Big is Breathtaking
Acrylic on canvas
59 3/16 x 39 7/8 in (150.3 x 101.3 cm)
© Estate of David Robilliard / Courtesy Ortuzar Projects, New York
David Robilliard (1952-1988) was born in Guersney, Channel Islands, and moved to London in 1975. Robilliard was active as both a poet and visual artist, working mainly in painting and drawing. His work conveys the passions and pitfalls of gay love in unmixed, out-of-the-tube paints on expansive white grounds, coupling witty text fragments with portraits composed of brightly colored lines. Big is Breathtaking is emblematic of his “poem paintings”, alluding to both the celestial grandeur of the sun as well as the grandeur of a large, erect phallus. A sheet of notes in the MoMA collection, also titled Big is Breathtaking, embeds the titular phrase in a thicket of diaristic texts, punchy phrases, and dialogues either real or imagined.
[W]ords, letters, and numbers carry the same pictorial weight as the imagery, and the empty, untouched whiteness is a key element as well that turns each painting into a playful, enigmatic sign. Robilliard’s work is neither myopic nor visually intense; instead, it is rife with an urbane camp sexuality, through the double entendres and playful slogans.
[T]he works open up an insightful vista of a transformative period both in London’s artistic history, and in the story of the capital’s gay scene. Robilliard was working and playing at the heart of both, serving as protégé and assistant to Gilbert & George, living with fellow artist Andrew Heard in the then nascent hipster paradise of Hoxton Square, enjoying the sexual liberality of the 80s to its fullest extent. His poems and paintings tell of hangovers and “disposable boyfriends”; they offer elegies to what might have been – “Our moment came and went and like a drop of water in a desert it came to nothing” – and positivity in the face of pessimism – “Life isn’t good it’s excellent.” He flummoxed the establishment with his refusal to take it or himself too seriously, sauntering through society with his mind on passion and fun, dubbed by his mentors Gilbert & George as “the new master of the Modern person.
Robilliard passed away from AIDS in 1988.