10/02/2012 04:23 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Collaboration in Art (II)

by David Galenson and Clayne Pope

This article is our third on collaboration. The first considered differences between science and art with respect to collaboration; the second surveyed the history of collaboration in art. This article considers the present and future of collaboration in art.


Gilbert and George The Singing Sculpture 1969-91, Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Gilbert Proesch and George Passmore met when they were students in the sculpture department of St. Martin's School of Art in London. They shared a dissatisfaction with the formalist orientation of the program, and decided to create a new type of art: "We decided we were the object and the subject. And I think that was the biggest innovation we ever did...[F]or us the most important thing was us as objects speaking to the world." They decided to become a single artist: "Two people make one artist. We think that we are an artist." Upon leaving St. Martin's, the pair set out to become successful: "We were desperate to draw attention to ourselves." In 1969, wearing matching tweed suits, with bronze paint on their faces and hands, they sang an old music hall song, "Underneath the Arches," continuously for eight hours in Charing Cross. Titled Singing Sculpture, the work became famous, and for the next five years they presented it around the world. Their later work has been based on photography: "We invented a technical form to make one art that doesn't distinguish between us. You don't see the brush strokes, the handwritten message that every artist is so proud of." Their goals have consistently been conceptual: "Art is pure thought." Their work has often treated subjects of social significance, with provocative images and texts referring to religion, homosexuality, male prostitution, and AIDS, though the messages are generally unclear.


Gilbert and George, Fates (2005), Collection of the Tate Modern, London.

The introduction to the 2007 retrospective exhibition for Gilbert and George at London's Tate Modern simultaneously demonstrated the English art world's view of their importance and the acceptance of the pair as a unit, noting that "it is fitting that Gilbert & George: Major Exhibition is the largest retrospective of any artist to be held at Tate Modern." Damien Hirst has complained that they are not fully appreciated abroad: "I can't help thinking if Gilbert and George were American, they'd be much more significant." The impact of the pair in England may account for the greater prominence in London of artistic teams of the next generation.


Jake and Dinos Chapman, Insult to Injury (2003), Collection of the Kunsthaus Bregenz Museum, Austria.

The most successful of these, Jake and Dinos Chapman, once worked as assistants to Gilbert and George. And the Chapmans have followed the example of Gilbert and George in a number of respects, including the highly conceptual nature of their work and its transgressive subject matter. (For example, some American viewers may not be aware that the two-finger hand gesture Gilbert and George display in Fates, shown above, is equivalent to an American gesture made with only one finger.) A number of the Chapmans' projects have raised issues involving artistic collaboration. Thus many conceptual artists have based the appearance of their art on earlier artists' work, but the Chapmans have gone beyond this to actually creating art from earlier artists' work. The most notorious example of this is their Insult to Injury, of 2003. After purchasing a full set of Goya's 80 etchings, The Disasters of War, for £25,000, they "rectified" [in their word] Goya's black-and-white images by drawing colored cartoon faces over those of the victims, and occasionally added helmets bearing swastikas. They presented these works in a museum exhibition titled The Rape of Creativity. (When some outraged critics accused the Chapmans of vandalism, they responded with two arguments. One was economic: noting that each of the etchings in their series sold for £13,500, they asked how an act that raised the value of a work could be considered vandalism. The other argument was canonical, as the brothers pointed to the precedent of the young Robert Rauschenberg erasing a Willem de Kooning drawing to create a new work in 1953.)

One of the most vital traditions in modern art has been that of groups of artists working together in the pursuit of a common goal. Barnett Newman in fact contended that "Modern painting begins with the Impressionists precisely because for the first time in history a group of artists arose who, repudiating the role of the great personal message with its attendant doctrine of the immaculate conception, decided to devote themselves exclusively to solving a technical problem in painting." Celebrated working collaborations from the twentieth century include Matisse and Derain, Picasso and Braque, Johns and Rauschenberg, and Polke and Richter. These teams did not coauthor paintings, perhaps because the practice would have been resisted by the art market. This is no longer true: so for example, individual works by Gilbert and George and Komar and Melamid have been auctioned for more than a million dollars, and individual works by Bernd and Hilla Becher, Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, and Jake and Dinos Chapman have sold at auction for more than $100,000. With this constraint removed, it is likely that formal collaboration - coauthoring - will continue to become more common in visual art in the future. And the history of collaboration in scholarship and in art suggests some likely characteristics of this practice.

One prediction is straightforward: successful collaborations will be based on a shared praxis. An important element of this is that collaborations will be either entirely experimental or entirely conceptual. The experience of modern art is consistent with this. All the core group of Impressionists - Monet, Picasso, Renoir, and Sisley - were experimental. All the Fauves, and all the Cubists, were conceptual. All the Abstract Expressionists were experimental. Johns and Rauschenberg were both conceptual, as were Richter and Polke.

A second, related prediction is that most collaborations will be conceptual. All of the successful collaborations of modern artists mentioned above, including Gilbert and George and the Chapmans, produce conceptual art. Experimental collaboration in art is possible - Chicago's Zhou brothers are an example in sculpture, and experimental collaboration is common in the natural and social sciences. But collaboration by conceptual artists is probably more likely: ideas are readily more exchanged than visions.

A third prediction involves the scale and diversity of artistic projects. Specifically, the larger and more complex the project and goals, the more likely artists will be to collaborate. A current example is the collaboration of the two young conceptual artists Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch, who have been collaborating since they were both students at RISD. Their work is complex both physically and intellectually, and spans a number of genres including video, sculpture, and installation. The program notes for their recent joint exhibition at the Musée Moderne de la Ville de Paris observed that "Trecartin and Fitch have explored their artistic partnership over more than ten years, continually expanding the ranks of the other collaborators who came to the art from disparate fields...The artists view crediting as a crucial element of exhibiting work, not only each other's roles but all of those who are involved - a typical custom in filmmaking but not as much in fine art."