Gerald Laing: From Andy Warhol and Brigitte Bardot to Amy Winehouse and George W Bush, 21 of the artist's works

By Culture24 Reporter | 20 September 2016

The first posthumous exhibition of British Pop artist and sculptor Gerald Laing has just opened at The Fine Art Society on the fifth anniversary of his death. Here are 21 of his works

Portrait of Andy Warhol, 1990

A photo of a sculpted green head
Bronze© Courtesy The Fine Art Society / David Knight
The original plaster cast of this bronze was commissioned by the Warhol Foundation as an official portrait for their offices. The Foundation specified a Neoclassical style for the portrait, preferring the white of the plaster to this bronze version.

Laing and Warhol first met in New York in 1963 and became friends while he was living and working there (throughout the 1960s).

“I treated the very obvious wigs which he affected in his later years in a strictly formal manner in order to point up the difference between them and his real, wispy hair, which is just visible protruding near his ear in the photograph,” said Laing.

Brigitte Bardot, 1968

A photo of a piece of pop art
Screenprint in colour© Courtesy The Fine Art Society / David Knight
The original tracing for this iconic study, made in 1963, took a poster requesting submissions for the 1963 annual Young Contemporaries Exhibition as its source.

Laing audaciously re-appropriated the image as his entry to the exhibition. It was accepted. With opportunistic cheek, Laing had guaranteed the success of the painting as the poster afterward acted as its advertisement, while also making a comment on the blurred boundaries between art and advertising.

By capitalising on the enchanting combination of Bardot’s beauty and the abstract nature of the bold geometric shape imposed over it, Laing created one of the most memorable images of early Pop art.

The painting’s renown was great before it had even been completed. The actor Roddy Maude-Roxby visited Laing at St Martin’s having heard about it and purchased it immediately for £40. It stayed in his collection until 2014, when it was sold at Christie’s for a record sum of £902,500.

69 Francine (Baby Baby Wild Things), 1968

A photo of a piece of pop art
Screenprint in colour© Courtesy The Fine Art Society / David Knight
A photo of a piece of pop art
Sandra. Screenprint in colour© Courtesy The Fine Art Society / David Knight
“The sources were magazine photographs,” said Laing. “Not hardcore or even girlie mags, but ‘happy days’ images.

“The iconography of attraction is essentially bourgeois. The perfection is unworldly, unreal."

Fall (1964)

A photo of a piece of pop art
Oil on shaped canvas© Courtesy The Fine Art Society / David Knight
Laing experimented with inventively shaped canvases in his Pop works - with rather eccentric forms.

In using this device, Laing was treading the line between abstraction and figuration, aligning himself with abstract painters such as Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella.

His abstract sculpture neatly followed on, developing the idea of the painting as object in an environment by moving away from figurative content.

Domestic Perspective, 2008

A photo of a piece of pop art
Screenprint in 20 colours© Courtesy The Fine Art Society / David Knight
In his last years, Laing turned himself deliberately into a wolf in sheep’s clothing, re-energising the pictorial forms of his youthful innocence with the knowledge and despair of a lifetime’s experience.

His celebrity portraits of the great Amy Winehouse include a portrait in which the singer is deadlocked in a fierce embrace and vampiric kiss with the husband whose drug habits and sexual infidelities helped speed her self-destructive impulses.

“My work is concerned with the myth, and portrays her as she appeared to us, the public, via the media,’ Laing explained.

“Now that the drama has ended, and all is quiet, I hope it will be seen as a tribute from one artist to another.”

Conception, 1977

A photo of a piece of pop art
Bronze© Courtesy The Fine Art Society / David Knight
In 1973, Laing embarked on the first piece in what was to be a long series of variations on the head and body of his wife Galina. These were unequivocally figurative and reminiscent of the mannerist forms of Modernism.

His initial aim was the representation of the intricate arrangement of mass and voids that made up the body and space around it. The works in the series became increasingly naturalistic.

Catechism, 2005

A photo of a piece of pop art
Oil on canvas© Courtesy The Fine Art Society / David Knight
“In the bottom third of the canvas the grieving women of Beslan bury their children,” said Laing. “The graves are marked by white wooden posts.

