My first acquaintance with Gilbert and George was in London early in 1971. “Acquaintance.” as a matter of fact, isn’t quite the word. It was just off the Kings Road in the apartment of an art dealer, and Gilbert and George were presenting the piece entitled Singing Sculpture. It went thus. Gilbert and George were standing on a small, square table, moving through an elaborate sequence of jerky poses, and singing along, while an antique gramophone labored through thai classic of the music halls, ‘Underneath the Arches.’ Also, they twirled canes, and the overall effect of fun-house automata was not lessened by their faces slickly glittering with metallic paint.
The presentation lasted a week, with Gilbert and George keeping it up seven hours a day. So flawless were they that, one was told, a few people had left convinced that the artists were, in fact, cunningly constructed robots. On the occasion of my second visit, an expensively tailored drunk was imploring the pair to “perform” at some forthcoming party. They ignored him utterly, as they ignored the world. The man was persuaded to leave, still waving fistfuls of bank-notes in fuming impotence; a pleasant sight in any art gallery. A presentation of Singing Sculpture at the Sonnabend Gallery. New York, later the same year, confirmed it. Gilbert and George had staked a claim somewhere off the edge of the map. and found a workable lode.
Over the subsequent few years, Gilbert and George pursued the role of Living Sculpture with the utmost rigor. There was a Pastoral Period: huge, and hugely elegant drawings and paintings, showing the pair amongst sylvan scenes which might have excited the admiration of Monet, called With Us In Nature.
Further Periods followed. A Drinking Period. A Red Boxer Period. Gilbert and George are austerely conscious of what they are up to, and what they are up CO is nothing if not ambitious: Living An History.
The house which Gilbert and George have shared for seven years is in Fournier Street, which is in the East End of London. Always low rent, sometimes violent, increasingly ethnic. A plaque outside announces that the house is to be preserved. A landmark. Eighteenth Century, the period of decorum. Decorum and possibilities of violence, h seemed an apt setting for Gilbert and George.
It was George who opened the door, George controls most dealings with the outer world. He led me Into a severe front room (stripped panelling, two chairs, a table) and introduced me to Gilbert- I made conversational overtures of the usual inanity. They responded courteously, and froze into poses. Gilbert; arm crooked, leaning, body slightly arched, against a wall. George; one hand lightly clasping an elbow, the fingers of the other laid along the chin and cheek. Both; unblinking eyes, slight smiles. Betokening, it seemed, Polite Attention.
Gilbert and George arc now in their early thirties. They first-met at a London art college, and have worked ensemble since. Gilbert is Italian, of German extraction. He is the slighter one, smooth, dark, a stock-company matinee idol. George is English, with a pale skin, and a mild, scholarly demeanour. His modulated accents suggest a minor public school. Some-body once told me their surnames, but I have forgotten them. Anyway, they don’t matter. Gilbert and George have discarded all “biography” irrelevant to their status as art objects.
They were dressed as they are always dressed; in tweed suits of identical shapeless cut. differing only in color (George’s was blue-grey, and Gilbert’s brown). The buttons were covered in the same material, the lapels were narrow, and they were wearing white shirts with the slightly papery look that suggests a suburban chain store. Also, black lace-up shoes not overly polished, and ties—again identical, except for color—patterned with miniature London Scenes (for instance, Nelson’s Column),
If I dwell on this in some detail it is because this, also, is part of their work. The effect is often described as Edwardian, though it actually rather resembles the Edwardian revival of the 50s. but neither reference delights the artists. “In general.” George said, “we don’t take kindly to people saying we derive from other periods.’’
He was smoking a Gold Flake with fastidious precision, but there was a certain undertone of threat. Beneath the polished surface, energies vibrate, “We hate it if somebody says something inappropriate to our work,” said George. “Stinky people! And we don’t blame ourselves. We blame them. For their stupidity.
They especially despise Formalism, “The balance is totally upset,” George said. Their own work, he explained, is emotional. He indicated some of the “Mental” series: black and white views laid out like a sheet of picture postcards, with red images of Gilbert and George inlaid, a fierce ruby cross. “We are not interested in the formal picture-making side of it,” George added. “If we are ourselves with our art, and if the viewer is with us. what more can we want?”
“Their feelings can be as rich as ours,” noted Gilbert.
Do they ever relax? Do they ever, like computers, come off-line?
“We work very little,” George said.
“The relaxing is the work.” said Gilbert.
“The sculpture takes up a minute part of our time,” said George.
How do they distinguish between those parts of their life which are germane as art material, and those which aren’t?
“I don’t know how we draw the line.” said George.
Dark Shadow is the book they have most recently completed. It includes the Drinking Period, during which the artists regularly got stinking on Gordon’s gin (a careful choice, being a favorite secret tipple of respectable maiden aunts). while photographic records were maintained.
Drinking was succeeded by Kung Fu. “We have just been through a period of Chinese films.” Gilbert added. “There are two or three little Chinese clubs in Soho where you can see the real ones. We don’t like Bruce Lee,”
“We like the ones about the Shao Lin monks.” George said.
The elegance, the savagery. The supreme poses. Out of this interest emerged The Red Sculpture (tableaux from which are reproduced here). During the piece which lasts one-and-a-half hours, the artists, heads and hands dyed a deep vermilion, move about like meticulous, wide-eyed somnambulists. They premiered the piece in Japan.
“It was amazing,” said Gilbert. “They were very excited. But they were much more silent than we were.”
“In the West people are always shrugging and coughing,” said George.
They acknowledge a kabuki influence, but a touch dismissively. “We don’t much like performing art, because we are always being compared with it.” George said.
The boxing image, however, seems to have adhered. They showed me two large portraits of themselves by the elderly Bloomsbury portraitist. Duncan Grant, The paintings are gouaches, depicting Gilbert confronting George against switling backgrounds of red and orange. Something men-acing hangs in the atmosphere.
The Grant portraits are two of several. There is a Warhol. Also photo-graphs by Cecil Beaton and the maestro—“He’s so young,’’ noted Gilbert —Horst.
Ideally, they would like a painting of themselves by a ranking artist for every year of their lives, and they would like to do their own shows every month. Living Sculpture.
“If a painter painted a picture every day,” said George, “Picasso had different subjects. But mostly he painted himself.”
“If one had a Picasso for every year of his life,” suggested Gilbert.
“It’s like the difference between an acquaintance and a friend.” said George.
They are entirely secure about their place in art history. George detailed one specific line of succession. “Van Gogh , . . Picasso . . . Francis Bacon . . . and us . . . ”
Simultaneously, they congealed, assuming poses of splendid tranquility and careful attentiveness.