‘Warhol cooked us scrambled eggs. Or was it Rauschenberg?’ – Gilbert and George preserve their greatest moments

·9-min read
<span>Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

George and Gilbert are showing me the Himalayan magnolia they’ve planted in the freshly cobbled courtyard of the Gilbert and George Centre. It’s a tall specimen that’s already starting to unleash its ravishing red blooms. “Just like human hearts!” they exclaim, adding that the friend who first showed them this tree’s flowers has just died. “It’s amazing,” says George, “that on the day we thought, ‘Let’s take a photograph to send him’, we should hear that he died.”

George Passmore is 81 and his husband Gilbert Prousch is nearly 80. The pair have been working as a piece of living art, a single artistic entity, since the 1960s and are intensely aware of how many people they’ve outlived. “They’ve all gone,” says George. “Duncan’s gone, Warhol’s gone.”

We never did fun. We are the most miserable people we know

It’s not surprising that their friend, the artist Duncan Grant who painted them, is dead, as he was born in 1885. But Andy Warhol was a fellow spirit who encouraged their early work and came to see them performing Underneath the Arches at the New York debut of The Singing Sculpture. They stood on a table in suits, their faces painted silver. George says Warhol “was the first person in North America who was extremely friendly to us. The first time we were in New York, he threw us a little party and cooked for us: scrambled eggs with truffles.” Gilbert remembers the trip differently: “Robert Rauschenberg did that! Rauschenberg cooked for us!”

‘Even when we walk to dinner, we are art’ … the pair in their new free centre.
‘Even when we walk to dinner, we are art’ … the pair in their new free centre. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Either way, those eggs were historic: Gilbert and George belong in the same company as Warhol and Rauschenberg. They are giants of modern art who have broken the last traces of any barrier between art and life. Rauschenberg said he tried to act “in the gap between” art and life – but Gilbert and George have united art, life and love in a way that’s proved both stunningly simple and utterly confounding.

The centre is a lavish, loving homage by Gilbert and George to, well, themselves: a permanent venue for their work in a former brewery off Brick Lane in London. As they prepare to open this free gallery, I wonder what it is they are celebrating here: what do they see as their significance? Gilbert and George certainly have an influence far beyond the “art world”, whose parochialism they despise. Their fans include Reeves and Mortimer and Kraftwerk. The duo are aesthetes and brutal realists, but one thing they are not, they protest, is “performance artists”. George explains: “Performance art alienates ordinary people. Strange noises and rolling on the floor.”

The pair started out in the late 1960s, rejecting static objects made for galleries and declaring their own lives and actions to be art instead. “We wanted to be part of the world, not part of the art world,” says George. “We just wandered through London and saw the tube stations, Buckingham Palace, the clubs and the nightlife – and we thought it was an extraordinary world.” In the late 60s, they declared themselves a Living Sculpture and, as Gilbert puts it, “put on the Sunday suits – with metal-ised heads to make it more visual”.

“We became the art,” says George. “We are it! We don’t have to do anything. We don’t have to scratch, or do something. We are it. Even when we walk to dinner, we are it.”

‘We put on our Sunday suits and metal-ised our heads’ … Gilbert and George premiere Underneath the Arches in 1970.
‘We put on our Sunday suits and metal-ised our heads’ … Gilbert and George premiere Underneath the Arches in 1970. Photograph: Chris Morphet/Redferns

Yet, even as they made this declaration, they set out to preserve what they did, from creating beautiful invitations and souvenirs for their early events to getting Grant, Warhol, Cecil Beaton and more to do portraits of them. But their most effective method of preservation is their Pictures: bold montages of their own images, pictured with everything from weeds to graffiti, skinheads and turds. “The idea was to leave something behind,” says Gilbert. “You cannot just walk the streets of London day and night. You have to leave a vision behind, like a letter or something, in a gallery. That’s what our Pictures are.”

“We want to live for ever,” adds George.

The centre is the apotheosis of this desire. It will open on April Fools’ Day, a stone’s throw from their home, rotating their personal Pictures. Having been offered a preview, I ring the bell of their house, situated in such a classic East End spot that Jack the Ripper tours go past their windows every night. “No ordinary people are interested in Jack the Ripper,” says George. “Only the middle classes. I think the lower classes know enough about that sort of bad behaviour.”

After a short walk, we arrive. There, next to the Pride of Spitalfields pub, are the intricately entwined, green gates of the centre with the royal monogram C III R shining out in gold, urgently updated from E II R . “It’s the duty of the artist,” says George, “to do something for the king, don’t you think?”