“Further up the canvas the figures dissolve into pixels, which introduce their own officious, arbitrary and busy version of reality. The white posts are echoed by the reflections in the river of violent explosions as the glowing city of Bagdad is bombed.

“Above the people float the hooded torture victims from Abu Ghraib, in a manner suggestive of the Crucifixion. They are standing on Andy Warhol Brillo Box sculptures, which substitute banality for intellectual rigour.”

Awe Shucks, 2004

A photo of a piece of pop art
Oil on canvas© The Fine Art Society / David Knight
“In the centre, Bush swaggers over the abyss down a red carpet with gold classical detail to tell America about the possibility of war,” said Laing.

“I have pixelled out his face to protect his identity; also his genital area, in case he has by accident left his fly unzipped.”

Anna Karina, 2004

A photo of a piece of pop art
Screenprint, printed© The Fine Art Society / David Knight
In many ways Laing’s early works were more closely aligned with the American rather than British Pop movement. His pop works were boisterous, bold and fun.

The imagery reflected the interests of an archetypal young, heterosexual man: beautiful film stars, including Brigitte Bardot and Anna Karina, scantily clad young women, macho heroes: drag-racers, skydivers and astronauts.

In his treatment of these motifs, Laing emphasised rather than obscured the sources that inspired him – printed material such as magazines, newspapers, catalogues, and posters, as well as television and film.

An American Girl, 1977

A photo of a piece of pop art
Bronze© The Fine Art Society / David Knight
“An American Girl can be seen as the culmination of the Galina Series of sculpture in which I worked through various formal and abstract figurations, absorbing all sorts of influences, in my search for a viable method of depicting the human figure: a figurative language,” said Laing.

Stacy (Baby Baby Wild Things), 1968

A photo of a piece of pop art
Screenprint in colour© The Fine Art Society / David Knight
“The references are as much to the smooth fibreglass shells of a Formula One car as they are to human bodies; the bands of colour on the swimsuits are kin to the racing stripes on a Lotus,” said Laing.

“The self-absorption of the subjects reinforce their inaccessible and mysterious nature in the same way that the working of a complex and beautiful piece of technology might remain beyond comprehension and yet at the same time be convincing.”

Portrait of Luciano Pavarotti, 1993

A photo of a piece of pop art
Bronze© The Fine Art Society / David Knight
Laing was commissioned to make this portrait bust for the opera singer, Luciano Pavarotti, who owned the first cast. He travelled to Modena in February 1993 for the sittings, taking enough clay for a one and a half times life-size sculpture as “Pavarotti was himself at least one and a half times life-size.”

“He wore quite heavy make-up, especially on his eyebrows, and the bald patch on the back of his head was disguised with thick black greasepaint,” said Laing. “Pavarotti’s natural environment was not everyday life, but the dramatic dreamland of the stage.”

KM (Kate Moss), 2007

A photo of a piece of pop art
Screenprint in seven colours© The Fine Art Society / David Knight
Laing paraphrased his Pop work with a lighter purpose in his paintings of celebrities including Victoria Beckham, Kate Moss and Amy Winehouse.

His paintings of Beckham and Moss are straightforward comments on celebrity culture and the sexualisation of women in the media, presenting them as symbols rather than individuals.

Galina VI, 1976

A photo of a piece of pop art
Bronze© The Fine Art Society / David Knight
As Laing’s work became progressively classical, he turned more to portraiture and public sculpture.

He also learned from the master craftsman George Mancini, of the historic Morris Singer Foundry, to cast bronze, and in 1978 set up his own bronze foundry at Kinkell.

Later, in 1994, one of his sons, Farquhar, set up the Black Isle Bronze Foundry in nearby Nairn.

Lincoln Convertible, 1963–64

A photo of a piece of pop art
Oil on canvas© The Fine Art Society / David Knight
The now famous home video of John F Kennedy’s assassination, taken by Abraham Zapruder, was quickly disseminated by the media worldwide. The use of this footage marked a defining moment in television history and provided crucial evidence for the police.

The source of the painting is two sequential frames of the footage published in Life Magazine. The straight line along the base of the car divides the content of each frame. The lower half represents the earlier frame, indicated by the position of the flag.

