A Brief Autobiography, 2006
An autobiographical account of Gerald Laing’s career from 1957 to 2006. From the foreword to his 2006 Prints and Multiples Catalogue Raisonné
I was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1936. I am therefore a child of the War and more particularly that economically and culturally depressed, leaden and paranoid post-war period in Britain, the 1950’s.
In 1957, while I was serving in the army in Belfast, I saw Look Back in Anger. The play had a crucial effect on me. For the first time I realised that I was not alone in thinking as I did. It fed my desire to sweep away all the old fears and inhibitions with which society was riddled, and begin to build a personal world of more credible values. Increasing numbers of people were then beginning to subscribe to this ambition, which eventually was to drive the iconoclasm of the 1960’s, demanding new solutions to everything. This hubris had some dire consequences later, but nevertheless it was essential that radical changes should occur. We simply could not continue as we had been.
As soon as I was able, I resigned from the army and secured a place at St Martin’s School of Art in London.
Aaron Scharf was the professor of Art History at St Martin’s at that time. His particular area of interest was the relationship between photography and painting. No-one seemed quite sure what it should be, and the new mass reproduction of technically superb images in the media was stimulating further interest in this old debate. The dreariness and hardship of the post-war social landscape, invoked so succinctly by Jimmy Porter, suggested to me that the perfection of the photograph and the printed image, particularly in the proselytising form of the advertisement, represented not only an ideal but also a plan for the future which could replace a discredited past.
My earliest works were, quite literally, paintings of newspaper photographs (BRIGITTE BARDOT, ANNA KARINA). I approached the task logically. The subject was composed of equally spaced black dots of varying sizes which modified the tone and therefore created an illusion of form and volume. I felt that I must paint it as such, rather than translate it into modulated brushwork, so I began by ruling a diagonal grid of pencil lines on a canvas at a set interval, and then painted black dots of varying sizes at the intersections. This produces a disciplined tonal drawing, or grisaille. At close range the work disintegrates into its component parts, which form their own delight for the eye, and at greater ranges the image itself becomes clear.
My subjects are by no means simply copied or mechanically reproduced; they are painted according to the same principles of any other type of easel painting. My subconscious preferences and the minute decisions made on canvas are as evident as those of any other objective painter. The innovation depends not so much on technique as on the need for a literal depiction of the subject matter.
The paintings are a homage to the transitory newspaper image and a means of making it permanent and elevating to the status of fine art, in the same way as painting can any other subject.
When an artist paints, draws, carves or models a subject, he recreates it and by so doing, possesses it. Pygmalion is always present. By painting the new icons that surrounded us - icons which seemed to promise a perfect world - I felt as if I saw past the present and into the future.
Most of the students involved in early Pop art were from the Royal College of Art and the Slade. At St Martin’s, painting continued to be taught in the tradition of still-life studies, using intractable hog’s hair brushes to produce a “painterly” effect. I soon moved out of the painting studio and took my easel up to the top landing of the staircase, where I could pursue my work in splendid isolation. Both ANNA KARINA and BRIGITTE BARDOT were painted there. Some representatives of the New Idea, recently graduated, taught part time - Joe Tilson, Dick Smith and Peter Blake in particular. I joined the weekly meetings organised by Jann Haworth, who was at the Slade, at Joe Tilson’s house in Kensington. These were attended by all the British Pop artists and there were intense discussions about the subjects which concerned us at this nascent time. When I had finished the painting of ANNA KARINA, which is 12’ high and in nine sections, we carried it out on to the Charing Cross Road and erected it on the roof of St Martin’s to see what difference intention made between a bill-board and a bill-board sized painting.
St Martin’s is most famous for its sculpture school during this period, in which students were taught to weld and paint steel in the manner of the head of the department, Anthony Caro. I went often to his weekly discussions in the sculpture department, and realised for the first time how narrow and intolerant (or should I say focussed?) the avant guard always is. As Paul Valery remarked, “Everything changes except the avant guard.”
We did not know it, but we were about to become the first generation of artists to be lionised directly after leaving art school or, in some cases, while we were still at art school. I do not believe that any of us expected such a thing to happen. At this time contemporary art was of little or no significance to the public. Few of us expected to sell our work, and we assumed that we would live by teaching or some other means. Without our expecting it, prosperity and the priorities of a changing society combined to make it possible some of us to live by our work.
If you look at the widely published photographs British Artists in Paris 1962, taken by Joe O’Reilly, you can see that we were all (with one exception) straight as arrows, drug-free, clean and keen. Aviator sunglasses, lightweight suits, and briefcases were the order of the day. We seem ready to usher in the new dawn.
