Gilbert & George. Or does this cover portrait show George & Gilbert? How many people, in the art world and beyond, are able to distinguish Gilbert Proesch from George Passmore? Who can tell apart the two individuals who share one celebrated artistic identity?
It is a measure of Gilbert & George’s achievements, and of how they have shaped the public consciousness of contemporary art in Britain, that we think of them through a non-reversible pairing of words: like ‘tea and biscuits’, or ‘Richard and Judy’, only far more puckish and unpredictable.
Interviewed by Martin Gayford in the July/August issue of Apollo, George points out that critics often mistakenly celebrate the artists’ matching, even identical tailoring. Of course, George is significantly taller than Gilbert: were they to swap suits, these two immaculately turned-out artists would be transformed into a brace of clowns, decked out in a Savile Row version of fool’s motley.
This portrait captures well, I think, how the two men reflect each other – with that type of wit, so characteristic of their personae and their art, which faint variation can often encapsulate. Just look at those frog-patterned ties, with their spread-eagled amphibious subjects edging to abstraction, at the sprigs of George’s buttonhole, and at the subtle colour gradation that sets apart their tweeds.
The check pattern of those fabrics, and indeed the strong architectural vertical in an otherwise plain background, reminds me of the grids that have long been one of the principal motifs of their work. Those frames and squares are themselves reminiscent of how the fine artists of the past squared up their sketches to make larger paintings. They are the fixed framework within which Gilbert and George anatomise the topsy-turvy scale of London, the teeming city that provides the raw material of their art.
Gilbert & George are photographed here in their studio in Fournier Street, Spitalfields. Although nothing in this portrait does much to locate them in the East End of London, I imagine the light source through one of those Georgian sash windows that are the distinctive architectural trait of the houses in the area. With their criss-crossing muntins, those too are careful grids, through which the artists have long looked out at, or further into, the street life beyond.