Lot 15
  • 15

Gilbert and George

1,000,000 - 1,500,000 GBP
1,148,750 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Gilbert and George
  • Shag Stiff
  • signed, titled and dated 1977; each titled and numbered on the backing board 
  • hand-dyed gelatin silver prints in artists' frames, in 16 parts


Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London

Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1987


London, Serpentine Gallery, Gilbert & George: Dirty Words Pictures, June - September 2002, p. 55, illustrated in colour


Carter Ratcliff, Gilbert and George: The Complete Pictures 1971-1985, London 1986, p. 112, illustrated in colour

Dieter Ronte, Hess Collection, Stuttgart 1989, p. 75, no. 51, illustrated in colour

Rudi Fuchs, Gilbert and George: The Complete Pictures 1971-2005, Vol. I, London 2007, p. 286, illustrated in colour

Donald M. Hess, Hess Art Collection, Osfildern 2009, p. 133, illustrated in colour 

David Christopher, British Culture: An Introduction, New York 2015, p. 203 (text)

Catalogue Note

Marking a pivotal and transformative moment in the career of Gilbert and George, Shag Stiff is a monumental work from the artists’ definitive Dirty Words Pictures. Each meticulously apportioned in the artists’ signature manner into sleek minimalist grids, the Dirty Words Pictures are a tour de force of Gilbert and George’s praxis, indeed, many works from the series are held in prestigious museum collections such Cunt Scum in Tate, London; Angry in Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo; Are You Angry Or Are You Boring? in Stedelijk Van Abbesmuseum, Eindhoven; Cunt in Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; Fuck in Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg; Queer in Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam; Smash in Arts Council Collection, London and Suck in San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Remarkable for its intensity of vision, this extraordinary body of work consolidates and advances the compositional grammar wrought by the artists’ preceding piece, Red Morning, to create the cornerstone of their inimitable style – a style that has influenced a whole generation of artists. Emblazoned across the present work’s lintel, scratched into a stone wall, is the word ‘Shag’ which  is split into four single frames: “by putting the word along the top, then something vertical down both sides, it looked like a door. A door of hell. We found much of the graffiti in doorways... We became interested to know what makes a person do that” (Gilbert and George cited in: Carter Ratcliff, Gilbert and George: The Complete Pictures 1971-1985, London 1986, p. XXVII).  Further down the composition, across two frames is the word ‘Stiff’, which acts as a halo above two photographs of the artists. These obscene proclamations assume a twofold role in this series becoming both the source and title of the Dirty Word Pictures.

Executed in 1977, a year of political and social unrest in England, Shag Stiff points to the acceleration in social and cultural disaffection that was in part born of the anti-establishment punk rock movement that gained momentum in the same year. Stripping back romantic notions of the city, Shag Stiff is infused with the vital sheen of contemporaneity, a timeless appeal that still thoroughly engages with our own modern day society. Speaking of this moment Gilbert recalls, “England was so run down in 1975, 1976, 1977, it was totally anarchic, with big piles of rubbish lying in Leicester Square, with super-flies and super-rats…” while George added, “Continental people saw England as a big pile of shit with a punk rock waving a swastika on top of it” (Gilbert and George cited in: Michael Bracewell, ‘Writing the Modern World’ in: Exh. Cat., London, Serpentine Gallery, Gilbert and George: Dirty Words Pictures, 2002, p. 15). The present work is flanked on each side by two columns of red photographs that depict steel drum players and punctuated in the middle by two black and white images of a modernist office block. As with other works in this series, these images are derived from the artists’ East London environs.

Having introduced red into their oeuvre for the first time in 1974, the intense red inventions in the Dirty Word Pictures series come to evocatively accentuate the potency of the surrounding black and white images. As George elaborated, "We were looking for a more aggressive, more powerful image. Red has more strength than black. Black and white is powerful but red on top of it is even more so. It's louder" (George cited in: Carter Ratcliff, op. cit., p. XXIII).

The overwhelming scope and ambition achieved in Shag Stiff, and the Dirty Word Pictures as a wider whole, demonstrates a new level of compositional rigour that is self-consciously transgressive, cementing aesthetic order from the chaos and conflict the artists experienced around them. The regular grid structure that was introduced in earnest in Cherry Blossom, 1974, has been tightened in the present work by eliminating the gaps between each component of the grid to give a more coherent, vital work that assumes a mural-like quality. The unifying architectonic structure of the grid takes on a double function and intriguingly also serves to break up the pictorial field, highlighting Gilbert and George’s central preoccupation with the fractured nature of the city. In doing so, the notion of the city that Gilbert and George present in Shag Stiff is not a real one, but a mental conception of the metropolis as a duality where the crowd is at once an anonymous throng and a mass of highly individualised figures. As the artists themselves have said: “to walk the streets of London is to walk the streets of the world” (Gilbert and George cited in: Lisa Corrin, ‘Are you angry or are you boring?’, in: op. cit., 2003, p. 31).