In 1963, at the end of my third year at St Martin’s, I went to New York for the summer. I had been given introductions to Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jim Rosenquist and Robert Indiana by Richard Smith, who had just returned from a two-year Harkness Fellowship in the USA. At that time their names were unfamiliar to me. They were still on the brink of fame.
Synchronicity existed between those US and UK artists who were to form the movement that became known as Pop art, but there also remained a fundamental difference. The Americans had experienced no recent social, economic or political hardship. They had grown up in the midst of the American Dream to which many young British artists were at that time attracted, and by which many American artist were repelled. Satire and cynicism were present in the American work, but most of us tended to be, for the time being, naïve and uncritical, responding enthusiastically to the advent of US cultural hegemony as an escape from our own national decline. I felt as I thought an ancient Greek might have felt in Rome at the height of its power.
Robert Indiana employed me as a studio assistant that summer, which was very fortunate because I had absolutely no means of support and expected to find work I knew not where. I stretched canvases, and laboriously chiselled the bases of the sculptures he was then making out of beams and detritus from the old warehouses which were being demolished around us.
I was rapidly made aware of the differences between British and American working conditions and equipment. While we struggled in the small dark front rooms of houses in Notting Hill or Whitechapel, they had giant lofts, one hundred feet long, and masses of light. They could easily make vast paintings; their canvas stretchers were enormous, two inches deep, strong and rigid; ours were the pathetic slot-together ones you can buy in art shops: flimsy, small, and horribly prone to warping. They eschewed the use muddy palettes to which we seemed condemned, and mixed their paints wholesale on large sheets of glass, or, as in Indiana’s case, cat food tins, making clear and deliberate decisions about colour. Even their paint tubes were bigger than ours.
People came and went from their lofts, expressing interest in their work - a situation then inconceivable in the UK, where art was remained an ill-considered trifle. Most startling of all was the hatred (I do not think that this is too strong a word) expressed by some of the US Pop artists for the previous generation of Abstract Expressionists. Such committed passion was new to me, and puzzling. The nearest parallel I could imagine in the UK was that of the Mods and Rockers.The Rockers were aggressively heterosexual, leather jacket wearing, hard drinking greaser toughs on big Norton and Triumph motorcycles and the equivalent of the Abstract Expressionists. On the other side, the Mods, who were immaculately dressed in expensive suits and of indefinite sexual persuasion, had blow-dried hair, rode Vespas decorated with fox’s tails and rows of shiny headlights, popped pills and did not drink beer (but carried bicycle chain weapons in the panniers of their scooters) were more like Pop artists.
Indiana also gave me space and time in his loft to do my own work. During that summer I painted for the first time the images of skydivers, astronauts, dragsters and starlets which were to preoccupy me for the next two years.
Sport parachuting was then a novel activity. The first image I found was that of a parachute collapsing as the man landed. It was a free pattern of red and white bands, criss-crossed by slackening white shrouds. It appears in some guise in all of my skydiver images and in many of the later abstract works as well. The falling figure, which has just left the airplane, is at a different moment in time from the parachute collapsing. So each of these paintings has a time element in it, and depicts the beginning and the end of an action.
These were also the earliest days of the “space race” between the USA and the USSR, which seemed to begin when the Russians put Yuri Gagarin into orbit in Sputnik I, followed in short order by the American Astronaut Gordon Cooper outdoing him by making 22 orbits. Pilots volunteered to attempt to withstand severe physical tests in the name of research (NAVY PILOT, G FORCE ). The general public followed these events with an avid interest which no longer exists, fascinated by both the risk and the technology - from the giant rockets, the capsules and launch sites to the spectacular space suits with their air conditioning in a small suitcase attached to each astronaut by a convoluted umbilical cord, and other arcane items such as zero inertia tools for use in weightless conditions.
My first painting inspired by all this activity is a quadruple portrait of Alan Shepherd which I gave to Robert Indiana in exchange for his hospitality that summer, but the subject became the source of many more paintings, drawings and prints.
