Gilbert & George
- Gilbert & George
- Dead Boards No. 13
- signed, titled and dated Early 1976
- nine gelatin silver prints in original artists' frames
- each: 60.4 by 50.4cm.; 23 3/4 by 19 3/4 in.
- overall: 185 by 154cm.; 73 by 61in.
Sale: Christie's, New York, Contemporary Art, 19 May 1999, Lot 29
Private Collection, London
Private Collection, Belgium
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
Milan, Palazzo Reale, Arte Inglese oggi, 1976
Rudi Fuchs, Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures 1971-2005, London 2007, Vol. I, p. 232, illustrated
Gilbert & George's Dead Boards No. 13 is an exceptionally rare work from the duo's early and groundbreaking series, which was given its own room at the recent retrospective of their work which began at Tate Modern in 2007. Only the second work from the series to be offered at auction, it documents an important chapter in their autobiographical oeuvre. By 1976, the artists had bought their house on Fournier Street in London's East End, which they had initially rented for sixteen pounds per month since 1968. At the time, the building which still today serves as their studio and home was a ramshackle single-fronted early Georgian townhouse in the heart of a remote, dangerous and run-down part of town populated by button-makers, furriers and hat makers in the shadows of the city's financial district. Today, 12 Fournier Street is a landmark in this capital's cultural heritage. Lovingly restored by the artists over the years, the house is central to their art pictured (right) post restoration. In this work from the mid-1970s, the artists record the state of considerable disrepair of the deserted, unfurnished rooms prior to refurbishment in bleak and austere images.
Recalling the tone of their earlier drinking sculptures, this series of entirely black and white images shows the artists retreating indoors from the outside world which they had documented in Cherry Blossom, Bad Thoughts and Bloody Life made in the preceding year. Crossing back over the threshold of 12 Fournier Street, the works are inhabited by a sense of isolation and claustrophobia. The use of colour, explored for the first time in the preceding series, is abandoned in favour of a more austere pictorial formality. The artists appear singly in each of the four corner panels, lurking in the shadowy recesses like a haunting presence. In the top right and bottom left panels they stand in the distant corner, their profiles dramatically lit by white light entering from the barely visible window; in the top left and bottom right panels, they are a tenebrous presence in the foreground. In each, formally attired in unremarkable but impeccable suits, they appear as an integral part of the very fabric of the building which they inhabit and which itself inhabits their work. Even when the figures change their positions, the same walls and the same boards are repeated, adding to the sense of claustrophobia. Unlike the early Drinking Sculpture pieces which depicted degenerate vision of the artists' reclusive domestic world surrounded by smashed glasses, overturned bottles and spilled liquor, there is no evidence of alcohol abuse here. Nonetheless, the same pervasive melancholia is enshrined in these vacant, joyless spaces.
The houses of Fournier Street, originally built for French Huegenot master silk weavers and mercers, were fitted out with fine wooden paneling and elaborate joinery such as carved staircases, fireplaces and highly detailed door-cases by the master craftsmen of the day. Allowed to fall into disrepair by the poverty that for years deprived the area of regeneration, the intricate entablatures and wall paneling are given prominence in the title panel of the present work. As the title suggests, the degradation and disrepair is endemic and, just as the artists are a part of the house, by pathetic fallacy it is implicit in the moral state of the artists themselves.
On a formal level, the images of the artists are juxtaposed with close-up details of the stripped floorboards. Inhospitable and unhomely, these rough, unpolished floors add to the ascetic atmosphere of the whole series and are the leitmotif that unites every work in the series. But they are also an important formal element in the composition, as the artists trade on the frontality of these images vis-à-vis the receding perspectival lines in the other images. Echoing the flatness of Gilbert & George's trademark grid-like structure, they establish an interesting visual dialectic which energises the composition and remind us of the sculptural element that takes Gilbert & George's work beyond the remit of simple photography.
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. However, 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, this vintage photo-sculpture from the mid 1970s possess 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. With Gilbert & George, all the usual boundaries between art and life are irrevocably blurred. As the artists say, "Our lives are one big sculpture" (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. X).