Bronze, with a mottled green patina
Height: 10 3/4" (27 cm)
Conceived in 1973 and cast 1974
Edition 2 of 10
Early one July morning in 1973, Gerald Laing found himself trapped in a taxi with a conceptual artist. They were on the way back to the Chelsea Arts Club from a party in east London but his friend’s behaviour had become increasingly objectionable. As they drove through Hyde Park Corner, Laing was unable to bear any more and asked the driver to stop. He leapt from the taxi to be confronted by a towering uniformed figure, arms outstretched in recollection of the crucifixion. Laing was transfixed by this sculpture of the Driver from Charles Sergeant Jagger’s Royal Artillery Memorial. Already in a ‘state of heightened awareness’, Laing spent the next few hours in contemplation of the memorial and the bronze figures that surrounded it. As dawn broke he was overcome by a revelation that ‘no abstract art could contain a fraction of the love, passion, pain, pride, sorrow, beauty, and acceptance that this great work of art effortlessly projects.’ When Laing returned home to Kinkell the next day he had determined to begin figurative sculpture – a change in approach that would come to occupy him for more than three decades.
Laing had been looking for a new direction to his work for some time. His move to Scotland, which had arisen from his sense of disillusion with the New York art scene, and his new life in the rural Highlands continued to challenge his work. At first it was the countryside surrounding his castle at Kinkell that influenced his work; his abstract sculptures taking on the more rugged unfinished qualities of their surroundings. Soon, however, he grew restless with this way of working and was possessed by a growing sense that he ‘had exhausted this avenue’. He found himself surrounded not just by a new landscape but by a new community. His neighbours included the writer Antonia Fraser and her husband, the politician Hugh Fraser, and he spent much time in their company and that of their literary friends, such as Paul Johnson and Tom Stoppard. He was disturbed to find that while he admired their work, they were unable to understand his sculpture and its concerns. In New York, supported by like-minded peers and a self-sustaining art scene, it had been easy to maintain that those who did not ‘get it’ needed to be educated in the ways of the new art, now, however, ‘plucked from that narrow silver box of certitude which formed the New York art world’ he began to feel that it was the nature of his work that might be at fault.
Laing had come to feel constrained by the limitations both of the technique of fabrication and the discipline of abstraction. He was frustrated by the difficulty he found in connecting with a wider audience and with engaging with subject matter beyond a self-referential commentary on artistic practice while working within these strictures. Laing subsequently described his experience of pure abstraction as ‘tantamount to taking a tranquilliser, or escaping to an ivory tower.’ He had already begun to experiment with modelling in clay in an attempt to find a new direction and had made tentative steps towards figuration with his Anthropomorphic Pyramids but the inspiration that he sought had continued to elude him. It was in this state of mind that he leapt from the taxi at Hyde Park Corner, fleeing from the antics of a conceptual artist into the outstretched bronze arms of figurative sculpture.
Laing returned to Kinkell galvanised to throw himself headlong into working in clay from the figure, using his wife Galina as model. However, he did not initially see himself as embarking on a dramatic break with his past work, beyond a change in subject matter and medium. Despite the strength of his ‘epiphany’ it was not to Jagger that Laing looked for immediate inspiration. His first work of this period, Galina I (1973) was influenced by Pablo Picasso, who had died earlier that year, particularly his painting of Francoise Gilot, Femme Fleur.
Galina I, 1973, bronze
Galina II (1973) drew inspiration from Julio González’s Femme au Chapeau. Constantin Brancusi was also a strong influence on his early work.
These first figurative sculptures, influenced by cubist and other modernist works, retained an approach that still owed more to abstraction than empirical observation and Laing continued to investigate the preoccupations with ‘line, surface and paradoxes of volume’ which had informed and driven his abstract work. Laing later described this way of working in his memoirs: ‘The disciplined geometry I had brought to such a pitch in my utopian abstract work provided the framework. Near-vertical were always absolutely vertical; approximate right angles were always precisely 90 degrees; any logic, whether universal or occurring only within the parameters of self-imposed rules developed for a particular sculpture, was followed faithfully once adopted or discovered.’
When Anthony Caro made his own return to figuration in the 1980s, he observed that ‘in its early days the course of abstraction in sculpture had to be defended to maintain its life. Now that abstraction is firmly and centrally established within the language of sculpture it no longer calls for quite the same emphasis. All art relies on abstraction.’ This journey, which Caro described in political terms, Laing expressed on a more personal level, talking of his abstract work as ‘a necessary detour’ in which he learned much of value that continued to inform his figurative sculpture.
The tension between abstraction and figuration was not a problem that Laing sought to solve definitively. Indeed the power of much of his work (both sculpture and paintings) comes from the dialogue between a subjective, stylised approach that tended towards the abstract and an objective, naturalistic approach that arose from observation. Laing saw these two elements, which he came to refer to as ‘Classical’ and ‘Romantic’, not as mutually exclusive, competing methodologies, but as complementary qualities that were necessary in any successful sculpture. An overly subjective approach led to what he saw as the banalities of minimalist abstraction whereas a purely objective approach risked becoming mere copying, creating a work that was ‘life-like’ but lacked a life of its own.
This conversation between two approaches within a single work strongly echoed Laing’s use of areas of at colour alongside the suggestion of volume with black and white halftone dots of his pop paintings. In Galina I, for example, he worked with ‘a conscious dichotomy between the geometric interpretations of the left shoulder compared with the organic modelling of the right one.
Laing’s series of Reclining Figure reliefs and sculptures from 1974-5 most clearly show his continuing work with abstraction, now taking the objective observation of the human figure as its starting point. The works in this series were all derived from a page of drawings of Galina and through the wooden sculptures Reclining Figure II (Oak) (1975), Reclining Figure III (Laminated Oak) (1975), and Reclining Figure IV (Walnut) (1975), the shapes of the figure become progressively more geometric and architectural.
Reclining Figure II (Oak), 1975, wood
In contrast to this journey towards abstraction and clarification of form, the Galina series shows a movement towards greater naturalism. The later sculptures from the series – Galina IX (Sears Hat) (1976) and Galina X (1977) show a more objective treatment of the facial features beginning to emerge, which is contrasted with the more formal lines of hat and hair. In An American Girl (1977) we see a similar combination of naturalism and stylisation; the softer features of the face contrasting with the helmet-like headscarf and the harder geometric lines of the hips and lower back. This stylised naturalism combined with the directness of the pose lending the work a sensibility that Douglas Hall described as a ‘Pop commentary on Rodin’.
An American Girl, 1977, bronze