New York

Gilbert and George

Sonnabend Gallery

Gilbert and George are two Britons who, for want of materials and ready cash (we are told), turned in upon themselves to find the technical and formal solutions of their sculptural problems. George, taller and blonde, wears the blue dotted tie and Gilbert, shorter and darker, the brown tie; both stand upon a table in the middle of the gallery. The exposed parts of their bodies—heads, hands—have been rubbed with metal powders, bronze, aluminum, and gold, daubed and patinated as their jointly executed and foldable drawings are maculated and stained. Slowly, ceremoniously, they transfer articles of rank from one to the other, the glove and cane of the lost, class-based society. Alternating in their descent from the socle to reset the tape of “Underneath the Arches” over and over, hundreds of hours, thousands of times, the wry words and catchy tune are joylessly sung in tones of inaffectivity, apersonality, desexuality. “. . . The Ritz we never sigh for, the Carlton they can keep. There’s only one place that we know and that is where we sleep. Underneath the arches we dream our dreams away. . . .” They wear sensible tweeds, oxford brogues; George’s suit is too small, the cuffed trouser leg rises high above the ankle. Have they exchanged garments that day, those five-hour-a-day songfests (those nine-day hitches)? I think so. Bouvard and Pecuchet doing a music hall turn, figures playing at being military dolls, Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet and Léger’s Ballet Mécanique in English terms.

The ambience is completed by an elaborate suite of drawings called The General Jungle or Carrying on Sculpture—the later term expressive of the pinched self-denial of English austerity measures. Although automated, their eyes still light upon a startled audience. Through thick-lensed spectacles George enlarges his myopic eyes while Gilbert grimly looks on appraisingly and ungenerously. Strange goyim. Their day is filled with an eventlessness transformed into occasion—“where something and nothing are both qualities,” reads a caption on their drawings. Through elegant promotional activity and graphic material a glamour and importance is transmitted to the shell of a life in the way that Andy Warhol was once able to transform street life into the “Superstar Underground.” Ritually performing before the stage drop of their own drawings, another caption admits that “Nothing breathtaking will occur here, but. . . .”

What is intriguing in this “singing sculpture” is the discontinuity between the easy charcoal drawings, the mundane captions elevated to the lapidary (through hand-lettered titles) and the sheer willfulness of the project itself. These dislocations assist in transforming a tawdry event into something bitterly sad, stirring emotions which defy classification—into art I suppose. The “singing sculpture” is whole unto itself. No stylistic evolution seems possible from it (a cliché, said of all stubborn and troublesome experiences). Gilbert and George must have another line next season or be forgotten. Much of their stylistic derivation is clear—Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Magritte’s petit bourgeois. The specialness of the experience is perhaps too much in Warhol’s debt. Like his work, there is a deadening, cumulative repetitiveness, and a frozen iconic quality. Perhaps interesting cases of Conceptual art, they are more arresting as examples of artistic autism, self-creating an identity where none had existed before. “. . . Nothing can touch us or take us out of ourselves, it is a sculpture.”

Robert Pincus-Witten