Drag racing and hotrod building are a cultural phenomenon peculiar to the United States which reached its apogee in the 1960’s. It began with illegal racing in hijacked and closed-off sections of the highway, as in James Dean’s film “Rebel without a Cause”. Later it became regulated under the auspices of the National Hotrod Association and now takes place on well-organised tracks with complex rules. The cars race side by side in pairs in a straight line; the ceremony, danger, imagery and accoutrements involve make it difficult to avoid comparisons with jousting. To us then it seemed a glamorous and extravagant perfection. Tom Wolfe described it brilliantly in “The Tangerine Flake Streamlined Baby”, in which he perceives the dragster and the hotrod as suburban icons which assume the status of works of art, being as they were the expression of individual dreams and the pursuit of a refined perfection. The great architectural historian Reyner Banham wrote a monograph on its significance entitled “Notes toward a Definition of U.S. Automobile Painting as a Significant Branch of Modern Mobile Heraldry” for Art in America in 1966, which I illustrated. Yet again an aspect of demotic culture has been mythologised by intellectuals to an extent incomprehensible to the actual practitioners, as I know from my own experience
A Drag race is a quarter mile sprint from a standing start, in which the cars can reach a phenomenal 250 miles per hour in under four seconds. After that, the engine is cut, there is dead silence, and a parachute is deployed behind the car to slow it down as safely as possible. My paintings such as AA-D and CT STROKERS show the moment of sudden acceleration and ferocious racket, when the engine howls and the enormous flat back tyres spin on the track throwing up clouds of black rubber smoke. The first source image for these was a photograph of Don “Big Daddy” Garlits from Tampa, Florida, in his dragster SWAMP RAT IV. To keep as much weight as possible on the driving wheels, the driver sits behind the back axle, and the engine is just in front of it. The rest of the frame of is elongated and terminates with a pair of slender front wheels.
The DECELERATION series show the cars front view, with the three butterfly valves on the air intakes of the giant supercharger closed, the drogue parachute open. There is calm and a dead silence after the fierce four seconds of running, and the parachute is reminiscent of a mandala.
The STARLETS are another expression of otherworldly perfection. As I painted them, I found similarities between them and the smooth shell of a highly finished car body.
Influenced by the clear bright light and by Indiana’s meticulous techniques which he employed on his NUMBERS paintings, I began adding areas of pure flat colour. I restricted my colour range to black, red, blue and white, and kept the edges of the coloured areas simple and clear, still emulating aspects of the commercial mass-printing processes such as screen printing, and thinking of Uccello and Cimabue.
It is a paradox that my paintings of half-tone photographs were later photographed and silk screened to become a part of my graphic works, and that my oil paintings which mimicked screen printing were later actually printed in that technique, using stencils which I cut myself.
At the end of the summer I returned to finish my last year at St Martin’s, leaving about six paintings in Indiana’s loft, because I could not afford to ship them to London. I was living in very reduced circumstances with a wife and child at 12 Fournier Street, in a Whitechapel which at that time remained entirely unreconstructed.
That November the shiny image of the USA cracked from side to side. I heard the news in my studio, when radio broadcasts were interrupted to announce the events in Dallas. I detested the treacly talk of “Camelot” in Washington, and paid little attention to politics. In spite of the extreme violence which pervaded the twentieth century, we had been presented with a sanitised version of the past, which produced in us a sense of stability and rectitude which was as deeply felt as it was false. Thus, when the President of the richest, most powerful, and apparently most moral country - the land of the good guys - proved to be vulnerable to the assassin’s bullet, it came as a terrible and fundamental shock, which obliged us sooner or later to adopt more realistic if less comfortable attitudes. It drove from us our wilful naivete. Henceforward we became less easy to please or deceive, and much harder to placate. The murder eroded fatally the power of authority, and opened the door to chaos. The inhabitants of the New Camelot had evidently not read their copies of MORT D’ARTHUR sufficiently closely.
Images from the Zapruder 8mm film of the assassination were published in Life Magazine shortly after the event, and became the source for my painting LINCOLN CONVERTIBLE, which shows parts of two frames of the film in sequence. The division between the two frames is the straight line along the bottom of the car, a Lincoln Continental. The long tail of the car extends on a shaped canvas beyond the rectangle of the frame. The lower section depicts the earlier frame. You can see from the relative positions of the flag that the car has moved forward slightly in the upper frame. At the top of the lower frame the legs of Secret Service men running towards the car are visible. So are the other elements of the scene, which have now assumed mythical status: the bright green grass and the black of the car; Jackie’s pink suit and pillbox hat; the President slumped forward; Governor Connolly, also hit, holding the yellow roses of Texas, his wife at his side about to reach out to him. For some reason I felt bound to paint using coloured dots - the only occasion on which I have done this. So far as I know, mine is the only painting of this event done at the time.
