A dotty neglect of a Pop artist by Virginia Blackburn

Virginia Blackburn on a British artist whose iconic Sixties work is set for a fab revival

Pop Art is commonly recognised as one of the most important movements of the 20th century, with its leading artists — Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein — enjoying the status of household names. One Pop artist, however, has not received the recognition he deserves. Gerald Laing, born in Britain but resident in the United States in the 1960s, is often thought of as an American artist and, since the heyday of Pop Art, has been shamefully overlooked.

Pop Art is commonly recognised as one of the most important movements of the 20th century, with its leading artists — Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein — enjoying the status of household names. One Pop artist, however, has not received the recognition he deserves. Gerald Laing, born in Britain but resident in the United States in the 1960s, is often thought of as an American artist and, since the heyday of Pop Art, has been shamefully overlooked.
But that looks set to change with two exhibitions of Laing’s work running in London until December 8. Both are entitled Space, Speed, Sex, the title of a performance event Laing put on at the Slade art school in London in 1964. At Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert there is a loan exhibition of about 25 paintings and drawings, while the Sims Reed Gallery is holding a selling exhibition of prints. Both have aroused enormous interest.

Even the most cursory inspection of the work reveals artistry that was absolutely of its time. Laing, born in Newcastle upon Tyne, went to St Martin’s School of Art, London, in 1963-64 before moving to New York for the remainder of the decade.

“I grew up in the grimness of the 1950s,” says Laing, who has lived in the Scottish Highlands for nearly 40 years. “I can remember the war — gas masks, Anderson shelters and bombs falling, which gave way to the grimness of the next decade. By the 1960s a small number of the population might have been wearing miniskirts, but the majority were still depressed. Against that background, advertising and photography seemed to be the future. I wanted to paint dreams of perfection — one of the major ideas of the 1960s.”

Moving to America opened up a new world to Laing. The brashness of the US appealed to him. “Unlike us, they’d had a good war,” he says.

He became fascinated by the preoccupations of American life, specifically bikini girls, astronauts and drag racing. “It was extravagantly perfect,” he says. “It was part of the American dream.”

This subject matter reappeared constantly, making such an impact that although few might recognise Laing’s name, many would know his work. His screen print of Brigitte Bardot is one of the iconic images of the time.

Laing was unique: a British Pop artist working with his American contemporaries. But falling between two stools has contributed to the neglect of his work. James Holland-Hibbert says: “He was in the wrong country at the wrong time.”

Because Laing was working abroad during the Sixties, British Pop artists tended not to know him. And at the height of his success in the US he disappeared back to Britain, finding the market too cynical for his tastes. His works are well represented in American museums, but this, too, has worked against him because he did not leave behind a great deal on the open market so that people might remember his name.

All of which must surely change, for his work holds its own against the greats. “His dot paintings are as iconic as Lichtenstein’s,” Mr Holland-Hibbert says.

The prints start at about £850 (that may seem reasonable but the Bardot portrait is actually £10,000). Two of them, Field and First National Bank, both £5,000, have never before been shown in the UK. Lyndsey Ingram, of Sims Reed Gallery, says: “At the time, it was all about space, the sexual revolution, sky diving, astronauts and hot rods. For a while these images became more marginalised. But now it is clear that all of this is still what we love.”

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