PRINT September 2001


Gilbert & George

Marco Livingstone recounts the events early in the career of the British duo that led to art dealer Konrad Fischer’s invitation to show at his Düsseldorf gallery in 1970.

Gilbert & George hadn’t been working together more than a few months before they started to make their own luck in late 1968. They had met only a year earlier when Gilbert, fresh from the München Akademie and speaking no English, arrived in the Advanced Sculpture Course at St. Martin’s School of Art in London, where George was entering his third and final year. When Gilbert returned to London the following fall, the two neophytes decided to join forces as a way of becoming artists “more effectively.” They did not yet have a clear plan to produce art together.

The duo began making the rounds of London galleries, including the most obscure, offering to exhibit Shit and Cunt, 1969, a provocative “magazine sculpture” (the now canonical self-portrait as “George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit”), but declining to show slides of other works. Unsurprisingly, the two unknowns were sent packing time and again. They were particularly persistent with the dealer and Mod man-about-town Robert (“Groovy Bob”) Fraser, who let them display their Christmas Slide Show (which incorporated Fraser’s own handwritten seasonal greetings) in his gallery window over the holidays in 1968. He also displayed Shit and Cunt on May 10, 1969, for one afternoon, in a case inside his Duke Street gallery. By now, the pair were quickly gaining in notoriety, wandering the streets of London with multicolored metallized faces. The realization that they had themselves become the artwork was, they say, their single most important discovery and the basis of everything they have done since.

Among those who had heard of G&G’s strange and compelling work was the Dutch artist Ger van Elk, who had met them (accompanied by Jan Dibbets) in their student days. Van Elk wrote the first serious academic article about their collaborations (in Museum Journal, Oct. 1969) and was instrumental in securing them an unofficial invitation to stage a five-hour “living sculpture” on the steps of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in November 1969; further, he persuaded the Amsterdam gallery Art & Project to give them a show. And it was he who indirectly proffered their biggest opportunity, when he invited them to accompany him to the September 1969 London opening of the now legendary touring exhibition of Conceptual art, “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form.” To their dismay, Gilbert & George had been excluded, but they decided to make the most of the occasion by color-metallizing their faces and standing motionless among the crowd at the ICA. Their seditious intervention proved wholly, and effectively, distracting. “Having heard that English artists were being added and that Charles Harrison [the critic and theorist associated with Art & Language] was doing the selection,” George recalls, “it didn’t occur to us for one second that we wouldn’t be selected. But, fortunately, bad luck always turns to good luck. We stole the show that evening, for certain. Konrad Fischer came up to us and said, ‘You’ll come show in Düsseldorf, huh?’”

Gilbert & George couldn’t believe their sudden change of fortune. Here was the most glamorous German dealer, pursued by every ambitious young artist, opening his doors to them. First Fischer arranged a two-day slot at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf in 1970, where they elected to present Underneath the Arches, 1969–73, the artists’ by now celebrated “singing sculpture.” On the spur of the moment they chose to do it as a marathon event, as a way of really getting noticed. “We decided only that day to do it for eight hours,” notes Gilbert. “Before that we had shown it in art schools and other venues all over England, but always just for three minutes.” As George explains, they also acted on their canny understanding of the art audience’s hunger for souvenirs of such events: “We had little leaflets, which we had letterpress printed, with deckle edges that we did ourselves. Written with red ink on every one—we took piles—was ‘ART LOVE TO GERMANY.’ Very embarrassing!” This now highly prized piece of signed ephemera also included the lyrics of the song and a small drawing of the singing sculpture.

Later that year, at their first solo show at Fischer’s gallery in the same city, they made their first sale—of Walking, Viewing, Relaxing, 1970, a three-part “charcoal on paper sculpture” measuring about thirty-five feet in width—for what seemed to them a preposterously large sum: £1,000. Suddenly the idea of being able to earn a living from their work had become a reality. With that money they began a drinking binge that lasted two years, introducing into their art and lives a new area of subject matter that was to define some of the first and most influential of their photo pieces, by which they soon made their reputation internationally. Today, Gilbert & George walk the line between art and life as assuredly as in that Düsseldorf debut, channeling their all-too-human fears, hopes, and vulnerabilities into powerful visual statements—much as they have done for the past thirty years.

Marco Livingstone is a London-based writer and curator.