Sixties Pop Art had a “culpable banality” and Andy Warhol’s sculpture of Brillo boxes was a “real travesty”, according to one of the movement’s pioneers, Gerald Laing.
The Scottish artist features heavily in a new show at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, in which Pop Art finds politics. Many of the works are from the past ten years.
“Of course we were seduced by the American glossiness,” says Laing. “We were emerging from an intolerable period in Britain. You know the sixties were not all fun. There were plenty of bombed buildings everywhere and plenty of worn out cars, you know. Everything was crumbling and hopeless and very few people wore miniskirts.”
It puzzles him why musicians, rather than artists, were the leading voices of protest. “The only pop artist I can remember at all who was involved with politics in Britain was Derek Boshier and in America was James Rosenquist. The rest skated past it.”
Laing’s own attempts to engage with current affairs floundered when he tried to sell a painting of the Kennedy assassination. “My dealer wouldn’t show it, so it was folded up and put in the garden shed. He said it was a downer and he didn’t want anything to do with it and it stayed there for 30 years.” Now the painting is recognised as the only representation of the shooting completed at the time.
Instead, it was paintings of all-American girls and Navy pilots which helped Laing make his name. But these images would later haunt him as, 50 years later, allied forces invaded Iraq and bombers flew raids from 35,000 ft. “It was not exactly a heroic act,” he says, “but it was being carried out by the people I used to paint.”
The souring of the American dream prompted Laing to return to painting after many years making sculpture and the resulting series, War Paintings, is now on show for the first time in a UK public space. Tony Blair, Abu Graibh and Warhol’s Brillo boxes all feature.
“When I painted Blair in front of the destruction of Baghdad and I’m contrasting it with what I imagine his living room in Notting Hill to be like. I’m thinking ‘you’re not going to get away with this’, because although we can’t change anything we can commemorate it and it won’t go away,” he says.
Laing offers a potted history of war painting, from illuminated manuscripts up until the horrifying realism of Otto Dix, complete with a highly entertaining digression.
“I dreamt I was picking the Bayeux Tapestry to bits with a pair of nail scissors about a week ago, and I actually pulled the arrow our of Harold’s eye,” he says, laughing. “I don’t know what it means. It doesn’t sound very politically correct anyway.”
Perhaps it was a comment on the visual appeal of warfare today. “The awful thing is that the war images, the pyrotechnics we now have, have an awful beauty. The little circles of phosphorus popping out like pearls and the lurid colours and the effects of the smoke afterwards.
“In fact I’m thinking of Constable and what little opportunity he had compared with now,” he jokes.
Whereas most people “chickened out”, Laing is keen to point out that the only “people in the establishment” who “wholeheartedly backed it” are from the Wolverhampton venue and the National Army Museum in Chelsea which, he feels, “is extraordinary.”
“You have to follow the party line or you’re out on your ear,” he says at another point. “You know I don’t think that’s the job of an artist to follow anybody’s party line. I think it’s quite a good thing to be out on your ear too if you’re an artist.”
Consequently, Laing has a lot of time for younger talents. “I think there are two things happening that are really cheering,” he says.
“Young artists are politically engaged and they do have much more information than we had.” The 74-year-old artist even has a “fairly close relationship” with a number of street artists.
But Laing is joined by a number of figures from his generation for the show at Wolverhampton. Derek Boshier, Richard Hamilton, Jann Haworth and Clive Barker all contribute protest work. If the times they are a-changing, again, it is better late than never.
Written for Culture24.