Gerald Laing: Possession by Recreation by David E. Brauer

From the exhibition catalogue for Space, Speed, Sex: Works from the early 1960s by Gerald Laing at Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert, 2006.

This exhibition offers the first opportunity for a London audience to see a representative collection of Gerald Laing’s paintings from 1963–1965, works produced in London and New York City. These paintings clearly define Laing’s place as one of the major British Pop artists of that period, a place somewhat occluded by the very success that Laing enjoyed in America.

After a career in the army, Laing entered St Martin’s School of Art in the autumn of 1960. It was perfect timing for among the faculty were several of the major figures of the emergent British Pop art including Richard Smith, who already lived and worked in New York, Joe Tilson and Peter Blake. Another influential presence was the American painter and art historian Aaron Scharf, at that time gathering material which would result in his important book, Art and Photography, published in 1968. There was, therefore much discussion in the London art scene aboutthe new relationship between fine art, mass media and reprographic mediums. American Pop art was virtually unknown in London other than from a few magazine reproductions.

1962 was a pivotal year for British Pop art. In MArch, Ken Russell’s BBC documentary, Pop Goes the Easel, introduced a larger British public to the idea of Pop art. That Autumn, the Grabowski Gallery and the Arthur Jeffress Gallery showed seminal exhibitions of British Pop art. By this time, Laing had shifted towards contemporary imagery, developing his signature technique of hand-painted, gridded dots which simulated the effect of half-tone commercial photography. Laing’s primary sources for his paintings were small, grainy, black-and-white photographs culled from newspapers and, as with the works of James Rosenquist, these small, disposable images were worked up to larger, sometimes much larger,scales. This use of media-derived imagery was then further amplified by colour magazines and material from television and films, leading Laing to embrace wider areas of subject matter such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Russian and AMerican space programmes, and the assassination of President Kennedy. Life magazine provided the source for many of these images.

In 1963, Laing , still at St Martin’s, exhibited his PAintings from Photographs which included large scale paintings of Brigitte Bardot and Ursula Andress, soon to be followed by the French actresses Anna Karina and Corinne Marchand. Later that year Laing visited New York for the first time and would subsequently spend much time there through 1969 and beyond. This included a 1965 sojourn as artist-in-residence at the ASpen Institute in Colorado.

While meeting American Pop artists, such as Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, and most importantly, Robert Indiana, Laing was also represented by the art-dealer Richard Feigen, who exhibited his paintings in several one-man shows in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, and in group exhibitions at the Albright-Know in Bufalo, New YOrk, and the San Francisco Museum of Art.

When first exhibited many of Laing’s major pieces were acquired by American collectors, most notably John and Kimiko Powers, who owned one of the largest collections of American Pop art. Laing was one of the few British Pop artists included in that collection. What resulted from this rapid recognition was that few works re-circulated on the market. This makes the current exhibition particularly significant and timely especially with the re-examination of the achievements of British Pop Art.

Several recent museum exhibitions have contributed to this more sharply focused view, including Pop Art: US/UK Connection, 1956–1966, which I had the privilege of co-curating for the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas in 2001, as well as Pop Art UK: British Pop Art, 1956&ndash1972 at the Palazzo Santa Margherita and Palazzina dei Giardini in Modena, Italy, in 2004, and British Pop, at the Museo de Belles Artes de Bilbao, Spain, in 2005–2006, both of which were curated by Marco Livingstone. All three exhibitions included work by Gerald Laing.

In the half century since its inception, Pop art has shown itself to have been a serious and complex movement whose influences are still much in evidence in contemporary art. Yet the larger history is still to be written, works and reputations undergo constant fine-tuning, and each exhibition, whether a museum show or an individual exhibition such as this, contribute to a more accurate assessment of Pop art. This exhibition of works by Gerald Laing contributes to this end.