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Gilbert & George (B. 1943 & B. 1942)
WORKS FROM THE COLLECTION OF ILEANA SONNABEND AND THE ESTATE OF NINA CASTELLI SUNDELL
Gilbert & George (B. 1943 & B. 1942)

Dead Boards No. 5

Details
Gilbert & George (B. 1943 & B. 1942)
Dead Boards No. 5
signed and printed with title and date 'Dead Boards No. 5 Early 1976 Gilbert and George' (lower right panel)
mixed media
each: 23 7/8 x 19 7/8 in. (60.6 x 50.5 cm.)
overall: 97 x 81 in. (246.4 x 205.7 cm.)
Executed in 1976.
Provenance
The Estate of Ileana Sonnabend, New York
By descent to the present owner
Literature
R. Fuchs, Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures 1971-2005, Volume 1, 1971-1988, London, 2007, p. 231 (illustrated).
Exhibited
New York, Sonnabend Gallery, Dead Boards, March–May 1976.
Minneapolis, Walker Art Center and Los Angeles, Hammer Museum, The Last Picture Show – Artists Using Photography 1960-1982, October 2003-May 2004, p. 137, no. 60 (illustrated).

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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

In Dead Boards No. 5, Gilbert & George construct a melancholic, oblique self-portrait in their home and studio on Fournier Street in London’s East End. Characteristic of the duo’s oeuvre in monumentality and medium, this work is from the small Dead Boards series executed by the pair in the early stages of their career. Dead Boards No. 5 alternates photographs of scratched and scuffed floorboards with photos of the simulacra artists—sporting their nondescript business suits, which they refer to as “responsibility-suits”—posing by the dusty windows that pierce the empty, derelict rooms of their home. The rigorous gridding gives rise to the acute sense of “precision, constructive rigidity, and single-mindedness” that is so pervasive in Gilbert & George’s oeuvre (R. Dutt, Gilbert & George, London, 2004, p. 13). Drained of color, Dead Boards No. 5’s constituent images shift slightly from panel to panel, simultaneously monotonous and uncanny evocations of the depersonalized strangeness of the everyday. This hushed depiction of Gilbert & George’s Edwardian home, their “laboratory of ideas” where they have produced their most seminal work, is indicative of the extent to which the pair has radically broken down distinctions between art and life. Over decades of artistic practice, it has been Gilbert & George’s shared life as “living sculptures”—joint personae sans surnames, uncannily miming being even in their home (which, uncoincidentally, doubles as their place of work)—that has electrified the pair’s distinctive and iconic oeuvre.

The sixteen-panel photomontage of Dead Boards No. 5 blurs lines between art and life in a paean to the mundane magic of existence. The piece captures Gilbert & George’s home and studio, a shadowy wood-paneled Georgian house near Spitalfields Market in London’s East End. In the Dead Boards series, made a year after the Dusty Corners series which also took place in their home, the pair strove “to do something that was absolutely hopeless, dead, grey, lost” (Gilbert & George quoted in A. Beckett, When The Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies, London, 2009, p. 181). The East End domicile’s stark floorboards, repetitively rendered in a soft ashen light, bear the wear of previous occupants; like the rings of a tree, the worn boards are physical testaments to the passing of time. Standing stiffly in their impeccable, identical suits, the look-alike artists resemble coolly carved sculpture, the perfect image of the “living sculpture” that they have striven to embody through the decades. Whether a shot of the floor or an image of one of the men, each type of photograph—and the notion of typologies is certainly made relevant by the clinical construct of the grid—has been taken from a similar vantage point. The grid formatting suggests a paneled window onto the world or into the artists’ private life; at the same time, it evokes the sense that the scene at hand has been artificially constructed for the viewer in a staged image of the artists’ “panelled life” (Gilbert & George quoted in eds. I Baudino and M. Gautheron, Gilbert & George: E1, Lyon, 2005, p. 36).

The Fournier Street home and office has played a pivotal role in Gilbert & George’s life and work. According to Gilbert, the pair was initially drawn to the working-class East End because “It was the cheapest part of London and also the most romantic part as well. It was so incredible. The first time I went to the East End I felt as if I were in the nineteenth century. All around here it was like something out of Charles Dickens” (Gilbert & George in conversation with A. Wilson, “Gilbert & George,” Journal of Contemporary Art, 1993, n.p.). George counterbalanced Gilbert’s statement with, “We really believe this is a typical ‘planet Earth place’” (Ibid., n.p.). In a conversational volley, the two-person artistic unit equates the romantic with the mundane and the ordinary with the extraordinary. Gilbert & George first rented the building’s ground floor in 1968 when it was in a state of serious disrepair. The photographs that compose Dead Boards No. 5 were taken shortly after the pair purchased the home in the mid-1970s, but before they had undertaken the laborious task of renovating it.

In 1967, Gilbert & George met at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design in London. In their sculpture studies at St. Martin’s, art and life were presented as separate entities, but the two students were interested in transgressing those supposed boundaries. It wasn’t long before the pair had entirely merged their identities: they dropped their respective last names to become a unified and “friendly” brand, appeared publicly as “living sculptures” dressed identically in business suits with bronzing powder coating their face and hands, and fully committed to living and working together. In stylistic variations on self-portraiture, the pair’s artistic output has moved from pure performance art to charcoal drawings to large-scale multi-paneled photographic works, which over time have become brighter, bolder, and replete with increasingly controversial imagery. It is the duo’s commitment to living their art, with their everyday moments adding up to a monumental performance, that makes their oeuvre singular. Depicting Gilbert & George in the critical space of their home and studio, Dead Boards No. 5 encapsulates the pair’s expressly performative existence.

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