At the Institute of Contemporary Art, which was then on Dover Street, I had an exhibition of paintings which I called SOURCE AND STIMULUS - SPACE, SPEED AND SEX. It included BRIGITTE BARDOT and ANNA KARINA, and paintings of subjects which I had begun to investigate in New York. To coincide with this I presented a performance piece, or happening, at the Slade. This consisted of a melange of projected slides of paintings and their sources - dragsters, astronauts, skydivers and starlets - accompanied by a soundtrack of pop music –
The Crystals,(“He’s a rebel, and he’ll never be any good, He’s a rebel ‘cause he never does what he should….”): Pretty Brown Eyes (“Will all those who have friends or relatives on Flight 206, Please go to the chapel across the runway…: JFK’s famous declaration of his intention to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade: passages read from Arthur Clark’s science fiction: recordings of cars on the drag strip, and so on - much of it an expression of the Pop philosophy of being wilfully naïve. Halfway through a voice announced that “There will now be a short intermission” (in imitation of the cinema in those days, wherein there was a ritual pause between the two films which were always shown). Spotlights then picked out two girls, fellow students, dressed as ice cream vendors, who went about the audience dispensing from shallow trays SPACE SPEED SEX logos, each of which enclosed a piece of bubblegum. It was intended to suggest the then novel idea that art exhibitions could be a part of the everyday world, not places wherein all but the cognoscenti felt uncomfortable.
At the ICA gallery I received a telephone call from the agent for a new rock group, asking if they might, for publicity purposes, be photographed standing in front of my paintings. They appeared and were photographed while I was hanging the exhibition. Three months later I realised they were the new-born Rolling Stones.
In the autumn, nearing the end of my time at St Martin’s, penniless and surrounded by paintings, I received a telegram from New York. It read “I’ve just seen your paintings at Bob Indiana’s loft. They are great. How much are they? Will you exhibit at my gallery in New York?” It was signed Richard Feigen. I ran up and down Fournier Street in the middle of the road, whooping and yelling and repeatedly throwing the precious document onto the air and catching it as it fluttered slowly back towards me.
This marked the beginning of my most extensive involvement with the America. At the end of my last term I packed everything up and went there with my young family.
Feigen had had a gallery in Chicago for some years, specialising in German expressionism with a particular interest in Max Beckmann. Now he had decided to open one in New York.
The American Pop artists, most of whom had their first low-profile exhibitions at the Green Gallery run by the legendary Dick Bellamy, were already being sewn up by more aggressive and commercial galleries such as Castelli. It was impossible for a new boy from the Midwest to compete for them. Instead, Feigen’s strategy was to acquire a stable of British artists - Allen Jones, Peter Phillips, myself, and others - and represent them in the USA. He continued to do this right up to the period of Op art, and was the first dealer to show the work of Bridget Riley in America.
This idea was very successful. At that time transatlantic travel was comparatively rare. The Americans welcomed us generously and whole-heartedly, and were interested in us and what we were doing. The term ‘Eurotrash’ had not yet been invented. Even artists as eminent as Rothko and Barnett Newman took the trouble to visit me in my studio.
Virtually everyone came to my first opening in New York in 1964, including the new friends I had met during my visit the year before. Naturally there was some discussion of the superficial similarities between mine and Roy Lichtenstein’s work, but we agreed that our approaches and techniques were fundamentally different and that there was no conflict, because he simply stencilled his dots and used them as flat tone, while I drew with mine. In any case I was soon to move on to other, different, work.
I soon became adopted as an American artist, showing in the US pavilion at the San Paolo Biennale in 1966 and having my work acquired by the Whitney Museum of American Art. Each year I had two or three exhibitions in Feigen’s galleries in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. The LA artists were as generous and welcoming as those in New York had been. Larry Bell, Billy Al Bengsten and Ed Ruscha took me about town and we remain friends.
In the Hollywood establishment Impressionist paintings were favoured above all others and Feigen supplied many of them. He came to LA during my first exhibition and we drove about with a Monet in the back of the car which he wanted to sell. We visited Billy Wilder in his office. At that time I tended to wear white shoes, jeans, a blue work shirt with imitation pearl press-stud buttons, and my school Old Boy’s blazer (black with narrow gold and maroon stripes). Billy Wilder said. “Where didya get that outfit? Wardrobe?”
At Tony Curtis’ house (Feigen had been best man at Tony’s marriage to Christine Kaufman) Tony went to the cupboard near the front door and pulled out a canvas - obviously an Andy Warhol silkscreen portrait of him - and said, “Richard, what’s this? Some artist sent it to me.” Tony had a studio, and made both paintings and surrealist assemblages in the style of Joseph Cornell. My favourite of his paintings showed a theatre marquee with ‘Bernie Schwartz’ (his real name) in lights. Later he lent me his studio, and I painted one of my Starlets there.
