New York

Gilbert & George, The Tuileries, 1974, charcoal on paper, charcoal on paper mounted on wood, dimensions variable.

Gilbert & George, The Tuileries, 1974, charcoal on paper, charcoal on paper mounted on wood, dimensions variable.

Gilbert & George

Gilbert & George, The Tuileries, 1974, charcoal on paper, charcoal on paper mounted on wood, dimensions variable.

This poignant, down-memory-lane exhibition presented Gilbert & George’s early works: ambitious wall-scale charcoal drawings, numerous little books, announcements, invitations, modest photographs, and letterpress productions. These often-elegant typographic efforts dated from the late 1960s through the mid-’70s, not a long time span when contrasted with the artists’ still ongoing and vaunted careers.

In 1967, the Italian Gilbert Prousch (born 1943) and George Passmore (born 1942) from Devon, UK, joined forces at London’s Saint Martin’s School of Art. Their student affectations—can there be any greater fun than being art-school “sceniuses” together?—radically merged the Romantic sentimentality of the Lake poets (think William Wordsworth wandering lonely as a cloud amid the daffodils) with the novels of E. M. Forster (think Howards End, 1910, with the Schlegel girls’ discovery of the semiheroic working-class Leonard Bast). Indeed, it is Forster more than anyone who sets the Edwardian emotional tone of G&G’s work: the hapless love of an Oxford don for a tramcar ticket taker.

In a 1970 issue of Studio International, here displayed in a vitrine, the young artists superposed the words GEORGE THE CUNT and GILBERT THE SHIT directly upon their respective photographic portraits, anointing the work “The Magazine Sculpture.” To be sure, all this smacks of art-school provocation, yet the naughty descriptives are not that toxic to British eyes and ears—are akin, say, to the French “quel con,” meaning the considerably milder “what a jerk.” By the time this work was made, of course, we had already met G&G as gilt-faced working-class automatons in the Singing Sculpture, 1969. In this legendary performance, the duo stand on a table, exchanging a derby and a cane (substitutes, respectively, for crown and scepter) while they slowly turn like figurines on a music box and sing “Underneath the Arches.” Rather “panto,” all that. (A later tape of this ineradicable performance was shown at the entrance to MoMA’s exhibition.)

It is here, in this brief springtime of early work, that we find the blossoming of G&G’s genuine love of art, life, youth, and love itself. See, for example, the 1970 wall text To Be With Art Is All We Ask—the title would become their mantra—or the typewritten Two Text Pages Describing Our Position of the same year, wherein they relate their life of “reading rarely, eating often, thinking always, smoking moderately, enjoying enjoyment . . . loving nightly . . . fighting boredom . . . criticizing never . . . waiting till the day breaks.” G&G had at this point foresworn “sculpture” in its conventional three-dimensional sense, in its status as statuary, embracing instead the notion of sculpture as an intense expression of the youthful notion that all that they encountered in daily life was also sculpture, a fairy-tale transformation achieved by the volition of their own ardor and self-beautifying magical thinking. This mysticism, if that is indeed what it is, is reflected in the locale of the artists’ penchant for large-scale drawing. For The Tuileries, 1974, for example, the walls of a room are hung with a vast charcoal-on-paper depiction of the branches and boughs of a forest, the fir imagery extending to a drawing-covered table and three chairs set amid the pines.

G&G would shortly begin to sell. Seriously. And the downward stretch of their long career also began at around this time, signaled by their commitment to a commercial mode of frozen and rudimentary grids, of checkerboard pictorial structures (or endless rectangles, one framing the other), and to a Suprematist-derived red, black, and white propaganda style conjoined to a never-outgrown adolescent thematic: boys, scatology, tourist postcards, a “hail Britannia” soccer-lout iconography. All that was charmingly ungainly and touching in G&G’s first years was lost in their becoming stellar representatives of the modernist status quo. True, in their devolution to a market-aimed practice, they are no more to be indicted than dozens more.

Robert Pincus-Witten