An Interview with Gerald Laing by Giles Auty

Gerald Laing in conversation with Australian art critic Giles Auty about his transition to figurative sculpture. 1993.

AUTY: For some time now I have felt our culture is going through a period of significant and very radical reassessment. In a strange way this sea change echoes something which has happened in your own professional career; after all, you began with a strong involvement with the art modes of the sixties but have removed yourself gradually from engagement with any artistic movements and fashions. You seem to have renegotiated a pact with a longer term artistic heritage. At the same time I sense your art has become more genuinely personal, being much less about other people's idea of you as an artist as you explore your own vision of art.

LAING: At first I seemed to be confronted with an infinite range of possibility which threatened to overwhelm me. The two big questions I had to answer resolved themselves simply into 'What shall I paint?' and 'How shall I paint it?? Under such circumstances the only way to arrive at a clear idea of what one might do is to limit the possibilities. In the early sixties there was a general feeling of optimism fuelled by our emergence from the post-war period - remember that rationing only ended properly in 1957 - coupled with a belief in the ability of technology to solve our temporal and perhaps even our spiritual problems. This change in attitude seemed to call for a new art, one which was precise, methodical, clear and uncompromising, one which could be glimpsed as one sped past on one's way to the airport in the City of Tomorrow.

My earliest paintings responded to these demands. They celebrated an ideal version of our own time. They have a strong relationship to the work of my peers because it is natural for young artists to consort together, to exchange ideas and information, and to have similar concerns and expectations.

Later, my ideas diverged progressively from those of my contemporaries as the result of my taking what I thought to be the most significant and useful direction in my work.

AUTY: We are much the same age yet seem to have arrived at our present strong measure of agreement about what really matters in art by travelling widely divergent routes. I suppose both of us deny, in our own ways, a determinist view of history. I did not enjoy the sixties or feel at ease with its novel culture which I saw as largely superficial. For you, on the other hand, the energy of the era was a liberating force which helped shape your subsequent career. Thus you have more cause to be grateful to the sixties than I do. You may have outgrown many of the attractions of the time while still feeling nostalgia for others. What do you see now as the real strengths of sixties culture? Will any of these endure?

LAING: It is a mistake to think of the sixties as one homogeneous and undifferentiated period. For me the decade has the structure of a tragedy, with the optimism of the first two or three years succeeded by the hubris of radical politics, sexual freedom, drugs and moral relativism, and the nemesis of dislocation and disease. Catharsis has been a long time coming. I look for it in the intellectual discipline and creative humanistic achievements of the past.

Of course many of the freedoms insisted upon in the sixties were without doubt necessary and just. At the same time some of the consequences have been surprising. Some solutions bring greater problems in their wake. The origin of taboos, which once seemed arbitrary, is now quite clear. By this I mean that rules of behaviour usually have some essential imperative, often to do with survival. When their original purpose has been forgotten they may seem irksome but this does not necessarily mean that they no longer have practical value. The only thing one can be sure of is that every action produces an equal and opposite reaction. We have yet to learn that every freedom won brings with it a new responsibility.

Freedom in the visual arts has resulted so far in an orgy of self-indulgence and the collapse of skill. It has always been true that the artist should be his own most savage critic; the freedom of expression now available to us makes this even more important. We should not forget that the greatest art has, until now, always been produced under strictly prescribed systems of expression. For instance, we probably would not have liked living under the regime of Ramses II but we cannot deny that the sculpture of that time is truly great. What will guide and edit our art, produced as it is under circumstances of total freedom? Only the self. It is a great responsibility for the individual and so far there is not much evidence of it being successfully assumed. There is not even a consensus over what constitutes quality. It is as though the framework was destroyed without anything substantial being put in its place. This has left succeeding generations in rather a difficult position.

No doubt the sixties was a period of liberation but it has left a legacy of dubious value unless it is tempered by discrimination.

