gilbert & george on the way out

Between one thing and the next, I had a few minutes to spend at the Brooklyn Museum last Saturday night. Some of it I used up sitting in the stairwell looking out at the glowing night snow falling on the parking lot, the junior Statue of Liberty, and some dogs — I love that plain, quiet staircase and its oddly placed window cuts, but it’s really that I had to wait and make a phone call, and using your cell phone in galleries is tacky even if not forbidden. Anyway. I also looked at the three Petah Coynes — two waxy, one wiry — on the fifth floor landing
Petah Coyne

while waiting to call, and stopped on my way through the gallery maze to admire this forthright Copley portrait of Mrs. Alexander Cumming:
Mrs. Alexander Cumming, née Elizabeth Goldthwaite, later Mrs. John Bacon

but most of the time I spent with the big Gilbert & George retrospective.

I don’t know if I’d seen much G&G work in the (so to speak) flesh: mostly reproductions in the paper or magazines of their giant multipanel gridded works, plus the signed poster (showing a detail of one of these) that’s in my boss’s office. I knew the general story: two English gents who’d been using themselves as the subjects of their art for decades, usually appearing either in neat suits or naked; I had the sense of a naughty-revolutionary esthetic, challenging the politics, sexual and other, of contemporary Britain; but that was about it. And that was all certainly on display in Brooklyn. But under the rotunda there were cases of small-scale early work: postcards, badges, photos of a dinner party shared with David Hockney, formally printed little booklets and cards neatly signed Gilbert on one side and George on the other in fountain-pen ink; a chart and a sketch for a performance piece; a wall-sized collage of photographs of the two of them, suited up as though right out of public school, with a gnarled tree. And from these modest works I felt the radiation of their initial idea and the frisky delight they took in it, the notion that they, that their lives could be art, when it was fresh and new forty years ago. That they are still doing it is heroic, but that starting sparkle gets blown up and out in some of the louder and bigger pieces.

Edited just to remind you to check up on Coming Attractions, at the top of the site.


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