This has happened twice this week. And in each instance, I was catapulted back to the 1980s and early 1990s, around 30 years ago in NYC when I was a grad student at Columbia, making my way through Foucault and Lacan while soaking up the downtown art scene.
Stuart Shave has brought vintage Peter Halley to London with a show of paintings from the 1980s. Classic florescent, rolltex-painted, conduit-and cell-imaged multi-canvas paintings shine in the gallery like beacons from the past, pointing directly towards the moment we find them today – possibly even more relevant in 2017 than they were in 1987. Halley himself was at the gallery on Friday, to walk visitors through the show. He explained how some regard his use of Barnett Newman’s zip, Malevich’s square, or Robert Ryman’s textures as appropriation, while for him it was always more a matter of admiration. Re-contextualizing this modernist language to show that the square and line have more to do with the practicalities of our regimented urban lives and modes of communication than with the purist sublimity of minimalism or color field painting. Back when I was reading Yves-Alain Bois and Hal Foster on Halley in the 1986 catalog for the ICA Boston’s show called “Endgame: Reference and Simulation in Recent Painting and Sculpture,” (I’ve still got it on my bookshelf) this all made sense, for the first time, of the morass of semiotic texts that I was being fed in grad school, and I remember being sincerely grateful that a painter could so clearly demonstrate the ideas of Baudrillard and Foucault that I was struggling to understand. So, to hear the artist himself explain his work today hit a sweet spot for me: intellectual celebrity, nostalgia, and kinship through a shared experience of 1980s NY, and all packaged in a rather reserved, articulate, preppy and bespectacled New Yorker.
Tonight MP invited me to accompany her on a visit to Gilbert and George’s studio in Fournier Street. The visit was organised by University of the Arts London, which incorporates Central St Martin’s, of which the artists are graduates. They have not opened their studio to a group in 20 years. Or so they said (this was pointedly refuted in a comment on my Instagram post!)
Again, I feel a particular connection with Gilbert and George. Back in 1991, my then father-in-law and I made our way down to Sonnabend Gallery (in those days it was on West Houston Street), to see the duo perform their legendary “Singing Sculpture” piece. I remember so vividly their silver expressionless faces as they stood rotating above the gathered crowd on a table, singing the 1940s song “Under the Arches,” about a homeless guy sleeping rough. I also remember thinking that my father-in-law and I shared an appreciation of the fact that this was a momentous event. And indeed it was. The piece has been performed only a handful of times. The first time was in 1971, and the second time, when I saw it, in 1991.
What I saw tonight was pretty extraordinary too. The pair explained how their performance at the opening of “When Attitudes Become Form,” at the ICA, which they crashed, having been excluded from the exhibition, was the true beginning of their career. That’s when Konrad Fischer decided to take them on. They described how important rejection and enemies were to them, for spurring their ambition and drive. George explained that whenever they are asked by young art students for advice, they advise two things. The first, George said, in his very pointed accent, is that “every morning you need to ask yourself, what do I want to tell the world today, and then make sure you do that.” And Gilbert chimed in with the second piece of advice: “Fuck your teachers.”
Their studio is immaculate, organised into three rooms in which different activities take place. Archives, computers, scanners, drying racks, display cases, and tables on which are laid out books containing every single one of the thousands upon thousands of images that they have generated over the years of their career are documented. They had spent a good part of their day dusting off their Victorian china brought down from the attic especially for the snacks spread out for us. They were dressed beautifully: Gilbert in a green tweed suit and brown brogues, and George in an orange-rust tweed with colourful flecks, with a little boutonniere of thistle that matched perfectly the shade of green in Gilbert’s suit. They spoke passionately about how their work is “for the people,” they are anti-elitist and anti-establishment. And yet I couldn’t help wondering how many people actually do understand or relate to their oddly insular output of photographs of themselves in various guises, with props of everything from bed bugs to beards, want ads to faeces. Gilbert told me that they are the oldest inhabitants of Spitalfields: 50 years in the same house. When they first lived in the area, they were surrounded by veterans who had been traumatised in WWII, damaged men, many of whom had been minor sex offenders in the rural counties, who were told that if they didn’t show up in the morning, they wouldn’t be prosecuted. As a result, they left their homes, families and belongings quickly, heading for London, and disappearing there into the fabric of urban anonymity. Today, Gilbert and George are surrounded by bearded millennials who keep the trendy barbers and coffee roasteries in business. And to that, they say, “Fuck the hipsters.”
George going through one of the countless books that document all their works and the various categories the works fall into:
Gilbert explaining the foundation they are creating for their entire collection of art, archives, furniture and decorative arts.