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Exhibition of Gilbert & George's early work opens at the Museum of Modern Art
Gilbert & George. The Tuileries, 1974. Charcoal on paper, and charcoal on paper mounted on wood, eight parts. Overall dimensions variable. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Art & Project/Depot VBVR in honor of Christophe Cherix, 2009. ©2015 Gilbert & George. Photo: Jason Mandella.

NEW YORK, NY.- Since the beginning of their collaboration, in the late 1960s, British sculptors Gilbert & George have aimed to become the work of art—elevating their daily activities to expressions of creativity and casting themselves as “living sculptures.” The exhibition Gilbert & George: The Early Years builds upon MoMA’s extensive holdings of the artists’ dynamic work, focusing on their career from 1969 to 1976. The first American museum show in over 30 years dedicated to this defining decade in their production, the installation features two major, large-scale “Charcoal on Paper Sculptures”: To Be With Art Is All We Ask (1970), and The Tuileries (1974). The exhibition also incorporates ephemeral materials and video works drawn from the collections of multiple Museum departments.

Since their time as students at St. Martin’s School of Art, London, in the 1960s, Gilbert & George have aimed to make “Art for All,” in contrast to what they viewed as the elitist and inaccessible trends of Minimalism and Conceptualism, dominant at the time. Their earliest Postal Sculptures reflect this demo- cratic slogan. From 1969 to 1975 they created eleven mailings that were delivered to friends, artists, and gallerists. In these works the artists employed alternative means of artistic distribution, circumventing traditional exhibition venues.

Featuring written messages and imagery, the Postal Sculptures expand on Gilbert & George’s early “living sculptures” and other art forms in their larger practice. In Souvenir Hyde Park Walk (1969), for example, the grass clippings that were sealed in cellophane and mailed recall a “living sculpture” from earlier that year. A Message from the Sculptors (1969) includes pieces of the artists’ clothing and hair, as well as slides from past performances, while text from The Limericks (1971) serves as the foundation for later Charcoal on Paper Sculptures.

Gilbert & George’s early art focuses on images of the artists and critiques themselves, the art world, and society. They explained and shared their artistic intentions through the distribution of what they called Magazine Sculptures. Beginning in 1969, when they contributed to the student magazine published by St. Martin’s School of Art, Gilbert & George were commissioned to produce Magazine Sculptures for periodicals. These projects appeared in the art journal Studio International, the New Yorkbased art magazine Avalanche, and The Sunday Times Magazine, as well as the catalogue for the 1970 edition of the Kölner Kunstmarkt, an art fair in Cologne.

In the iconic Studio International Magazine Sculpture, the artists gleefully smile at the viewer, with the phrases “George the Cunt” and “Gilbert the Shit” pinned to their chests. Published with the offending words censored, this Magazine Sculpture has been described as the artists’ attempt to preempt criticism. Amid the repressive tone of 1960s propriety and class, Gilbert & George emphasized their own ideals, as well as their imperfections, maintaining their roles as participant-observers of our world.

These three videos from 1972, which the artists created as Video Sculptures, portray Gilbert & George engaged in repetitive ordinary actions. Recorded in black and white using recently developed portable video-tape equipment, they blend “living sculpture” and modern thoughts. The artists take conventional acts—staring, roaming, drinking—and attempt to create meaningful experiences accessible to a broad audience through the shared language of simply being. Stylized with their nearly matching signature suits and well-coiffed hair, they exhibit only slight motion with intentional slowness in A Portrait of the Artists as Young Men, appear as barely visible figures in In the Bush, and continuously consume glasses of Gordon’s gin in deadpan fashion in Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk. The Video Sculptures directly appeal to viewers’ own commonplace experiences, contributing to Gilbert & George’s larger mission of “Art for All” and art about all.

While much of Gilbert & George’s early art lives through ephemeral works—mailings, postcards, invitations—between 1970 and 1974 the artists also created thirteen large-scale Charcoal on Paper Sculptures, three of which are on view here. They occasionally served as backdrops for their “living sculpture” and provided physical and lasting embodiments of their art.

When asked about the function of these pieces, Gilbert & George remarked, “They were not drawings. They were more a means of communicating with the world around us. As if writing huge letters.” The floor-to-ceiling charcoal-covered panels combine text with images of the artists in nature, and effectively reflect their commitment to creating visually and intellectually accessible art through their use of familiar subject matter that stems from life itself.

Gilbert & George’s art consistently unravels the shortcomings of our world and conventional societal mores. In the art created under the thematic umbrella of drunkenness, the artists employed a variety of mediums to portray evenings of drinking that evoke stereotypical symbols of British society.

The drinking pieces originated following Gilbert & George’s first show at Konrad Fischer Galerie, Düsseldorf, in 1970. When Fischer asked the artists to name a price for their Charcoal on Paper Sculpture Walking, Viewing, Relaxing (1970), the artists later recalled, “We didn’t know because we’d never sold a work of art. So we thought of an extravagant sum of money and said £1,000. . . . [Fischer] sold it in the next few days. . . . That was enough money to last for two years at that time. . . . We were drunk every night. . . . That’s why we started to do the Drinking Pieces. . . .”

Reflecting on these “festive” moments, the artists created the Charcoal on Paper Sculpture The Bar #2 (1972), and the sculptures in edition Reclining Drunk (1973) and As Used by the Sculptors (1972), among others. The titles suggest their drunken moods, and the images feature skewed perspectives, blurred forms, and even traces of drinking glasses on their surfaces. The artists embraced their intoxication and describe creating this work in a more honest, direct, and raw manner.

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