Phone up Gilbert & George and you are likely to find yourself speaking to their sardonic answering machine, with its infamous sendoff, “Thank you, goodbye, and good riddance!” But visit the duo’s studio, and you’ll come to appreciate that their sarcasm is hard earned. However brash, political, and outlandish their artworks—and personas—may be, the art world’s most famous living sculptures are also old-fashioned workaholics. Their two-volume Complete Pictures, 1971–2005, published earlier this year, features more than a thousand works—each large in scale and consisting of symmetrical arrangements of equal-sized square panels—for an average of one completed piece every 12 days, for nearly 35 years. Now, that’s an enormous number of pictures.
It is perhaps difficult to believe that these two men in their mid-60s do all this with only one assistant, but this, they assured ARTINFO when we spoke with them earlier this year, is actually the case. The artists, however, are also aided in their prolificacy by their extensive use of digital technology, the fact that their studios are immediately adjacent to their home, and the almost obsessively disciplined nature of their process.
Gilbert & George have lived in an 18th-century terraced house on Fournier Street in London’s Spitalfields area since 1968. Over the years, and coinciding with the East London neighborhood’s transformation from downtrodden to newly gentrified, they have bought a number of adjacent properties and now have a network of studios, converted from various uses into plain white artists’ working spaces, just across their backyard.
Their artworks begin with black-and-white photographs—“tens of thousands of them”—which the artists take entirely themselves, either on their thrice-daily walks or in the studio. The contact sheets of these images are meticulously catalogued and stored, and then Gilbert & George begin what they call the “design” of their pictures—the basic selection and placement of images, and decisions about color and division into panels—which nowadays is entirely computerized. The duo makes low-resolution scans of their photographic sources, and assemble anywhere from a handful to dozens of them into one image, working on a Mac at a tenth of the work’s eventual size.
Not only are the artists alone in the studio when they conduct this key part of their process, they also feel that they are distracted by anyone who might be anywhere else on the property, so no one is allowed to be there.
Only later does their single assistant come in. He is a young man, or as Gilbert and George refer to him, “one little boy.” His rather uninspiring task is to oversee the high-resolution scanning of images that will replace the lower-resolution scans that the artists have worked with up until this point. For this he uses state-of-the-art drum scanners that produce images at 12,000 dpi (40 times as sharp as most printed images) but which take about half an hour to scan a single 35mm negative. These scans are then incorporated into the artists’ original designs and the individual panels are produced on large-scale printers.
“Somebody else could make them for us,” Gilbert told ARTINFO, “but we always make them ourselves.”