Gilbert & George: ‘London felt like the centre of the universe’
More than half a century in to their partnership and the capital’s most famously anti-elitist art duo are showing little sign of slowing down. Next up? The Gilbert & George Centre...
By Joanna Taylor
It’s one of those early spring mornings where the sun is peeking through the clouds and nobody besides the weatherman can tell whether you’ll be absolutely freezing or perspiring beneath your coat. It transpires that today is most certainly the latter, but either way, standing outside a pair of great, vibrant green gates on Heneage Street in east London, Gilbert Prousch, 79, and George Passmore, 81, are in their trademark get-up: a pair of dashing, three-piece tweed suits. Across the road, a blonde woman is asking a man at the door of an Afro hairdresser why she can’t get her hair cut; there are builders buzzing around us nodding ‘alright, mate?’ at either Gilbert or George; and a van parked a few doors up is being filled with a household’s worldly possessions. ‘It looks like someone is moving,’ observes Gilbert.
The reason we’re here? Behind the elaborate green gates, hallmarked with two winding Gs and topped with King Charles’ royal crest, is The Gilbert & George Centre, a permanent celebration of the two artists’ 56-year career and the distinctive, daring work that made it. Complete with three galleries, a screening room, and a beloved Himalayan magnolia tree dedicated to their late friend and curator Ron Brownson, the centre is set to open to the public on 1 April, and feature an array of changing exhibitions intended to carry on their legacy and immortalise the pair long after they’ve checked out. (...)
‘London was a very different place then from what it is now. And the world is a very different place from 1967 [when the pair met at what is now Central St Martins],’ says Gilbert. ‘It’s difficult to imagine how privileged we were at that time.’
George continues. ‘London was extraordinarily famous in a different way from now. Not more or less, just different. The Beatles were out and The Rolling Stones. Covent Garden was completely deserted but very trendy. It was extraordinary. There were people from countries of the world that I’d never heard of, filming in Saint Martin’s School of Art. We felt we were living in the centre of the universe. The Charing Cross Road was world famous, even more so than now.’ And a stone’s throw away is where you’d find them, says Gilbert. ‘We used to go out clubbing, not in the East End, but at the Blitz. We used to be there every night. You know, misbehaving, coming back in a cab.’
In the vast studio at the back of their home the pair show me the archive of invitations to all of their shows. One, an early set of multicoloured flyers, handwritten in swirly letters, catches my eye. ‘This was for different groups playing, and at that time we didn’t know if we wanted to become musicians or artists,’ says Gilbert. ‘We printed these out in a photocopy shop, handed them out ourselves at Liverpool Street Station. Nobody came, of course,’ adds George. Though that didn’t stop them. Driven by belief in their work, they took their act to the public. (...)
The Paradisical Pictures’, the inaugural exhibition at The Gilbert & George Centre, opens 1 Apr (gilbertandgeorgecentre.org).