The culture of LA seemed more nihilistic than that of New York. Driving along La Cienaga in a convertible with some kids I saw my first hotrod, a cherry red five window coupé. I said, “Gosh, look at that, isn’t it beautiful”, and the girl sitting next to me said, “Yeah, let’s ram it.”
Meanwhile, with astonishing speed, art had ceased to be the poor cousin and became the flavour of the month. Everyone now loved it and was interested in it, not least the numerous dealers who suddenly appeared on the scene. Contemporary art was now sexy, and popular. Above all, it now made money. The innate commercialism of the US enthusiastically exploited the potential of this new product, and the end value could be anything you like. For the new breed of collectors it could provide fame and social advancement quite inexpensively. Quality and intelligent critical debate diminished, and marketing became aggressive. The logical end was that the actual aesthetic value of the artwork gradually ceased to be of any importance at all. It
became a matter of the singer, not the song. By 1965 this tendency was becoming more and more pervasive. After only a year in the city I was becoming disillusioned.
Peter Phillips was sub-letting a part of my loft on the Bowery, and we decided to work together on a joint project of some sort. I suggested that, as anything seemed to be accepted, we might conduct a market survey, ask people what they wanted in a work of art, average the results, and then make it - and call the bluff of the zeitgeist.
HYBRID took place in New York and London in 1965-1966, and was a satire on the contemporary art world. By 1965 it had become apparent that almost anything produced by an artist who was in that world would be greeted with uncritical enthusiasm, so long as it possessed the essential ingredient: novelty. The marketing of art in particular is based on having the confidence of the purchaser, so there was no room for doubt or questions. In fact, some dealers would even admit (privately, of course) that they could sell the work of any artist, whatever it was - it really didn’t matter to them much. Selling was the skill, not any other creative process. Selling was the creative process.
HYBRID was an attempt to follow this concept to its logical conclusion. It would remove the conceptof the individual, and instead homogenise the input of many. Our strategy was to ask everyone what they wanted as a work of art, average the input, and then give them the result. The paradox is that by so doing, we actually gave none of them what they wanted.
We equipped ourselves with boxes containing examples of colour, forms, textures and materials, and printed forms on which the results of our survey could be recorded. After a couple of failed interviews with working artists (who naturally wanted to use the materials to make their own work) we decided to limit the survey group to what we called “art literates” - that is, people who were concerned with and indeed controlled contemporary art. We interviewed over 100 dealers, museum directors, collectors and critics in both London and New York.
We had never planned to complete this project - it was intended as a gesture. But it gathered momentum and in the end we thought that we might as well continue. We somewhat inexpertly averaged our results, prepared a blueprint, and made two HYBRIDS at full scale and 25 maquette versions. We exhibited them at the Kornblee Gallery on Madison Avenue in 1966, and sold them all. This proved our original thesis to be correct. Time magazine devoted a whole page to this, and Life gave us four pages. Most art magazines and writers eschewed the subject (having like the idea at first) but two important critics - Laurence Alloway and Gene Swenson - wrote thoughtful articles about it. Only Gene Swenson realised that it was a critical attack.
All of the research documents, a kit, and a full-scale HYBRID now reside in the permanent collection of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University.
The dreadful significance of the assassination of JFK took some time to penetrate our consciousness. Some people remained in denial. Feigen would not show my painting of the assassination - “Too much of a downer” - with the result that it spent almost thirty years folded up in a garden shed in New Jersey, and was nearly lost altogether. I found it increasingly difficult to see the heroic subject matter of my earliest paintings in quite the same optimistic light as I had before the assassination, and I began gradually to abandon it. Formal concerns became of greater concern rather than content. I began to veer towards abstraction, enlarging the size of the dot matrix, implying volume with the use of shaped canvases, and losing the figurative image.
Eventually I required shapes on which to paint of such complexity that it was easier to cut them out of metal than to attempt to make them as stretched canvas. I adopted the finishing techniques of the car customisers, such as acrylic lacquer spraying, tooling, and plating. I acquired metal working tools, and resigned myself to sharing my primitive bed in the loft with quantities of metal filings. I began to make a series of works (TRACE, INDENTY, WHITE PIN, etc.) which I still regarded as paintings since they were flat and the volume expressed by their drawing was illusory, not real as it is in sculpture proper. Some people found this difficult to comprehend, but I am sure that the reasoning was correct - after all, paintings do not have to be on canvas; they are often on board, or copper.
In order to clarify this, in 1965 I produced a multiple in an edition of 46 which was made from painted and tooled aluminium and chrome plated brass and which I entitled PRINT.
