Galerie Véga, Liège (acquired directly from the artists)
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner circa 1975
Carter Ratcliff, Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures 1971-1985, New York 1986, p. 79, illustrated in colour
Wolf Jahn, L'Art de Gilbert & George, une esthétique de l'existence, Munich 1989, p. 177, illustrated in colour
Rudi Fuchs, Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures 1971-2005, London 2007, Vol. I, p. 212, illustrated in colour
With its dominant compositional form of the British flag, Bad Thoughts No. 2 is the largest 1970s work by Gilbert & George to come to auction in recent years, a rare, vintage photo-sculpture from their defining body of work. Made in 1975, the Bad Thoughts series reveals the artists making seminal steps in the evolution of their visual vocabulary. What makes this particular work stand out from contemporaneous pieces is the formal rigour of the composition which echoes the form of the Union Jack flag. While the internal organisation of artists' first photo-sculptures tended to be fragmentary, like the Nature Photo-pieces of 1971, or configured into a specific shape, like the two works in the Inca Pisco series, by the present series Gilbert & George had arrived at their mature format, configuring individual panels in a grid. Bad Thoughts No. 2 shows how, on a formal level, the artists intelligently exploit the internal rhythms and cadences achieved through juxtaposition of different images, here unusually arranged with an overarching design principle which unites all sixteen panels. We are presented with two half-length profile portraits of the artistic duo, each split across two panels and set against the entablature of a door frame. Encircling them the same entablatures are arranged in the constellation of the British flag, the first appearance of an explicitly British motif in their work. Although Gilbert was born in the Dolomites in Italy, ever since the two met and formed their professional relationship together at St. Martin's School of Art in London in 1967, they identified themselves with a very British and specifically London-centric sensibility. At the same time, the configuration in a grid of vertical, horizontal and diagonal architectural forms makes a knowing nod in the direction of Minimalism, as propagated by Donald Judd and Carl Andre, which by the mid-1970s was gaining credence as an international art movement.
The two series which preceded Bad Thoughts - Cherry Blossom and Bloody Life - were the first instances in which Gilbert & George used the colour red in their photo-sculptures. As they explain, "We were looking for a more aggressive, more powerful image. Red has more strength than black. It's louder" (the artists cited in Carter Ratcliff, 'Gilbert and George: The Fabric of their World' in Exhibition Catalogue, Bordeaux, CAPC Musée d'Art Contemporain and travelling, Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures 1971-1985, 1986-87, p. XXIII). Here red is used to amplify the form of the Union Jack, which in purely formal terms helps to focus our eye inwards on the central double portrait of the composition. While the next two series eradicate red from the palette in a quest for a more sombre atmosphere, Bad Thoughts keeps red as a potent metaphor for the angst and violence implicit in the series title. The theme of drinking and its destructive consequences reappears, as both artists are presented with rocks glass in hand, yet here the degenerate vision of the artists' drunken, reclusive domestic world that was portrayed in the early Drinking Sculptures is supplanted by a pensive and melancholic double portrait.
The early red series had shown the duo in their native East London habitat, juxtaposing their ever-present self images with views of the Thames, London's train stations, streets and parks. In Bad Thoughts, by contrast, the artists retreat into their own private realm, recalling the more claustrophobic space of their earlier Drinking Sculptures. This isolation becomes the subject of Bad Thoughts and the following two series, Dead Boards and Dusty Corners, which are made up exclusively of images taken within the walls of their Fournier Street lodgings, stripped bare of furniture and personal possessions. At the time, the artists had recently acquired the East London terraced townhouse and were restoring it to its early Georgian splendour, a project which they have painstakingly undertaken over the last thirty years. Built for French Huguenot master silk-weavers and mercers, the houses of Fournier Street were fitted out with fine wooden panelling and elaborate joinery, such as carved staircases, fireplaces and highly detailed door-cases by the master craftsmen of the day. For the artists - who consider themselves to be Living Sculptures - their home and immediate surroundings, like their personal appearance, are an integral part of their ongoing sculptural work. The present series, along with Dead Boards and Dusty Corners, portrays the importance of their domestic environment.
The artists' first photographic works were in part the documentary residue of their early performance-based art, the Living Sculpture pieces begun in 1969, in one of which the artists, made-up, suited and standing on a pedestal, pantomimed to a tinny recording of the drinking-hall song 'Underneath the Arches'. In the 1970s, with the onset of impermanent performance and process-based art, the need for documentation was keenly felt in artistic circles. This impulse for documentation became integral to the communication of Gilbert & George's artistic vision and their 'Art for All' conviction that art must strive towards social betterment. Although made over thirty years ago, the Bad Thoughts possesses a resolute modernity which is the hallmark of their groundbreaking creative process, which witnessed the collapse of artist into artwork. Pioneering a new art form, their work ignores the usual divisions between sculpture, painting and photography while also rejecting the modernist habit of seeing a difference between art and life. As the artists say, "Our lives are one big sculpture" (Carter Ratcliff, op cit, p. X).
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