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Installation view of ‘Gilbert & George: The Early Years’ (all images courtesy the Museum of Modern Art unless otherwise noted)

The melodies of British composers Grieg and Elgar mixed with chatter and voices repeating “Gordon’s makes us drunk” can be heard faintly as you enter Gilbert & George: The Early Years, adding a humorous, lighthearted tone appropriate to the comedic nature of Gilbert & George’s early work. The source of this soundtrack is located in the final room of the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) early survey: the 1972 12-minute video “Gordon’s Makes us Drunk,” wherein the artists sit by a window drinking Gordon’s gin and repeat the phrase — adding “very”s to it as the film progresses.

By the final gallery, the viewer will have already encountered a wide range of media that similarly present daily activities that G&G term “living sculptures.” These “sculptures” come in various forms of documentation and archival materials such as self-published books and letterpress prints, and describe the artists’ belief in daily life as a worthy subject for art. In our modern age of constant sharing and connectivity, where almost everyone seems to be performing the mundane events of daily life on social media, it’s hard to conceive of G&G’s earnest conception of art without an air of skepticism. But through the careful selection of written ephemera, artists’ books, and paper installations (which G&G refer to as “Charcoal Paper Sculptures”), G&G emerge as sincere and innovative thinkers who truly lived their art.

Spread from ‘Gilbert & George, Side By Side’ (1970) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Walking through the small exhibition I was struck by how subtle the curatorial voice is throughout the show. Instead, the greeting cards lay half-open in glass cases, and the magazine spreads and letterpress prints framed along the walls give G&G the authoritative voice. The show opens with the the double self-portrait spread for the 1970 issue of Studio International magazine, which labels the artists as “shit” and “cunt.” Poking fun of themselves, G&G anticipate the mockery their proclamation of life as art might receive — and they don’t care. This sentiment is echoed by the series of letterpress prints, The Ten Speeches, each announcing statements such as: “They weren’t Good Thinkers / They weren’t Bad Thinkers / But, My God, they were Thinkers,” and “They weren’t Good Artists / They weren’t Bad Artists / But, My God, they were Artists.” These maintain the tone of self-mockery; however, there is also the suggestion that being artists and thinkers alone is what matters — truly living their lives as art.

This practice is thoroughly described and illustrated with photographs in the artist book Side By Side (1970), which is on display in a case as well as available to read in the center of the first gallery where the book is attached by a metal wire to the couches. Allowing visitors to easily access and spend time reading G&G’s writing is in keeping with their democratic motto of “art for all.” As they write in the opening of this book, which they call a “contemporary sculpture novel”: “The reader should not expect not to understand this volume as we have been careful to use only accessible material.”

The variety of prints and texts by G&G nicely balance the larger Charcoal Paper Sculptures, which in some cases also incorporate lengthy texts. The sculptures, reaching almost from floor to ceiling, are fragile pieces of paper with visible folding marks mounted on cardboard. The triptych Charcoal Paper Sculpture, “To Be With Art Is All We Ask…” (1970), expresses a similar attitude to The Ten Speeches. The central panel features three columns of text that begins, “Oh Art, what are you?” and finishes with, “TO BE WITH ART IS ALL THAT WE ASK.” This love letter to art appears alongside the sculpture in a letterpress artist book dismantled and framed. Almost all the walls of the final gallery are lined with panels of Charcoal Paper Sculptures depicting interiors — shelves of liquor, kitchen tables, flowers — from unexpected angles. While these pieces are two-dimensional, their categorization as “paper sculptures” is appropriate to the fully immersive environments they create.

Gilbert & George, “To Be With Art Is All We Ask…” (1970), three-part Charcoal on Paper sculpture composed of charcoal and wash on partially charred sheets of paper in cardboard box, 110 3/8 x 320 3/4″ (©2015 Gilbert & George) (click to enlarge)

In the introduction to Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures, Rudi Fuchs, art historian, curator, and former director of the Stedelijk Museum, writes, “I find the texts in Gilbert & George’s book illuminating, touching, humourous and at times irritating, and in the main informative and passionate; only occasionally dull.” Yet, he still privileges the later, more pictorial works, “Compared with the visual spendour of that [1983] picture, the texts suddenly feel less interesting.” What Fuchs fails to acknowledge is that the texts are not a separate, secondary practice. In keeping with the model of life as a living sculpture, their writings are the remnants and declarations of their continuing art and are just as striking and powerful as the later works, evident by this exhibition. The Complete Pictures volumes begin in 1971 and largely ignore the materials included in this exhibition — all the more reason to finally bring this early body of work to light.

Gilbert & George: The Early Years continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd St, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 27.

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