AUTY: Although I am thought of now by most people as being an art critic only, I spent much of the sixties and seventies working as a professional painter. In fact, I did not begin writing about art until the end of 1974. Having made things myself, I feel a degree of sympathy for other makers. Although I have never made sculpture, the medium interests me greatly and I can understand the attraction for you of making your early sculptural works which evolved from your paintings. All of your early sculptures which I have seen look well made and I suspect the actual process of making your early sculpture gave you as much pleasure as working out the ideas for it. Did the process of 'making' appeal to an element of the perfectionist in you?

LAING: I have always thought it very important that my sculpture and painting should be well made, first because I would not wish them to be rendered in any way ambiguous by poor execution and second because they are intended to be looked at and must be able to sustain close inspection.

My earliest painting techniques, involving a limited palette, dots on a grid, and absolutely flat colour, allowed no accident or ambiguity. My abstract works were derived technically from the custom-car phenomenon, where personal suburban icons were manufactured by individuals with a devotion, imagination, skill and often sacrifice developed far beyond that commonly found in the visual arts. When I first began to model the figure, quite by chance I met the late George Mancini, who at this time was coming to the end of his long working life in his Edinburgh bronze foundry. He cast my first two or three bronzes. After he retired I realised that the only way I could gather together sufficient bronzes for any exhibition was to make them myself. In addition I wanted to understand properly the medium of bronze casting and its strengths and limitations.

George very generously shepherded me through the techniques of sculpture and bronze casting, giving me the full benefit of his vast experience and of his unbroken link with the methods of the past. His standards were very high indeed, and while I would never expect to emulate them, I am at least aware of what is possible and I have seen how it might be achieved.

AUTY: Yours is a very unusual story in terms of career. In fact you were still serving as an army officer at the moment you decided to become a full-time artist. After a period of study, you became an instant success, notching up exhibitions at prestigious centres and making a large volume of sales almost from the outset. This was an experience absolutely contrary to that of most artists, even very good ones. Did these events make you feel particularly proud or, perhaps, just a little uneasy?

LAING: When I first went to art school in 1960, art was not the fashionable preoccupation which it is now. Neither my contemporaries nor I ever expected to sell a single painting: teaching in order to pursue one's vocation was the accepted norm.

In the event, and much to my own surprise, I have lived by my art, one way or another, for the past thirty years. It has not by any means been an easy ride, but neither is it what I expected.

My initial reaction was - and continues to be - one of mild disbelief. Certainly, I have never felt 'proud'. I have definitely and frequently felt uneasy. Sometimes, for instance in the late sixties, I have felt a moral compulsion to bite the hand that feeds me. Repeatedly, I have made what, objectively, can only be described as disastrous career moves; but then the life of an artist is not a career, and it is unreasonable to expect that the pursuit of a personal vision will necessarily be rewarded financially at every turn.

AUTY: The sixties were not just a time of social revolution but also one in which certain kinds of utopianism, however misconceived, were reborn. Your earliest paintings were concerned largely with glamorousseeming technologies: films, drag racing, sky diving, space exploration. From these you moved slowly towards highly polished and engineered sculpture which still had something of the glamour of high technology but without such explicit references. This kind of work seems to me to allow greater freedom for poetic imagination. While your early pop paintings are at a great remove from your present, figurative sculpture, your hi-tech abstract sculptural work appears still to belong to the same family - and not simply because it is three-dimensional. Do you feel there is a strong sense of kinship running throughout all your sculptural work?

LAING: I do feel that there is a strong sense of continuity running throughout all my work, though at first glance it seems to have varied a lot. After all, it is informed by the same sensibility which I hope has grown over the years.

I disagree with you that my early paintings are at a great remove from my present sculpture. The paintings are essentially life drawing and portraiture, sustained by a coherent geometry. My recent figurative sculpture has similar objectives and disciplines. The abstract sculpture which comes in between these two contains the bones of both of them, but is concerned more or less exclusively with structure for its own sake, as is often the case with abstract art. This preoccupation with form for its own sake is one of abstract art's inherent weaknesses.

