New York

Gilbert & George

Sonnabend Gallery

Nothing could have better captured the spirit of more than two decades of Gilbert & George’s work than this recreation of The Singing Sculpture. The pair stood together on the plain table familiar from photographs, faces and hands gilded and painted, in their identical tweed suits, swaying and moving in slow motion circles to Flanagan and Allen’s depression-era song of homelessness, “Underneath the Arches,” just as they did in the same gallery space in September 1971. At the end of each run-through, they took turns stepping off the table to rewind the low-tech tape recorder perched on a pedestal, only to climb back on again, glove or walking stick in hand, to continue rotating with the same precise movements for three continuous hours per day. A little perspiration mixed with the paint was the only indication that any physical effort was involved in this self-imposed marathon; otherwise this piece was (according to those who saw it on both occasions) as fresh as ever.

Along with the 23 large, unframed, nearly life-size charcoal drawings of Gilbert & George in pastoral settings (collectively titled “The General Jungle” and installed as they were 20 years ago), the exhibition emphatically reminded us that the team still are, first and foremost, “living sculpture,” and that an understanding of their work—whether drawings, mural-size photographs, or postcard collages—depends on acknowledging this fact. Since the earliest pamphlet-manifestos they distributed to the London art world in the late ’60s and early ’70s—one was titled “To be with Art is all we ask,” while another admonished sculptors to always “be smartly dressed . . . polite and in complete control”—Gilbert & George have been true to their vision. Indeed, they have diligently spent their adult lives, whether at home, out for tea, in bars, or on planes, practicing their peculiar, self-conscious theater.

Moreover, their insistence that we never separate our view of the artists themselves from what these artists see explains the disquieting tension in so much of their output. For with each new body of work they have created a powerful visual iconography for their own obsessions—sex, religion, heroism, or social class—and a map of the world in which they live. Chosen and then elaborated for the sake of their art, their world is based on London’s East End (the neighborhood in which they actually reside), not far from an area sometimes called “World’s End.” Along with the ghosts of Victorian slum dwellers that peopled Dickens’ novels, and inside pubs like those that attracted Hogarth before them, Gilbert & George live among the working classes of London, a community further graded in this class-conscious society (by Victorian sociologists and present-day ones alike) into the “comfortable,” the “poor,” and the “very poor.”

Rather than simply commiserate with the locals regarding the inequities of life, Gilbert & George choose instead to give real visual form to the existences of their neighbors—the young, booted boys on street corners, or unkept homeless men—in a cityscape where imposing architectural monuments butt up against pockets of poverty. Their black-and-white photo pieces of the late ’70s and their primary color-bright ones of the ’80s, with their bold grid markings, also outline an emotional and moral agenda, providing a broad inventory of their concerns. Despite a stiff-upper-lip politeness (and primary faith in beauty), bold manifestos announced in titles such as Queer, Are You Angry or Are You Boring, Misery, Dying Youth, or Intellectual Depression, 1980, connect like a fist to the gut. Indeed, this mix of “wellborn educated calm” and outspoken, even aggressive anger that knits together Gilbert & George’s entire oeuvre, has, as is so evident from this exhibition, been there from the start.

On this anniversary occasion, it was not surprising that the exhibition—that lilting song, Gilbert & George’s evident pleasure in bringing to life the work that had become their signature, and a deep sense of time passing—brought tears to many an eye. Taking us back to the early years of the ’70s when the belief system of Conceptual art still held sway, this restaging was a sentimental journey but also a perfect yardstick for measuring the distinctions between then and now—between the questioning irony of the ’70s, the fierce, debilitating cynicism of the ’80s, and the still tentative tenor of the ’90s.

RoseLee Goldberg