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Gilbert & George
Gilbert Proesch (b. 1943) and George Passmore (b. 1942)
 
 
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Gilbert & George are two of the most important avant-garde artists on the international art scene of the late twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries. Their work explores themes ranging from city life, with all its frailties, to religion, scatology, and homosexuality. As a result, their work is controversial and challenging.

In writing their early art manifesto entitled What Our Art Means, the duo stated that their intent is to break social taboos and express contempt for established norms in an effort to open debate, alter people's opinions, and effect change in society. The frequently negative reaction to their work--especially to its scatological and sexual imagery--may be an indication that they have succeeded.

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Early Years and Education

Gilbert Proesch was born in San Marino, Italy, in a village located in the Dolomite Mountains, in 1943. His father was a shoemaker and he trained as a woodcarver in his father's workshop. Gilbert later went on to study at the Wolkenstein School of Art, the Hallein School of Art in Austria, and the Akademie der Kunst in Munich.

George Passmore also comes from a working class family. Born in Plymouth, Devon in 1942, he was raised in Tiverton. He left school to work in a shop when he was fifteen years old and eventually studied at the Darlington Adult Education Center in Devon and the Darlington Hall College of Art.

An adventuresome youth, George hitchhiked to London, found a day job in the China section of Selfridge's department store and worked an evening job as a barman at the Player's Club in the city's Strand district. He eventually studied for a year at the Oxford School of Art.

Collaborators in Life and Art

The two artists met in 1967 when they both earned a place in the Advanced Sculpture course at St. Martin's School of Art in London. They have worked together since that time, sharing a home, called "Art for All" in the working-class neighborhood of Spitalfields on Fournier Street in London's east end.

Proesch and Passmore have always worked as an artistic collaborative and dropped their family names to become known as "Gilbert & George." In adopting a collective name, the artists refused individualization and reinforced the point that their art is their life together.

The artists purposefully created an image of themselves as elegantly clothed, well-groomed, and conservative men in order to revolt against the elitism of the art world from a position of normalcy.

First Works

The first works created by Gilbert & George centered on performance.

In 1968, after small shows in Frank's Sandwich Bar and other locales, they felt slighted when they were not invited to participate in London's exhibition of new minimalist and conceptual art entitled When Attitude Becomes Form.

They responded to this snub by painting their heads and standing motionless in the center of the gallery on opening night. German dealer Konrad Fischer saw the audacious performance and immediately offered the duo a show at the Düsseldorf Kunsthalle. The artists became an overnight success and soon had exhibitions in the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, New York, and London.

The following year, Gilbert & George gained fame with the now famous performance piece they eventually entitled The Singing Sculpture.

In this work, the duo stood on a table wearing identical gray worsted, three-button suits, faces decorated in bronze make-up, one holding a cane, the other artist holding a glove. The performance was accompanied by the English music-hall song, "Underneath the Arches," played on a tape recorder located underneath the pedestal on which they stood. When the pre-World War II popular song ended, the artists exchanged cane and glove; then one of them stepped down from the table, reset the equipment, and stepped back up to the table.

The piece was performed in different locations over several years, sometimes in eight-hour marathons. In this performance, Proesch and Passmore themselves literally became their art. The work, which appealed to viewers of all ages and classes, was also notable for its accessibility.

In 1989, The Singing Sculpture was exhibited again in honor of its twentieth anniversary at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York.

Other early series of works created by Gilbert & George included postcard sculptures addressed to collectors and gallery owners in which they detailed their daily lives and magazine sculptures published in selected periodicals. The Meal, a performance piece in a hall in Ripley, was an event during which Gilbert & George served dinner to David Hockney in front of an invited audience.

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