Gilbert & George

This new exhibition of work by Gilbert & George, the idea of Jean-Christophe Ammann, director of the Basel Kunsthalle, has blossomed into an impressive European tour: it began in Bordeaux and will continue on to Brussels, Madrid, Munich, and London, presenting a survey of work done by this artist couple since 1982. In these new works Gilbert & George demonstrate breathtaking mastery of continually developing visual means. The esthetic fascination these pictures exercise derives not only from their beauty, but also from the way they harness technique to their larger goals.

Above all, these works are visual messengers that boldly translate questions about life into questions about art, and transform esthetic questions into existential ones; Gilbert & George take a moral stand. In a certain sense they take upon themselves the ethical responsibility that our demoralized society—more or less openly—has thrust repeatedly upon artists. Gilbert & George bear this responsibility voluntarily, with both the irony required of such a delicate and ambitious task and with inimitable British understatement. Because their “morality” comes from life lived, with all its attendant challenges and imponderables, what emerges is neither sectarian dogma nor ideology, but rather a human attitude, which they transpose to a high level of artificiality in their work. But life itself remains the measuring stick of their morality.

This does not preclude monumentality, as a stroll through the Kunsthalle soon proved, for the consistent translation of their artistic premises into visual forms naturally and necessarily challenges the viewer. The pictures’ conceptual dimensions are as overwhelming as their formats. Suggestions of a secular cathedral of art are not in the least out of place; the glass-covered segmented pictures that stretch over gigantic expanses of wall at times evoke the stained glass of some sacred structure. Additionally, the formal rhetoric and emblematic composition of the pictures reinforce the metaphorical element, and are organized around symbol-laden figures from the repertoire of church-state grandeur, which usually also harbors the charismatic presence of the artists.

But Gilbert & George profane the sacral aura as well. Both aspects emerge, as one would hope, from the formal structure of the works. Due to the artists’ work method, each picture is comprised of a great number of small picture segments of equal size, framed and glass-covered, which let us see the overall composition as a fragmentary construct, a cumulative work. The grid that emerges seems to literally hold the picture together. In addition, it suggests a whole series of associations that affect our emotional response to the work. The grid of individual pictures allows the artists to juxtapose one statement against another, reflecting, in a sense, the dissecting, analytic vision that underlines Gilbert & George’s world view. It also creates a structure in which vulgar and banal elements can be inextricably interwoven with sacred and ceremonial ones.

The lattice embodies the same ordering principle expressed in the many striking compositional symmetries in the work, against which the madness of this artistic undertaking stands out all the more clearly. Gilbert & George, one could say force themselves into a corset, the corset of normalcy, in order to ritualize the horrors and pleasures of ordinary life and make them somehow fruitful. The artists are always there for us, puffing themselves up into impressive prophets of doom or stumbling about as nonentities in the fantastic normalcy of everyday life, revealing the utter ridiculousness of the dignified and the true dignity of the ridiculous.

—Max Weschler

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.