Gerald Laing, who has died aged 75, loomed large in the British Pop Art movement, having helped to define the 1960s with huge canvases based on newspaper photographs of famous models, astronauts and film stars – his image of Brigitte Bardot, her face framed by a roundel, is one of his most famous works.
In 1969, however, Laing suddenly gave it all up and moved from New York (where he had been based) to the Scottish Highlands. There he bought and restored a ruined castle and abandoned painting for sculpture, only to return to it in the last years of his life. Once again he took celebrity as his theme, in a series of paintings of Amy Winehouse, Kate Moss and Victoria Beckham.
As with his early works, Laing’s 21st-century paintings were based on “perfect” images of the stars from newspapers and magazines. The portrait of Winehouse showed the singer standing on a red carpet kissing her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil. Laing called it The Kiss (2007), because the pose reminded him of Rodin’s sculpture of the same name.
Laing’s painting of Kate Moss was far more abstract, showing a woman in a bikini with a head reduced to a flesh-coloured blob. The image of Victoria Beckham, more figurative and formal, showed the former Spice Girl wearing a short blonde crop, sunglasses and strappy sundress.
Laing’s earliest Pop Art works presented young starlets or bikini-clad girls bursting with sex appeal, capturing the excitement and exuberance of the 1960s. One showed Anna Karina, Jean-Luc Godard’s wife who had starred in his film Vivre sa Vie (1962), a still of which inspired the painting. When Laing had finished his 12ft-high canvas of the enigmatic ingénue, he and some friends hoisted it on to the roof of St Martin’s School of Art.
His work often commented on current events. The painting Souvenir (1962), a response to the Cuban missile crisis, used a 3D effect that allowed the viewer to see Khruschev from one side and Kennedy from the other and, head-on, a monster composed of their two faces.
Soon after Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, frames from the 8mm Zapruder film of the event, published in Life magazine, became the source for Laing’s painting Lincoln Convertible. But the Americans would not show it (“Too much of a downer,” he was told), with the result that it spent almost 30 years folded up in a garden shed in New Jersey, and was nearly lost forever.
Gerald Ogilvie Laing was born on February 11 1936 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. To escape “a rather unpleasant childhood” during which he seldom saw his father (a soldier), Gerald immersed himself in the medieval stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. From Berkhamsted School he went to Sandhurst at 16 before being commissioned into the family regiment, the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, in 1955.
During a posting to Belfast in 1957, Laing saw John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger. “The play had a crucial effect on me,” he wrote. “For the first time I realised that I was not alone in thinking as I did.” He resigned his commission and won a place at St Martin’s.
At the end of his third year, in 1963, Laing spent the summer in New York, having been given introductions to Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jim Rosenquist and Robert Indiana, all still on the brink of fame.
When Indiana employed him as a studio assistant, Laing was introduced to a world of giant lofts, vast canvases and huge palettes of paint mixed on large sheets of glass. “Even their paint tubes were bigger than ours,” he noted.
Laing started painting the images of skydivers, astronauts, drag racers and starlets which were to preoccupy him for the next two years. Returning to London to finish his college course, the penniless student left half a dozen paintings in Indiana’s loft, unable to afford to ship them home.
A year later Laing received a telegram: “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 by Richard Feigen, an influential gallery owner from Chicago who had decided to open a second showroom in New York.
Laing, now with a young family, returned to America. For five years he lived in New York, painting at first in a rat-infested loft in the Bowery. Then, in 1965, he turned to abstract sculpture, often working in metal.
Laing prospered, and enjoyed a bohemian lifestyle fuelled by too much drink; but by 1969 he had become disillusioned by the assassinations of both Kennedys and Martin Luther King, and by the Vietnam War. He returned to Britain, buying and restoring Kirkell Castle, a turreted medieval tower house north of Inverness.
Then, in 1973, after an epiphany at the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner early one summer’s day, he bought some clay, and devoted himself to working on the human figure.
He taught himself to cast in bronze, and built his own foundry. His Galina series (1977), depicting his then wife, was said to include some of the finest figurative sculpture of its time.
Prominent public commissions followed, including The Wise and Foolish Virgins (1979), a frieze of bare-breasted women for an office building in George Street, Edinburgh; the bronze bas-relief twin dragons at Bank station in the City of London (1995); and the rugby line-out on Rowland Hill Gate at Twickenham (1996).
But with the publication of the Abu Ghraib prison torture photographs in 2003, Laing returned to the colourful Pop painting style that he had abandoned at the end of the 1960s. When his controversial Abu Ghraib paintings were exhibited in New York in 2005, the gallery hired an armed guard in case of trouble.
In response to the terrorist atrocities in London of July 7 2005, Laing employed the 3D technique he had used to such effect with Souvenir in 1962. From one (oblique) point of view, Truth or Consequences, some three metres long, shows Tony Blair and the twisted wreckage of the blown-apart London bus; from the other, it shows President George W Bush and the destruction of Baghdad. Both leaders are walking towards the viewer along the same White House carpet. On the anniversary of the London attacks in 2007 the painting was exhibited by the National Army Museum.
“My work has been varied, and so has my life – full of ups and downs; on top of the world one minute, descending into alcoholism the next,” Laing recalled. “But life is what you make of it, and when you have the confidence to go out and follow your dreams it can take you on an incredible journey.”
His work is exhibited in public and private collections around the world, including at the Tate, the V&A, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery in London; and in the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum, New York, and the Smithsonian Institution.
Gerald Laing, who changed his name by deed poll to Ogilvie-Laing in 1968, was thrice married. His first marriage, in 1962, to Jenifer Anne Redway, with whom he had a daughter, ended in divorce. In 1969 he married Galina Vassilovna Golikova, with whom he had two sons. With his third wife, Adaline Havemeyer Frelinghuysen, whom he married in 1988, he also had two sons.