Gilbert & George have been working together since 1967, when they first met at St. Martin’s School of Art in London. In a deliberate departure from the then-dominant practice of formalist sculpture, the duo developed a concept of a social sculpture that removes the division between art and life. Their radical idea of “living sculpture” declared everything that they did to be art—from their day-to-day life as a couple to “classical” art production. In that sense all of their works, regardless of the medium in which they appear, can be understood as a form of “sculpture.” The now legendary performance The Singing Sculpture (1969) stands as an early example of the practice: Metallic pigment on their faces and hands, dressed in the immaculate suits that would become their trademark, Gilbert & George stood on a table (a stand-in for a traditional pedestal) and sang the sentimental music-hall hit “Underneath the Arches.” The live sculpture lasted for seven hours—a typical working day— and was performed on several consecutive days.
That same period saw the development of another groundbreaking work known as George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit (1969), a collage comprised of two double self-portraits of the artists. The parallel photographs show the smiling men in their suit and tie, each adorned with a rose boutonniere. The paper letters pinned to the artists’ chests that spell out the obscene phrases that give the work its title conflicts with their genial, relaxed appearance. The precarious balance between conservative self-staging and sexually explicit, socially provocative content set a tone for the duo’s later œuvre.
The later, large-scale “pictures” are some of the most iconic works in contemporary art. Here Gilbert & George combine altered or manipulated photographs with graphic and textual elements and arrange them in a characteristic grid structure. Formally the works play with the visual language of such disparate sources as the stained glass windows of the Victorian-era Arts & Craft movement, punk, graphic design or magazine aesthetics. Various, thematically focused series show the duo not only documenting their lives and their living environment, but also the social upheavals of their time. The artists regard their work as a journey through life that resembles a modern “Pilgrim’s Progress”. Whereas early series including Bloody Life (1975) still hermetically captured their everyday existence, others such as The 1982 Pictures (1982) expanded their visual repertoire to include plants, male nudes, and urban scenes. Bearing such distinct titles as Sperm Eaters or Hard Cocks, a number of these pictures deal with homosexual themes. Some series including The 1988 Pictures (1988) or Shitty Naked Human World (1994) have to be read in the context of the AIDS crisis. The later Sonofagod Pictures (2005) series with associated works such as Was Jesus a Heterosexual? show a liberating confrontation with religious discourses, while The Paradisiacal Pictures (2019) can be understood as a psychedelic-allegorical meditation on old age, infirmity and death, and the universal human need for a spiritual or secular paradise.
Though visually and textually explicit and relentlessly challenging social taboos, Gilbert & George’s work is never meant to shock viewers. On the contrary, their critique of the times and exploration of sexual aspects opens what they hope to be a radical, non-judgmental space for all facets of humanity.