THEIR FUTURE IS SECURE. On April 1st 2023 Gilbert & George opened the Gilbert & George Centre in London’s East End. I went to visit them in their nearby studio.
Are you tired by all the brouhaha of this very important opening?
Yes, we are quite exhausted. Now we are signing 2000 posters. Everybody buys them. It’s wonderful because one poster does a big job for us and spreads the word. Each poster only costs £20, with our signature. We don’t care about its value. It’s fun.
Why did you open the Gilbert & George Centre with 1999 paintings?
We realised that most people think paradise is the after party, and we thought, let’s do the opposite, let’s begin with the Paradisical Pictures. It was simple and easy because we had those pictures available, because we didn’t sell them.
Will these paintings leave the Centre and be on sale again or have you given them as an endowment?
We will have a different display in one year’s time. Some will be sold, but all the money goes into running the Foundation and all the pictures that belong to us will be part of the permanent collection. They don’t belong to the Foundation now, but everything will when we are dead.
“With the Centre there’ll always be somewhere in London where people can go to see our pictures for free. Permanently.”
Who designed the Gilbert & George Centre?
Manuel Irsara (Gilbert’s nephew) is the head of an architectural office called SIRS Architects and we commissioned him to do the centre in a beautiful location that we bought ten years ago. We had in mind to be able to show our art for all, more than just sometimes in museums, because we were always stopped on the street by young people who said I love your art. But when we would say, what did you see? they would say, Oh, I’ve never actually been to an exhibition. With the Centre there’ll always be somewhere in London where they can go to see our pictures for free. Permanently.
You are also collectors. Will your own collections one day will be part of the Centre?
We probably have one of the best collections of Arts and Crafts furniture. We probably have the biggest collection of Christopher Dresser vases, maybe five hundred. We have furniture by Christopher Dresser, we have Philip Webb, we have Pugin, who used to be our hero and who did the house of Parliament. We have a very important collection of adult subject sexy books.
Why were the entrance gates to the new Centre specially crafted for you?
They are the entrance to the territory, protecting the island. We’re not designers but we were thinking about that place of quietude when we were walking to dinner and suddenly it came to us that we could create the gates, that they would be the same as us. How can the gates be the same as us? There! We have it! It should be our initials, G & G. It wasn’t designed, it was created. It came over us like that. We didn’t want a door that opened from the street into the gallery, and we didn’t want a statement of modern architecture in a preservation district.
How many pieces can you show in the three floors of exhibition space inside the Centre?
30 or 40. It depends how big they are. If they are a little smaller, maybe 50 or 60. We will see, it’s an experiment.
Is the lighting very important?
The lighting is the best and most up to date in any gallery. We always have a very big problem with lighting a picture, because the plexiglass in front of it creates amazing reflection and light starts to reflect all over the place. So we had to be careful. Even the distance from the wall to where the lights are is very important.
Has the Centre been well received?
Very well. I think people are very pleased. They like it because the building means Gilbert & George. It’s very simple. No other artist here did that.
Is there a catalogue raisonné of your work?
We did it ten years ago, but now The Meaning of the Earth, the new book by Wolf Jahn is enjoying a great success. It’s a big book, and has many remarkable images. They are all buying it. It costs £35.
What is your creative process?
People think that the pictures are based on ideas. They’re not, because if they were ideas it would be something we know. We want to fall into some new train of thought; something that we didn’t know about before. That’s what creativity is. You are creating something. When we come down to the studio in the morning and see the designs for the picture we did yesterday, we are never able to recreate exactly how we arrived at that, because it is creative.
The pictures tell us what they want. We want to let the pictures lead the way. It’s a strange thing. We still have to let the process form. We mustn’t be totally in charge.
“We let the pictures make themselves, as much as possible.”
Do you wake up early?
George at six. Gilbert at seven. Then we go to breakfast.
You always wear tweed suits. How many suits do you have?
We have quite a lot of suits. We have worsted cloth lightweight ones for the summer, winter ones, every day ones; and we have special day ones.
Have you always dressed in this smart way?
We come from a background of war babies, which meant you dress well to try to get on well in life. We’re not fancy. At the beginning, we had to dress up to try to sell ourselves to different galleries and museums. Then it became an image.
Are the shirts you wear always white?
Yes, white drip-dry shirts from Marks & Spencer. They have to be drip dry because we think ironing is the enemy and cannot imagine anything more boring. We just hang the shirts up in the bathroom, but we send the suits out for dry cleaning.
What about ties?
We have so many gifts; we haven’t bought a tie for 50 years. At the moment a Swiss company called Fabric Frontline, a very famous manufacturer of silks, sends us big boxes of ties.
Are your shoes always light brown or do you sometimes put on black shoes?
No. City people have black shoes.
Do you have a maid to take care of you?
No. We do everything. We have one lady coming once a week to clean the house.
Do you cook?
No. No cooking. Never.
Where do you eat?
We eat out, every day, three times a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. There is no food in the house, so we are not getting fat.
Don’t you have any fruit at home?
Yes, we buy fruit in the supermarket and every day in the morning we eat fruit. We eat them when reading the newspaper.
The Telegraph, of course. It’s the most read newspaper of the educated papers.
An artist should be informed. We feel the pain of the world turning every day.
Have you been preparing for King Charles III’s Coronation?