In 1965 I bought an American hotrod in Pennsylvania, a show car. This is a static ideal, driveable but not necessarily intended to be driven. It can be considered as similar in intent to the Lord Mayor’s Coach or a Clydesdale draft horse in full festive fig.. The car, which is known as The Coffee Grinder in reference to its creator, Adam Coffee, from whom I bought it, has won many awards and was on the cover of Hotrod Magazine in 1959. It was a perfect expression of the American Dream, which is essentially suburban in nature: cities are antithetical to the mythology of the American idyll. In the cities, people do not build hotrods - when I took the car to New York before shipping it to London for the summer, passers-by would look at it and say “Is that one of them European cars? An MG or something?” When I got to London, however, the admiration and yearning for the projected fantasy was evident. I soon discovered that there were many avid readers of Hotrod Magazine in the UK, people who had seldom seen an American car at all, let alone one extravagantly customised, gleaming, and assembled from a bounty of new parts and materials as an expression of individuality in a prosperous and otherwise uniform consumer society. They would approach me and say, “Hey, that’s a chopped, channelled and raked 1930 Ford Roadster with a big Chevrolet V-8, isn’t it?”
It was the first hotrod ever brought to the UK, and at the back of my mind was the idea of considering it part of a Cultural Exchange, not one conducted by the British Council, but one truly populist and demotic. That is the meaning of the photograph of the car parked on the Mall in front of the Household Cavalryman. The two images have much in common, for both are idiosyncratic products of particular cultures, both are in their own terms extravagant examples of perfection, and both are visually delightful but totally impractical.
I sold the car at a traffic light in Hyde Park after a brisk competition with a Lotus/Ford. Recently it has been rediscovered and completely rebuilt, and gleams once more.
I had sublet Dick Smith’s loft at Old Street, and shared the space with two of his best-loved paintings, PHILIP MORRIS and THE BEVERLY SISTERS. Nearby Clerkenwell, now gentrified, still had clustered around its square endless small workshops, and it was these I utilised for the production of PRINT in its edition of 46, and of LITTLE RED LOOP in an edition of 15. In one a man who made decorative fingers for grandfather clocks by hand, easily cut out the metal parts. His neighbour, who normally painted clock faces, applied the acrylic colour to PRINT . Chrome plating could be had further down the street. In the other direction was a proper stove enameller who mostly restored old bicycle frames, but rather grudgingly enamelled the red on LITTLE RED LOOP. And, just for good measure, beyond him were two crate makers, who with mouthfuls of nails and stacks of pre-cut wood of different lengths, could knock out a strong crate in a minute or two. There existed a whole community of traditional and independent craftsmen.
Individual works from this period are quite large - say, eight feet high - and
in 1965 they comprised my second New York show at the Feigen Gallery It was quite different from my first of the previous year, which had been pure Pop. Some of these new works were included in the first exhibition of Minimal art, curated by Kynaston McShine at the Jewish Museum in 1965, so for a while I was considered to be one of the Minimalists, although my work was not in step with their theories.
I made several screen prints of these images, using die-cut Mylar to represent the chrome plated sections of the sculptures. (the WITNESS portfolio, and single prints in various group publications such as 11 POP ARTISTS).
(q.v.) I also made DMT 42, published by Editions Domberger in Stuttgart. ( q.v.)
In the autumn of 1965, in the company of John Chamberlain, Neil Williams, Larry Bell and some other members of the New York art world who were busy keeping up the hard-drinking tradition of the Cedar Bar, I met Galina, my second wife, who, for me, epitomised all manner of freedoms. Later, between 1973 and 1980 my obsession with her brought about a whole series of bronze sculpture for which she was Muse. We were at a bar called the Ninth Circle, at that time owned by Mickey Ruskin, who was later to establish the legendary Max’s Kansas City bar on Park Avenue South, where later I had a credit of the then enormous sum of $20,000 to spend in the restaurant, in exchange for sculpture. This was a part of Mickey’s drive to ensure that, above all, certain artists came regularly to his restaurant.