AUTY: Not only has the external structure of your career seemed unusual, but so also has your inward line of development as an artist, especially in view of the directions in which so much other art has been going. Your early sculpture demonstrated purist, if not minimalist, tendencies and shunned obvious allusions to the physical world. Gradually, the human figure returned, first in extremely simplified and stylised form but latterly with the full force of figuration. In this century almost everyone's artistic development has moved in exactly the opposite direction, although some artists, such as Ben Nicholson, who experiment with pure abstraction (as in his 'White Reliefs' from the middle to late 1930s) recomplicated their imagery later on by introducing motifs taken from the perceptual world. What first triggered your own change of direction? Or do you simply enjoy swimming against the artistic tide?

LAING: At each stage one does what one can. As I said earlier, I found it necessary to have clear and limited objectives in my earliest work. Later I felt able to handle more possibilities. It comes down to a matter of the proportion of subjectivity to objectivity used in the process. My early work is the result of a more subjective approach since I have imposed on it more of my own preconceptions. These were generally to do with structure and geometry, elements which have over time become second nature to me, so I do not now feel the need to state them so obviously. Now I feel more able to respond directly and instinctively to the model and work in a less self-conscious manner than before.

My return to the figure was prompted by a number of things. First, I became increasingly aware that most contemporary art was failing to communicate very much to those outside its immediate circle. That which was being transmitted by it seemed to me to be of comparatively small significance; in some cases art seemed to have been relegated to a merely decorative function; in others, which claimed intellectual content as the main ingredient, that content seemed nalve and inconsequential when compared with accepted standards in other fields. It is as though the usefulness of art has been sidetracked and diminished and that, as a result, the world has lost interest in it as a useful and significant tool.

Second, I feel sure that the real strength of art lies in its humanistic concerns which have to be expressed through the human figure. The approach to modelling a figure has become a very confused subject. If art needs constantly to renew itself, then certainly the making of figurative sculpture has been given a completely fresh start, because both the technique and the thought which governs it have been lost. We have virtually to start again from scratch. To us one figure looks much like another, and we have lost the ability to understand what implications one interpretation of the figure might have when compared with another. This seems to me to be both a fascinating area of research and a great challenge - one in which art historians might usefully involve themselves perhaps.

Third, by 1973 1 was becoming increasingly aware of how limited my own abstract sculpture was as a vehicle for communication. At about that time Hugh Fraser suggested that my 'Pyramids' of 1970-72 had a sort of human presence, which had not occurred to me. Once I thought of them in this light, the idea became increasingly attractive, and I tried various means to make this anthropomorphic quality more apparent. After a period of experimentation I realised that what I really wanted to make was the human form, and that the materials I had been using - mainly sheet steel and aluminium - were too limiting, so I began using clay which has an infinite vocabulary of form.

AUTY: Artists who moved as you have, against prevailing currents of fashion, often suffered professional disadvantage, however sincere or far-sighted their motives may have been for making their stands. I can think here of a number of artists whose development failed to follow the prescribed orthodoxy of their time. Many were effectively punished for what amounted to nothing more than independence of mind. Yet there seems great irony here, since modern art prides itself particularly on its attitudes of liberalism and tolerance. Perhaps this tolerance does not quite extend to artists who discard that most basic modernist act of faith - that there can be no 'going back'?

LAING: Paul Valéry pointed out that everything changes except the avant garde. I believe the avant garde is notable mainly for its intolerance and narrow vision. Always there is a received doctrine - woe betide the person who transgresses against it.

But the idea of an avant garde is a comparatively modern one and its true relevance and importance is slight. It tends to monopolise the present through approved doctrines, but it has a short shelf life. Later, if it is valued at all, it is valued because it becomes quaint with the passage of time, even though it may be subsumed into the canon of art.

My own belief is that comparatively few people are really concerned with the visual arts. The flurry of apparent interest in art which has existed for the past twenty-five years or so is really an interest in a more complex agenda than simply painting and sculpture.

In New York in the mid sixties, for example, the arts were seen as an introduction to an alternative lifestyle and the freedoms it promised, sex and glamour, and so on. This is why you now find bankers, lawyers and the middle classes inhabiting the old loft buildings downtown where we used to live in a certain amount of squalor.

