At MoMA, the Sadness of Gilbert and George

THE DAILY PIC: The British duo only became jokesters to hide their tears.


THE DAILY PIC (#1381): It’s easy to see Gilbert and George, the great British conceptualists, as a couple of playful British lads in gray flannel, like bank tellers out for a Friday-night pint. There are those cane-swinging music-hall numbers they did, not to mention the gin-drinking they counted as art. But the important pieces in “Gilbert & George: The Early Years,” now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, create a very different impression: For all these artists’ laddish play, most of the work from this period feels melancholy. Their video called Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk seems like the binging of a depressive; their music-hall numbers bill them as outcasts who live underneath the arches of a railway overpass. The room-filling drawings they did, of the two of them out in the British countryside, make it feel as though they had nowhere else to go to be together.

As I’ve argued before, this sadness has an important social dimension: It’s how it felt to be a gay couple in 1960s Britain, when homosexuality was still against the law. As I wrote in 2008, when I reviewed their big Brooklyn retrospective: “Behind the happy song and dance – beneath the contented gray flannel – there’s the reality of life ‘underneath the arches’: a life of hurt and bafflement and even swallowed rage.”

(Image shows a detail from The Tuileries [1974], from the MoMA collection, gift of Art & Project/Depot VBVR in honor of Christophe Cherix, 2009; ©2015 Gilbert & George, photo by Jason Mandella)

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