The legs of the Secret Service men running toward the car are visible in the lower half of the painting, but the second frame with the car cuts through them. We know already it is too late.

Reacting to the news almost immediately, Laing was one of the first artists to have responded, and did so very directly. New York gallerist Richard Feigen rejected the picture from the exhibition he held of Laing’s work in 1964, on the basis that it was too raw.

Trouble in the Banlieu, 2010

A photo of a piece of pop art
Oil on canvas© The Fine Art Society / David Knight
In 2004, Laing returned fully to painting after a 40-year hiatus. This time around he painted works that were unequivocally political and social critiques.

As a former army, officer Laing was particularly disturbed by the atrocities committed by army personnel and CIA staff against prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, which came to light in late 2003.

Laing’s outrage at the Iraq War led him to reclaim his visual language of the 1960s for the purpose of protest in a series of “war paintings”.

In several of these works the motifs of American Pop Art are brutally inverted to emphasise the cruelty and unjust nature of the war.

The Rosarita Hotel, 1972

A photo of a piece of pop art
Oil on canvas© The Fine Art Society / David Knight
Laing’s early work was produced whilst he was a student at St Martin’s School of Art, and connects him directly to the Pop Art movement. In 1963 he first visited New York, assisting for a short time in Robert Indiana’s studio and building contacts with other (great) American Pop artists including Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist.

He moved to New York permanently in 1964 at the suggestion of art dealer Richard Feigen, who held Laing’s first solo show that year and continued to exhibit his work throughout the 1960s.

Tracy (Baby Baby Wild Things) (1968)

A photo of a piece of pop art
Screenprint in colour© The Fine Art Society / David Knight
A photo of a piece of pop art
Starlet. Screenprint in colour© The Fine Art Society / David Knight
Younger than his American counterparts, Gerald Laing was nevertheless quick enough off the mark, even as a student at St Martin’s, to have been welcomed into the ranks of the first wave of Pop Art in both London and New York and to have been included in some of the groundbreaking survey exhibitions and books on the movement.

The clean, crisp look of his Pop paintings and his preference for a detached, ‘hands-off’, technique - assimilating formal aspects of mass media photography, graphic design and advertising - brought him more closely into alignment with the formal boldness and simplicity favoured by his American colleagues.

The New American Tourist, 2005

A photo of a piece of pop art
Oil on canvas© The Fine Art Society / David Knight
Laing’s fury at the invasion of Iraq by American and British forces in 2003, and particularly the atrocities committed by the American military at Abu Ghraib, that propelled him to make the series of ‘War Paintings’ that serve as his final testament.

Though couched in the language of his own early Pop paintings, references to the early work of Lichtenstein and even to earlier icons of American art (such as Grant Wood’s American Gothic of 1930) take on a post-modern irony here.

In these caustic but disarmingly pretty pictures, Laing reiterated the disillusionment he had felt as early as 1966 towards the apparent innocence and frivolity of Pop.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three places to see Pop Art-inspired exhibitions

Manchester Art Gallery
Based in Cameroon, Boris Nzebo draws his inspiration from the bright, hand-drawn advertising boards found in Central African beauty parlours, street culture and classic Pop Art aesthetics. His unstructured and animated city environment contrasts with the careful efforts of maintaining individualised and highly intricate hairstyles. Until November 13 2016.

Tate Liverpool
Liverpool Biennial, 14–18 NOW WW1 Centenary Art Commissions and Tate Liverpool have co-commissioned one of the major figures of British pop art, Sir Peter Blake, to ‘dazzle’ a Mersey Ferry in partnership with Merseytravel and National Museums Liverpool (Merseyside Maritime Museum). Everybody Razzle Dazzle will see Peter Blake transform Snowdrop – an active Mersey Ferry – with one of his iconic, colourful designs into a fully working Dazzle Ferry. Until December 1 2016.

Tate Modern, London
Bhupen Khakhar's practice evolved from the careful study of art from South Asian and European sources, even while he continued to work as an accountant part-time. After early experiments with Pop Art, Khakhar developed a style of painting that combined both high and low, popular and painterly aesthetics, cleverly subverting popular iconography. An exhibition of his work is on Bankside until November 6 2016.
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