Fashionable orthodoxy is autocratic, exclusive and ruthless and failure to stick to its strictures and values really does result in punishment. My own most heinous crime, the one for which I suffered most, was my return to the figure in 1973 - a move so unfashionable that for years I felt professionally as if I had been murdered and buried in an unmarked grave. The fact that all of my activities until that moment had been greeted with approval did not count in my favour at all. The economic effects on me of this rejection were devastating. Had it not been for a small core of enthusiastic and supportive patrons and friends I am sure I would have gone under.

AUTY: A big problem with much of the language used to describe recent art is that it is largely rhetorical. People talk freely about advance and progress, breakthrough and development, as though they were describing a scientific or technological process where such terms might be entirely appropriate, rather than recent art. Throughout its history, modernism has prided itself on its radicalism, on its ability to turn its back on history and to follow new paths. The problem here is that the notion of continuous revolution and non-stop formal innovation becomes in time an orthodoxy in itself so that artists feel free no longer to turn to wider historical contexts for guidance or inspiration. You are rare in having managed to escape from this new kind of orthodoxy. Ironically your determination to go your own way is a true expression of the kind of radical principle which those who may not approve your new directions ought to admire nevertheless. You seem to have seen through the paradox of the changing roles of radicalism and orthodoxy in contemporary art. But I imagine you may feel yourself increasingly isolated as a result?

LAING: It is extraordinary to me that anyone can imagine an idea of 'advance' or 'progress' in any field of creativity. Those who do so must have read very little. Of course there must be formal innovation in art, but only in order to reiterate the familiar truths in a new, immediate and relevant manner, so they will continue to be understood.

When I think what art used to be about, I am ashamed at what we seem satisfied with today - such slight and inconsequential subject matter. It is as though we are afraid to face the challenge of dealing with the human condition and prefer instead to play games. But how exciting it would be if we engaged the big themes once again and tried to make some sense of our plight - or even attempted to describe it. I think the dullest and most pedestrian genre painting contains more useful information and comfort than whole galleries full of conceptual art. I believe it is fear which keeps many artists from displaying themselves or their talent. They would rather hide behind veils of ambiguity and condemn themselves to an existence which is appreciated only inside their own hermetic and artificial world.

The outside world is much bigger, and that is where I prefer to operate. I think of it as the real world as opposed to the artificial world of contemporary art. The outside world is full of intelligent people who have no time for or interest in the arcane manoeuvres of the art world as it is now.

AUTY: Although your return to the major European tradition of figurative sculpture may have isolated you from many of your modernist peers, I believe you feel a sense of belonging even so. The tradition to which you have turned embraces not only nineteenth-century art, say, but also classical antiquity and the art of the Renaissance in Italy. Clearly, the company to which you wish to belong is a very distinguished one which necessarily sustains you by example rather than spoken words of encouragement. By working in the way you do now, you tacitly acknowledge the existence of a great ladder of achievement in figurative sculpture. The company you have chosen is very exalted but at least you have located the ladder. Many contemporary sculptors like to deny that such a ladder of achievement exists at all or that it has any relevance to the current world. Does the knowledge that you belong to a great tradition sustain you now in what you are trying to do?

LAING: Sculpture is an artisan skill with its origins in the stonemason's yard. It is hard and demanding physical work, and requires a practical and methodical approach. I have already mentioned George Mancini who came from a long line of Italian bronze founders and whose techniques, learnt from his father, were archaic and part of a great and largely unchanged tradition. His attitude to his work was a consuming one which seemed to me to have great philosophical depth. Certainly, I felt through him a connection with the past and to the way in which sculpture - the process of making - defines the content in a manner which a sculptor from any time in the past would recognise. I can, because of this, empathise with the practitioners of the past, understand their problems, and appreciate their triumphs. On at least two occasions I have struggled to resolve some difficulty and then recognised later the way in which similar conclusions to my own have been reached in the distant past. So naturally one feels part of a great and ongoing tradition, both practically and aesthetically, although today there is a great deal of lost ground to be made up.

Humanity may have been mislaid in abstract art, but equally those abstract qualities necessary to figurative art are often absent in the examples which we see being made today. This lack has resulted in a proliferation of bad figurative art in public places.