Behind the gates, there’s an unexpectedly warm, even snug quality to the centre, with its courtyard like a village square. A small garden gallery shows films and videos, while the main building contains three exhibition spaces. Gold and bronze lighting and subtly grey walls add to the intimate mood. It’s a lovely place to hang out, with remnants of old brickwork and Scandinavian wood amid the hi-tech. “We were lucky because it’s all done by a relative of mine,” says Gilbert. “Kept it all simple,” adds George.Even if you’re not a fan of Gilbert and George, it would be hard to deny that this is a generous, even philanthropic enterprise. Funded entirely by them and free to visit, it’s a seductive new public space in a part of London where poverty rubs against wealth. And the centre has no cafe, so all the catering custom will go to local businesses. They feel justified in claiming it fulfils their early slogan: “Art for all.”

‘It’s the duty of the artist to do something for the king’ … a larger view of the artists at the gates
‘It’s the duty of the artist to do something for the king’ … a larger view of the artists at the gates Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

The inaugural show is The Paradisical Pictures, a kaleidoscopic explosion of enlarged flowers and seeds out of which their eyes glow shamanistically. But when people come here, what will they be looking at: stand-alone works of art – or relics of the Living Sculpture that is Gilbert and George? “Both, I suppose,” says George. “The artist is always at the heart of the subject. You can go anywhere in the world and stop a stranger and say, ‘Charles Dickens.’ Whether they’ve read a book or not, the culture of that man comes into their head.” He elaborates: “It’s the artist speaking to you, don’t you think? At this moment, in a different time zone probably, someone’s looking at a Van Gogh and wondering why the trees are so gnarled. That’s Van Gogh speaking from the grave.”

The centre preserves the pair’s connection with this neighbourhood, where they have lived since 1968 – a part of London where the bones of the dead are never far from the living. One of their haunts is Bunhill Fields cemetery, where John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress and one of their heroes, is buried. George says Spitalfields is an abbreviation of “hospital fields”, as there was once a hospital here for knights wounded in the Crusades.

Their house is a treasure trove of Victoriana, an obsession that’s picked up at the centre. Opposite their studio, which houses all the tech they need to compose their photoworks, there’s a tiny garden, with Islamic sculptures and a Victorian drinking fountain. George still loves music hall and tells me the story of one of its gay stars. “Fred Barnes went on stage and his father was so horrified, he got a meat cleaver and tried to kill his son. Then he went home and committed suicide. Fred Barnes went on to be a great success, but his career went downhill and he committed suicide like his father in the end.”

George, is a voracious reader, full of stories and theories. “If you read a detective book,” he says, “you side with the police or the criminal – and you find yourself. That’s why biographies and autobiographies are popular, because people find themselves by reading about other people. Don’t you think? I was just reading the biography of the actor Anthony Perkins – an extraordinary life full of success and unhappiness: very very exciting, to read another person’s life. It made us think about all the friends we had that died. There’s Robert Fraser, the art dealer, the first person to die of Aids that we knew. And our Italian dealer.”

“One after another,” adds Gilbert.

Dates and dandelions … Gilbert and George with the pictures from the inaugural show.
Dates and dandelions … Gilbert and George with the pictures from the inaugural show. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

The Paradisical Pictures seems to me like a joke about death and the afterlife. White Cube, in London’s West End, is echoing the event with a show of the pair’s Corpsing Pictures, in which the elderly duo pose with arrangements of bones like a medieval danse macabre. After seeing them “die” there, visitors can head east and see them in paradise at their new centre. They are, quite literally, giving themselves a public sendoff. The project is grave but funny, I suggest, a springtime for Gilbert and George in which they triumph over death.

They completely disagree. “We never went to the studio with the idea of being humorous,” says George, deadpan.

But surely you had fun making The Paradisical Pictures, I say, mixing up your faces with dates and dandelions?

“We never did the fun,” says Gilbert.

“We’re the most miserable people we know,” adds George. “Why fun?”

Because, in the posters for The Corpsing Pictures you showed me, it looked like you had fun playing with bones.

“We’re not playing with bones,” says George.

“We’re expressing ourselves with bones,” adds Gilbert, followed by a quick correction. “Expressing ourself.”

• The Paradisical Pictures opens the Gilbert and George Centre, London, on 1 April. The Corpsing Pictures is at White Cube Mason’s Yard, London from 29 March to 20 May.