers and their surnames were dispensed with.

Although working in a variety of media, Gilbert and George referred to all their work as sculpture. Their early work took the form both of what they called Postal Sculptures and work in which they presented themselves as ‘living sculptures’. One early Postal Sculpture (1969; see Jahn, p. 86), consisting of a drawn image of themselves looking out of their window at falling snow, accompanied by a text (‘as we began to look we felt ourselves being taken into a sculpture of overwhelming purity life and peace a rare and new art-piece’), was typical in taking quotidian banality as the stuff of art. A similar equation between their art and their life was proposed in other ‘living sculptures’, such as Our New Sculpture (1969), Underneath the Arches (1969) and the Red Sculpture (1975), which focused attention on their own stylized actions and on their image as old-fashioned gentlemen. Between 1970 and 1974 they also made drawings (referred to as Charcoal on Paper Sculptures) and paintings to give a more tangible form to their identity as ‘living sculptures’. These are competent yet awkward and manifestly unartistic in execution, drawn from projections of photographic images as part of their consistent rejection of traditional techniques.

In 1971 Gilbert and George made their first ‘photo-pieces’, which remained their dominant form of expression. The earliest of these consisted of small fragments of black-and-white photographs arranged in irregular patterns, such as Balls or the Evening before the Morning after (1972; London, Tate), in which the theme of drunkenness is embodied in the disjointed oval form in which the elements are placed. By 1974 they were working on a larger scale, with areas of flat colour and with the elements more formally regimented in grid patterns. Although continuing to feature themselves and a cross-section of men from their society, they gradually shifted the emphasis of their subject-matter away from their own experiences of life. Instead they concentrated on the inner-city reality that confronted them on the street and on the structures and feelings that inform life (e.g. Death, Hope, Life, Fear, 1989; London, Tate), such as religion, class, royalty, sex, hope, nationality, death, identity, politics and fear. Their belief that they are making an ‘Art for Life’s Sake’ and an ‘Art for All’ was, at the beginning of the 1990s, given a renewed emphasis through their exhibitions mounted in Moscow (1990), Beijing and Shanghai (1993) as well as by the tour of their ‘Cosmological Pictures’ to ten cities within eastern and western Europe (1991–3). These exhibitions underline their belief that art can still positively break down barriers between people and open up society to new ways of thinking about the world.

Andrew Wilson
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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