The manner in which the human form is presented must always be considered in depth. It is an immensely complex subject. For instance, Rodin is admired because he provides an obvious link with modernism, particularly in his influence on the early imagery of Picasso. But although Rodin's modelling is both fluent and apparently passionate, his particular reinterpretation of the human form is somewhat arbitrary and clumsy. I prefer the work of his contemporaries Dalou and Carpeaux, whose interpretations are much less histrionic. Carpeaux's marble group ?Ugolino and his Sons' (1863), which is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, is not only a magnificent tour de force of carving but an absolute masterpiece of figure modelling. At first the figures seem entirely realistic, but closer inspection reveals they have a formal organisation which is not found in nature. It is as though they have been slightly reinvented, so they become a metaphor for reality - albeit a metaphor based on a complete understanding of anatomy and composition and relentless empirical observation.

If you continue to gaze at this sculpture, the chests of the figures will, almost imperceptibly, appear to rise and fall as though they breathe, so that they seem imbued with life itself through the sculptor's recreation. Mere imitation cannot produce this effect - a fact amply demonstrated at Mme Tussaud's for instance.

AUTY: Seventeen years ago you learnt how to cast properly in bronze and then set up your own foundry in Scotland. At one time a sculptor's training automatically included learning traditional techniques but in recent years I have met only two young sculptors who understand casting fully. One was trained in India, the other in Croatia. I believe art schools should teach students skills rather than attitudes. If a painter or sculptor leaves art school fully equipped in skills he or she can at least exercise free choice in finding the medium most suitable for personal expression. Indeed, this is what you have done finally yourself. What are your own thoughts on the continuing value of traditional training for artists?

LAING: It is sad how little which can be taught is actually taught in art schools. Art is an elusive quarry; technique is not. Without technical skill the gap between what the mind requires and the hand delivers remains unacceptably large. Drawing, painting, modelling, casting and so on can all be taught and they leave students with basic skills which they can employ in a variety of ways. On the other hand, fashionable ideas, which often seem to be the main items inculcated in some art schools, are ephemeral. For a while they can engage the student and may even give him or her gainful employment. But when, as is inevitable, their popularity ebbs away and they are replaced by something else, their adherents will be left flapping on the beach, prisoners of their own limited technical abilities.

However, some efforts are being made to remedy this. The problem is to find teachers who are properly trained themselves and who are capable of imparting this sort of knowledge. The New York Academy, founded in 1983, teaches according to the Beaux Arts tradition and its chief academic partner is, interestingly, the Moscow Art School, which has never given up such a system.

Most of the skills which I now employ are ones which I have had to learn wherever and however I could, according to necessity. I studied painting at St Martin's, but even if I had been in the sculpture department I doubt I would have learnt very much of use to me since the department, under Anthony Caro, was already pretty well fully committed to the welding of steel. I did attend many of the sculpture department's weekly discussion groups but it was quite apparent even then that any departure from the departmental orthodoxy was frowned upon.

Caro said in 1961, 'I realised I had nothing to lose by throwing out History'.' I fear history will prove him wrong.

AUTY: Some of your abstract sculpture from about twenty years ago forms a very interesting formal reaction with landscape and looks as though it was conceived specifically for outdoor sites. Henry Moore helped a number of his large pieces to sit more comfortably in their settings by piercing his forms and using highly polished materials. In other words, we can look through these pierced forms to the surrounding landscape, while the polished surfaces of his sculptures pick up and reflect the colours of the surroundings and sky. Now that you have made a number of large commissioned works, do you have any innovations of your own for helping locate them happily on site?

LAING: My abstract sculpture of the 1969 to 1973 period was made in direct response to the landscape of the Highlands of Scotland, where I had arrived after some years in New York. The forms were derived from my New York work, but their scale, volume and finish looked slight and flimsy in the rough grandeur of the landscape. What suited the pure gallery spaces of the city seemed naturally somewhat effete in this new environment.

The new sculpture was indebted to the prehistoric standing stones and alignments which are such a significant feature of this landscape, punctuating it with authoritative evidence of a continuous human presence. For a few years these fascinated me but in the end their enigmatic quality frustrated me, and the fact that their true purpose and meaning would never be revealed became unbearable. I abandoned my preoccupation with them, retaining only an awareness of how brilliantly they are sited.

