When Gerald Laing passed out from the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, in 1955 and joined up with the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, his destiny as one of Britain’s best-known pop artists seemed remote. However, the fame – achieved within just 10 years – was tarnished by the time when, late in life, he returned to pop as he sensed the potential power of the ill-fated Amy Winehouse as an image.
Life in Britain in the early 1950s had seemed tedious to Laing, who has died of cancer aged 75, so joining the regiment in which his father had also been an officer seemed the natural thing to do. But things were stirring in postwar austerity Britain, and in 1957 he saw a performance of Look Back in Anger that transformed his life.
For him, as for many of his generation, John Osborne’s play articulated what seemed wrong with Britain. As the critic Kenneth Tynan wrote when he picked Look Back as his play of the year 1956, it “split families in almost the same way as they were split over Suez”. Laing realized that he was a rebel, and that the army was not the ideal setting for a rebellion. After five years with the colours, he pried himself free in 1960 and took up student life at St Martin’s School of Art in central London.
Very soon he was using his elbows to get what he needed from an institution that armed students with stiff hogs hair brushes so that they would produce surfaces roughened with vigorous brush marks as a raft of “painterly” English artists had in the wake of the post-impressionists. What had caught Laing’s attention was the romance of the mass-produced newspaper photograph, that grey dramatic image distanced from life by its composition of small dots. He simulated this look in his painting, about the same time as Roy Lichtenstein took the same route in America. Although he valued visiting tutors such as Richard Smith and Peter Blake, he voluntarily exiled himself from his college studio and painted at the top of the stairs to be out of the way of staff.
There he produced the earliest of his best-known pop paintings, of European cinema’s brightest star, Brigitte Bardot, and of Anna Karina, wife and muse of the new-wave director Jean-Luc Godard, a portrait painted on nine joined canvases, making it as big as a billboard.
Smith had recently returned from a two-year spell on a Harkness fellowship in the US, and when Laing told him that he proposed spending the summer of 1963 in New York, Smith gave him introductions to Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein, Jim Rosenquist and Robert Indiana.
The names were unknown to Laing, but soon they composed the aristocracy of the new American painting, a bonus for Laing when they readily accepted him. Most useful was Indiana, who employed Laing as a studio assistant for that summer. During this time, Laing found the subjects for the paintings of his most successful period: skydiving, hot rod cars, drag racing, all the sort of stuff that Tom Wolfe was popularizing in the US and which already had a strong niche following through magazines in Britain.
He then rejoined his wife, Jenifer, whom he had married in 1962, and their daughter in a grim house in Spitalfields, east London. While completing the final year of his St Martin’s course in 1964, he had his first show, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, which included the Bardot and Karina paintings alongside newer work inspired during his American summer. His view of the US had darkened after the assassination of President Kennedy the previous November, but he responded with alacrity to a telegrammed invitation from the up-and-coming gallery owner Richard Feigen inviting him and his family back to New York.
Laing had been born in Newcastle upon Tyne, the son of Gerald Francis Laing and his wife, Enid. He attended Berkhamsted school, Hertfordshire, until he was 17. In 1968 he added Ogilvie to his surname by deed poll, though professionally he remained simply Laing.
He turned 30 when he was in New York (1964-69), and had already become a popular success, helped by replicating many of his paintings as silkscreen prints. In 1965 he showed in the US pavilion at the SÃ£o Paulo biennale; the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York bought work by him.
He was increasingly involved with sculpture, which eventually became his principal occupation. In Los Angeles he had a show, stayed, and met Ed Ruscha, to whom his work bore an (accidentally) closer resemblance than to anyone else’s.
His first marriage ended in divorce and in 1969 he married Galina Golikova, who looked like a model and acted as one for him. They moved to Scotland and restored Kinkell Castle, near Inverness, so that it could become a home. The series of sculptures Laing made of Galina (1973-80) was semi-abstract and looked intriguingly like a reworking of Brancusi, but he also learned from the noted craftsman George Mancini to cast bronze, and in 1978 set up his own bronze foundry at Kinkell.
Later, in 1994, one of his sons with Galina, Farquhar, set up the Black Isle Bronze Foundry in Nairn, and Gerald had pieces cast there. After his father’s death, Farquhar said: “He painted and sculpted, he rebuilt motorcycles and cars and castles and wrote books. But his biggest talent of all was he was a fantastic father.” Laing’s marriage to Galina ended in divorce, and in 1988 he married Adaline Havemeyer Frelinghuysen.
He turned increasingly to portrait sculpture (mildly expressionist: see the lively bust of Sir Paul Getty from 1996 in the lobby of the National Gallery, London) and public statues. One of the impulses behind his work from the Galina series onwards had come from being deeply struck by Charles Sargent Jagger’s Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner in central London. But he missed the deeply felt classical order of Jagger’s work in his own sculpture and fell into a worked-out seam of naturalism, well typified by the four colossal rugby players at the west gate at Twickenham stadium, south-west London, and a lineout inside the gate: technically brilliant, but lacking creative spark.
His painting, still based on photographs, developed a sour edge during the Iraq war in studies of atrocities such as Abu Ghraib, illustrated by a toothpaste advertisement model taking the place of the grinning female soldier in a scene of torture. It did not impress the media. He professed himself mildly embittered by the absence of critical esteem in his later years, and began to despise the whole notion of the avant garde.
Laing’s marriage to Adaline also ended in divorce. He is survived by his daughter; by two sons from his second marriage; by two sons from his third; and by a son from a further relationship.
â€œGerald Laing, One of Britain’s best-known pop artists of the 1960sâ€³, The Guardian obituary of the artist, by Michael McNay, published November 25, 2011
Biography from the Archives of AskART.