I spent the summer of 1966 as an artist-in residence at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies in Colorado, and rode there from New York on the Vincent motorcycle and sidecar which I had bought in London after selling the hotrod and shipped to New York as the final reciprocal part of my private Cultural Exchange. I was there as a protégé of John Powers. John was a successful businessman and one of the early patrons of the Institute. His passion for art was unrivalled and his support was generous and constant. He would preach art to his friends and contemporaries with the fervour of a religious convert He bequeathed most of his vast collection to the Academy for Educational Development in Washington DC and several of the paintings have been lent by that organisation to my concurrent exhibition at the Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert Gallery. The Aspen Institute is itself a remarkable establishment. It was founded just after WW2 by Harold Paepke of the America Container Corporation, and his wife Pussy, assisted by Herbert Bayer, a Bauhaus artist who came to America in 1939. Aspen was at that time almost a ghost town, its original raison d’etre having collapsed along with the profitability of silver mining in the Rockies. At that time the Institue ran two-week courses on Western Philosophy or Far Eastern Thought for senior business executives, who studied in the mornings and had recreation in the afternoons. The resource personnel were first class. It was an extremely civilised idea, giving very busy people an opportunity to expand their thought in ways that might otherwise been impossible. During my time there I made the editions of BEAUSANT and INDENTY, and a water-driven sculpture which I placed in the Roaring Fork river and which pre-figured my later interest in sculpture in the landscape.
Meanwhile, it became to me quite obvious that my Utopian paintings, some of which fitted into corners or slithered onto the floor, were compromised by what might be referred to as the Facts of Life, such as skirting boards (called “kickboards” in
America), alarming floor patterns, inconveniently placed air vents and light switches, and so on. I intended these particular works to exist in a perfectly empty and perfectly perfect space; in this they represent the essence of the 1960’s, and in their own way they typify the hubris of the middle period of that turbulent decade.
With this in mind I placed my works in their own hermetic environment by framing them in white formica boxes with Plexiglas covers. I continued to make them of metal, and the combination of materials meant that each work was rather heavy. Some of the frames were formed so that they too could fit into or go around corners. They formed my third New York exhibition in 1966.
By now the various threads of the new age – the sexual revolution brought about by the introduction of the Pill; the explosion of drugs like LSD onto the scene by 1965; violent civil protest and confrontation with the authority of the status quo, embodied in the Civil Rights Movement, the Peace Movement against the Vietnam War and the Draft; the overt political murder of Civil Rights workers in the south, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy and students at Kent State University, and an increasingly mendacious and ruthless military-industrial complex, were being woven into a rope which finally throttled the American Dream.
From all backgrounds, many of which had hitherto been quiet reserves of propriety, people exploded, abandoning their families, joining communes and cults, indulging in orgiastic sex, condemning out of hand the “straight” world. Wending my way home with Galina in the dawn, I was surprised to see the postman still delivering letters, the lights still on, many people still attending to the essentials of life, rather as they did in the ruins of Berlin in spite of continuous bombing; letters being posted in letterboxes that tomorrow might not exist. The attrition rate among our friends was high.
In 1968 my friend David Milne and I built a home-made vacuum table (formica box with vacuum cleaner attached) and drying rack (wooden strips with sections of broom handle in slots to hold sheets of paper upright and separate) in my loft on Green Street. With Galina’s help I printed the portfolios SKYDIVERS, DRAGSTERS,
BABY BABY WILD THINGS, and WITNESS on this makeshift equipment. Feigen, who had just established a new gallery called Richard Feigen Graphics, bought all of the editions outright. His graphics gallery lasted only for two or three years, during which time he sold a number of the prints. After he closed the gallery in1972 my prints were put into storage, where they remained, pristine and untouched, until I bought them back from him about ten years ago.
Meanwhile, in my studio work I was concentrating on pure form and visual adventure, complete control of a narrow perfection, making order out of chaos, and running for refuge to the Ivory Tower of abstract art.
I next started making freestanding works, held upright on slate bases. These were carefully engineered and for the first time expressed form with the use of physical volume, albeit very subtly and still combined with an illusory, painterly volume (for example, PURPLE TRACE and SMALL PINK ). Some of them occupied three-dimensional space, usually by repetition of similar forms ( GOLD STANDARD and GREEN STANDARD). Again, I made editions of the maquettes for some of these pieces, which comprised my fourth exhibition in New York, in 1969. ( q.v. )
But by now I was weary of life in New York, which, while great at party time, was not suited to me. What was later to be known as Soho was then a slum area blighted by plans for a giant expressway across that part of Manhattan. The buildings were dark, the streets full of filth, Fanelli’s the only bar. In my building on the Bowery I passed rats coming down the stairs while I was going up them. Often one had to force open the front door to dislodge a sleeping (and wet) person collapsed against it. It also seemed to be just plain dangerous. So I moved to the Highlands of Scotland, bought a ruined castle and rebuilt it (something which I had always, since childhood, wanted to do).