In an urban context one is obviously more constrained but, as it is frequently pointed out, it is essential that architect and sculptor should work together from the beginning of a project so as to avoid the 'cap badge' siting of sculpture which occurs when the sculpture is brought in at a late stage of development and has no integral role to play in environmental design.

AUTY: In recent years you have made a number of portrait heads and busts in bronze. Many of these are of international figures and, from what I gather, were well received. Here is an art form with a very long history Do you feel your range of experience in working in entirely different materials and manners has contributed something new or special to your understanding of this age-old medium?

LAING: I discovered an aptitude for portraiture almost by accident when, about twelve years ago, I suddenly saw a way in which I could make a portrait head of my eldest son ('Portrait of Farquhar Aged Ten' 1982). At first I thought of this skill mainly as a breadwinner - as artists have done traditionally - but over the years it has developed into one of my main areas of interest and I have travelled widely through Europe, the USA and even Africa to make portrait heads for a variety of clients.

Portraiture must be the most objective of sculptural techniques, because it is based on a very close observation of the subject. It is a process which can result in a particular intimacy, because the subject will seldom have been examined in such detail before. I have been fortunate in my subjects; they have all been people who have led interesting and often exciting lives and one is able to share in these to some extent in the creative process. In return the portrait endows the sitter with a certain permanence. It is a slap in the face of mortality. The Romans believed that the portrait embodied the presence of the person represented so they tended to eliminate imperfections in the pursuit of the ideal - but I suppose portraiture is always a negotiation between literal likeness and idealisation. A clear understanding of the forms which compose the head functions both as a clarification of reality and as a life-imbuing technique similar to that referred to in my earlier discussion of Carpeaux. There is no doubt that to be worthwhile a portrait must be able to stand alone in the form of a sculpture, even if the identity of the sculptor becomes lost. To achieve this, the sculpture must have abstract qualities to sustain it, as well as the narrative of individual psychological and emotional expression.

AUTY: Without my intending it to do so, this dialogue seems to have gone round in something of a neat circle because I spoke earlier of your renegotiating a pact with a longer term artistic heritage. As a critic, I am convinced we are going to reassess a lot of the art of recent times quite radically, probably before the turn of the century. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn wrote recently: 'For several decades now, world literature, music, painting and sculpture have exhibited a stubborn tendency to grow not higher but to the side, not toward the highest achievements of craftsmanship and of the human spirit but toward their disintegration into a frantic and insidious novelty. To decorate public spaces we put up sculptures that aestheticise pure ugliness - but we no longer register surprise. And if visitors from outer space were to pick up our music over the airwaves, how could they ever guess that earthlings once had a Bach, a Beethoven and a Schubert, now abandoned as out of date and obsoIete. (FootNote2)
Changes in your own art may well be a foretaste of a movement, which will gather increasing force, of artists rethinking their personal pacts with our previous cultural history. I think the language of earlier great art is formidable, easily capable of treating and describing the current human condition. For those who cannot help thinking in rhetorical clichés, I describe the process I foresee as one of reaffirmation rather than reaction. But how do you foresee the immediate future yourself'?

LAING: I certainly hope you are correct in foreseeing a period of great change, but I am wary of making sweeping and general predictions because these must always be linked with the whole political situation. We seem to have identified our current problems; they are those of technocratic consumer society which has lost its religious and social controls and is consequently unstable. Contemporary art, with its feverish market ing initiatives and ethical vacuity, seems appropriate to our current situation, which is driven by economic rather than moral forces. The reaffirmation which you propose will have to be linked to a further evolution of society, when society has matured to a point where it recognises that consumerism fails to satisfy its more profound needs. It is factors such as this which will contribute to a general rethinking of art and its purpose. Sooner or later, I think this is bound to happen.

1 Caro in interview with Lawrence Alloway, Gazette, no. 1 (1961), p.l.

2 Text of the acceptance speech of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn when receiving the Medal of Honour for Literature of the National Arts Club in New York, January 1993.