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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)

They

Details
Gilbert & George (B. 1943 & B. 1942)
They
signed and dated 'Gilbert + George 1986' (lower right panel)
mixed media
each: 23 3/4 x 19 7/8 in. (60.3 x 50.5 cm.)
overall: 95 x 79 1/2 in. (242 x 202 cm.)
Executed in 1986.
Provenance
The Estate of Ileana Sonnabend, New York
By descent to the present owner
Literature
P. Ardenne, Art: l'a^ge contemporain: une histoire des arts plastiques a' la fin du XXe sie'cle, Paris, 1997, p. 75, no. 2 (illustrated in color).
R. Dutt, Gilbert & George: Obsessions and Compulsions, London, 2004, pp. 6-7 (illustrated in color).
R. Fuchs, Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures 1971-2005, Volume 1, 1971-1988, London, 2007, pp. 540 and 548 (illustrated in color).
Exhibited
New York, Sonnabend Gallery, The 1986 Pictures, May-June 1987.
Bordeaux, CAPC musée d'art contemporain; Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía; Berlin, Hamburger Bahnhof; Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna; Museo d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto; Geneva, Musée Rath; Tokyo, Sezon Museum of Art; Sendai, Miyagi Museum of Art; Hiroshima, Fukuyama Museum of Art and Kyoto, National Museum of Modern Art, Collection Sonnabend: 25 Années de Choix et d'Activités d'Ileana et Michael Sonnabend, October 1987-February 1991, p. 275 (illustrated in color).
Deichtorhallen Hamburg, Sammlung Sonnabend: von der Pop-art bis heute Amerikanische und europäische Kunst seit 1954, February-May 1996, p. 139 (illustrated in color).
Saratoga Springs, Skidmore College, Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery; Columbus, Ohio State University, Wexner Center for the Arts and Milwaukee Art Museum, From Pop to Now: Selections from the Sonnabend Collection, June 2002-May 2003, pp. 62-63 (illustrated in color).

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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

Gilbert & George have been called the “patron saints of contemporary British art,” and in the dazzling piece at hand, the pair certainly looks the part (J. Jones, “A Portrait of the Artists as Young Men, Gilbert and George, 1972,” The Guardian, July 22, 2000, www.theguardian.com). Instantly recognizable as a signature work by the avant-garde duo, They is a monumental gridded montage of silver gelatin photographs that the artists have hand-dyed in brilliant jewel tones. Segmented like a paned window, the vibrant and highly performative self-portrait bears a striking resemblance to ecclesiastical stained glass. The artists—poker-faced and donning their characteristic matching business suits—adopt the frontal, formal pose of somber pastors. In the medieval and Renaissance periods, when literacy rates were not what they are today, stained glass was integral to the communication of religious narratives and messages to a wider public. An inherent populism underlies the stained glass medium, then, as well as the photographic medium that creates the illusion of stained glass in the present work. The work at hand is accordingly faithful to Gilbert & George’s emphasis on universal accessibility as expressed by their slogan “Art for All.” A glyphic self-portrait rendered in the richest hues of blue and red, They is an exemplar of the duo’s hallmark style of “flagrantly democratic” mammoth montage (G. Jones, “Gilbert & George,” Frieze, Issue 10, May 1993, n.p.). It is captured here at the pinnacle of its lucid and brilliantly colored ‘80s iteration, the same year that Gilbert & George won the prestigious Turner Prize.

In They, Gilbert & George gaze forward impassively as they refuse to acknowledge the viewer’s presence. Their hands rest solidly upon the knees of their “responsibility-suits,” the fastidious tweed business suits that the two have elected to wear to signify “both a heightened seriousness and the sublimation of individual desires to a joint sense of purpose” (G. Jones, “Gilbert & George,” Frieze, Issue 10, May 1993, n.p.). In the work, the word “They” conjoins the men’s rigid heads as if the shared pronoun has physically unified them—a telling aesthetic precursor to the deforming fusion of their forms in later work. In the piece, Gilbert & George are posed performatively and rendered in enhanced colors, the implication being that any image is inherently artificial and, more radically, that the duo’s shared life is a carefully constructed performance art piece. They is built from exactingly collaged black-and-white photographs that have been dyed with a radiant palette of primary colors using a blocking technique, as with a stencil. It was only in the early 1980s, when Gilbert & George entered a period of particular creative fecundity, that the artists began to tentatively expand their color palette, moving from the grisaille scheme that they had previously worked in exclusively. Gilbert & George have explained, “Unlike any other artist, who have a box of colors, we started from a different base. It took us a long time to find black even. Then it took another four years to find red” (Gilbert & George in conversation with Martin Gayford, 1996, E1, eds. I Baudino and M. Gautheron, Gilbert & George: E1, Lyon, 2005, p. 42-43). The visual language of They is that of the obsessive, each line and hue stringently selected and executed to “create and trap a mood” of cartoonish rigidity, stylized precision, and unexpected clarity (Gilbert & George in conversation with A. Wilson, “Gilbert & George,” Journal of Contemporary Art, 1993, n.p.). It is of course flat and reticent symbols, virtually emptied of meaning, that end up being meaning’s most powerful and accessible vehicles. In They, Gilbert & George offer themselves up as receptacles for meaning, as an open iconography that can represent art-as-religion, existence-as-pathology, the homosexual British lifestyle, or whatever else the viewer wishes to draw from—or impose upon—the image at hand.

Since 1967, when they first met as students of an advanced sculpture course at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design in London, Gilbert & George have existed as an inseparable unit. The two shared a belief that the supposed division between art and everyday life was a false dichotomy, as well as general disenchantment with the elitism that they found with the dominant arts discourse; a joint manifesto soon resulted. In the 1970s, the pair made black-and-white assemblages which developed a heavily structured, gridded form. The 1980s witnessed the gradual addition of a tightly controlled palette of bold color to their photographs. The decade “ushered in a rich creative period for Gilbert & George. Their inner demons seemed less ravenous, an ardent universe unfolded, full of bright colours, in increasingly huge formats” (F. Jonquet, Gilbert & George: Intimate Conversations with Francois Jonquet, London, 2004, p. 105). In 1986, the year that the present lot was made, Gilbert & George won the prestigious Turner Prize. A battery of major exhibitions and retrospectives followed, from a 1987 exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London, to major traveling retrospectives organized by the Galleria Arte Moderna in Bologna in 1996, the Kunstmuseum Bonn in 1999, and the Tate Modern in London in 2007, which traveled to the Brooklyn Museum in 2008.The pair had the honor of representing Great Britain at the 2005 Venice Biennale, and at the time of writing an exhibition of their work is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Pairing a Gothic vibrancy and grandeur with a distinctly contemporary sensibility, They performs, celebrates, and probes being.

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