Everybody’s a royalist. This is the United Kingdom. We did a specially designed suite of eight very beautiful royal ink washes, done by hand for the King.
Are you giving them to him?
No! We are selling it. We’re loyal subjects, not creeps.
Do you have a gallery that represents you?
White Cube for the UK and America for 23 years now, and Thaddaeus Ropac for Europe for 24 years, even more. America and Belgium, where there are extraordinary big collectors, is our main market at the moment. We sold a lot in Italy where we have a very lovely small gallery in Naples, Alfonso Artiaco. We had Lucio Amelio, but he died.
Hurtwood Press; 1st edition (27 April 2023)
Gilbert & George in their studio April 2023.
Gilbert & George with their long time assistant Yu Yigang.
Yu Yigang displays a poster Gilbert & George made for the coronation of King Charles III.
Another Gilbert & George poster design for the coronation.
Gilbert & George in their studio with their models for the layout of the exhibition at the Gilbert & George Centre.
“We have a morality of how to be human and we see exactly how a lot of people don’t like it, dislike it or it provokes thought, and that’s quite good as well.”
How many years have you been on the market?
We started to sell in 1969. We had two great strokes of luck. There was an international group show by the Swiss curator Harald Szeemann. It was a world travelling show and we knew it was coming to London and we knew the local person who was selecting, the late Charles Harrison, so we knew we were going to be in. We were very excited because we were baby unknown artists and we thought we were going to be in an international art exhibition. Then he didn’t select us, and we were cast into enormous doom and depression. We thought we missed the one chance. We gatecrashed the opening as living sculptures with the multi-colored metal outfits and we stole the show. We became like objects, in the corner, standing still and then the amazing thing happened. A young man came up to us and said: “My name is Konrad Fischer. You show with me in Düsseldorf.” This was an invitation every artist would die for. He was the leading gallerist for young, up and coming artists.
In a show called “Between” at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf they were showing different kinds of Belgium and German artists, Marcel Broodthaers and stuff like that, and so we went over there and did, for the first time, The Singing Sculpture on a table. Non-stop. When the record was finished, one came down and wound up the record again and the other one stood still at the same time. It was global overnight.
Was Joseph Beuys there?
He was not showing, but Beuys came to have a look at it and gave us chocolate.
The second big thing happened. Konrad arranged for us to do the Singing Sculpture in other venues in Europe. He arranged for us to show in a pop up gallery in a ladies’ clothes shop in Brussels that had been closed. We did the Singing Sculpture for one evening and at the end of the evening what we thought was a little old lady came up to us and said with this amazing European accent, “My name is Ileana Sonnabend. I’m opening a gallery in New York, and I want you to be the first exhibition.” Again, an invitation every artist would die for. And Konrad Fischer said, “Now you do something with me in my gallery, huh?” so we did these three big charcoal on paper drawings, “Walking”, “Viewing”, and “Relaxing”. He sold them the first day for £1,000.
Was your sexuality strongly criticised?
Amazingly not. We got away with murder in a way. We made it completely normal for hundreds of people of all age groups and all sexual positions to come to galleries and museums all over the world to look at Gilbert & George.
Should an artist be judged for his or her politics and private life?
We made ourself the artwork in 1968. That was the magic idea: that we could be the art and speak through that extraordinary invention. We have a general political human element in our art. We have a general answer with our pictures.
Were you always very interested in sex?
Sex, money, race, religion is part of art. Sex is a very important part of everyday life. We didn’t want to leave anything out. They talked about us because of that, but we never believed in gay or straight. We think this is stupid oversimplification. We believe that life is much more rich and complicated than that. If you speak to our younger friends, they don’t see it like gay and straight. It’s just an extraordinary world we are living in and there are all kinds of opportunities. That’s how we always saw it.
How was it to live and work together?
It was very good. Matisse or Picasso all had partners, but they weren’t equal partners. When we started out, the artwork was Gilbert & George, one artwork. We walked the streets of London together day and night before we were accepted as artists. We thought we were the art, so if we were the art we had to be together. We never did anything alone from that moment that we started exhibiting as G & G.
Has your work changed a lot since you began?
It has evolved. We are still the same person but it changes according to how we see the world, as we become wiser, and as the morality of today changes us.
Are there some works of yours that you cannot show today because they are considered immoral?
It depends where. Some in the United States, even in the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris they removed one to do with shit. It’s all a nonsense, but we accept and never comment. For us, this extraordinary journey that we have been able to make art for 55 years in one line is extraordinary. We are maintaining a moral dimension. Gilbert & George is a moral dimension. Most people see that they are very beautiful colorful visual pictures, but they have a moral dimension. Our art has a position in life. We have a morality of how to be human and we see exactly how a lot of people don’t like it, dislike it or it provokes thought, and that’s quite good as well. When we did the Naked Shit Pictures at the big show at South London it provoked thought.
Is art made to provoke thought?
We would have thought so. We are great believers in the free world and a lot of people don’t understand that the triumph of the West was done with culture, not with the policeman, not with the priest. The writers and all the thinkers did it, not legislation.
What does culture mean to you?
It’s very simple. Culture has an enormous part to play in the creation of the free world, of which we’re extremely proud members.
What do you think about the future?
Our future is secure. We figured out that we’re going to live forever.
Thank you very much for this conversation.