Once there the beauty, roughness and power of the landscape obliged me to make my work larger and less highly finished. The local blacksmith was mystified when I asked him to fabricate these vast strange and useless objects, painted them, and then shipped them to, say, Chicago for exhibition. The first ones were similar to the last works I had made in New York, only much larger. By 1971, I began working exclusively with real volume, abandoning the painted surface and using fabricated Corten steel, the rusting of which eventually forms a permanent protective patina (PYRAMID, BILITH, TWENTIETH CENTURY MONUMENT, CALLANISH ). I made a SMALL PYRAMID in an edition of fifty in 1973.
I also made drawings and lithographs (at the Tamarind Institute, New Mexico, in 1973) on the theme of SCULPTURE IN THE LANDSCAPE. In order to make these works more accessible, I appended titles or puns in my modular typeface (q.v. )
Tamarind also published another book - DUKE CITY REALTY - in the style of DMT 42, again written by Galina and illuminated by me. (q.v.)
I was already trying to make my images more anthropomorphic, and made a series of drawings attempting to give the pyramids a human dimension. Finally, in 1973, after an epiphany at the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner very early one summer morning, I abandoned fabrication as a technique, bought some clay, and threw myself into the infinite variety of form offered by this medium, determined somehow to come to humanism and the figure.
The first sculptures I made, known as the GALINA SERIES, and consisting of GALINA 1 - 10 and other ancillary examples (AN AMERICAN GIRL, MIDWINTER, CONCEPTION,DREAMING, etc..)) were made between 1973 and 1980. I found that my late abstract sculpture provided solutions to my approach to the figure. At the same time I looked at as much figurative sculpture as I could, of every type, and began to understand the infinite variety of possible approaches, and the solutions, both aesthetic and structural, which had been arrived at by others. I even found myself resolving difficult problems and then often discovering the solution had already been arrived at in the past, such as reinforcing the supporting leg of the uppermost figure on AXIS MUNDI with a wing feather of the figure below, feeling rather embarrassed about it, and then being shown a rear view of Donatello’s DAVID, which uses precisely the same device, the feather originating from the crest of the helmet on Goliath’s severed head. I felt a part of an ancient tradition, whose practitioners have faced the same tasks over and over again. At this point I was very fortunate to meet the late George Mancini, descended from a long line of Roman bronze founders. He was a superb craftsman and a most generous with his time and skill (retirement weighed heavily upon him) . He taught me to cast bronze, helped me to set up my own bronze foundry, and worked with me on my first two large public sculptures.
I entered the rhapsody of finding metaphors for the human form, recreating it, and making it live, and discovered the great art of bronze casting. For twenty years I made, modelled and cast into bronze my own sculpture. I made many portrait heads: one of the traditional survival standbys of the sculptor, and one which I enjoyed immensely and found always to be an adventure ( PAUL GETTY, PAVAROTTI, SAM WANAMAKER etc.) and many public sculptures ( AXIS MUNDI, BANK STATION DRAGONS, TWICKENHAM RUGBY SCULPTURES etc.).
In 1973 I spent a year as Visiting Professor of Painting and Sculpture at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Most of my students were from the Midwest, and we had at first few mutual reference points with which to discuss their work, so I instituted a course called The Artist in Literature, where we studied the subject from Benvenuto Cellini to Gulley Jimson. I also had the benefit of the expertise of the head of the Sculpture Department, who had spent years at the American School in Rome and was an expert bronze caster.
All of my previous work combined to help me find strong metaphors for the forms of which the human body is composed, so that it may be recreated as sculpture.
I understand how sculpture can live, and waxworks cannot. I discovered undreamed of depth in the work of past sculptors, not least the despised Victorians. I remembered Anthony Caro referring to the great VICTORIA MEMORIAL as a wedding cake. Some wedding cake!
During the past three years I have returned to painting, utilising my earliest techniques and idiom to make paintings which are an indictment of our foreign policy. It grieves me to see that the daughters and grand daughters of some of my Starlets have joined the US Army and served at Abu Ghraib, that the descendants of my Navy Pilot bomb defenceless cities from 35,000 feet, that the myth of the American Dream is being imposed by force as a new imperialism, and that the great adventure in space is reduced to numerous, mostly warlike, surveillance satellites.
I have painted them again, in their new roles.
I exhibit these paintings as widely as possible. They are greeted with enthusiasm at every venue, in New York particularly, because they voice (if that is the appropriate word) the thoughts of those who have no means of making themselves heard.
In order to propagate these images, I publish them at full size as digital prints in signed editions of 100, and in smaller, unsigned sizes. (q.v. )
So I seem to have come full circle in my work, returning to the beginning a sadder but a wiser man.