Gerald Laing Was Pop Art’s Unsung Car Enthusiast Hero
Once, he rode a Vincent Black Shadow across America; later, he swapped the bike for a chopped, channeled, and raked 1930 Ford hotrod.
Unless you’re an art major, chances are you don’t know Gerald Laing. Maybe Warhol, Lichtenstein or Robert Indiana, all of whom counted him as a friend and peer, ring a bell. But Laing hasn’t always gotten his due. That’s a shame, because the man is a damn hero. He was also one of us.
The product of a military education, Laing served as an army lieutenant before resigning his post to take a stab at art school. He became enamored of America after visiting, and soon traded concrete austerity of postwar England for a life in New York. During the Sixties, he dove into the avant-garde scene, producing a series of works blending newspaper images with sexy, colorful oil-on-canvas. Then, in the Seventies, after moving back to Europe, he branched into sculpture, later returning to pop art before passing away in 2011. Laing’s best-known piece is a portrait of Brigitte Bordat; his last major work featured Amy Winehouse. Talk about longevity.
Celebrity iconography defined mainstream success, but Laing’s automotive-themed pieces offer a peek into the artist's mind. Splashy, clever paintings of skydivers, spaceships, racing drivers, formula cars, and scenes from the dragstrip. Each is rendered in detail only a gearhead would understand or appreciate. Which makes sense, since Laing was a prolific gearhead himself.
Once, he rode a Vincent Black Shadow across America; later, he swapped the bike for a chopped, channeled, and raked 1930 Ford with a Chevy V8. When Laing left New York, the fuel-injected Roadster came with him, one of the first genuine article American hotrods to wash up on English shores. It became his trademark in London, open headers blasting over Tower Bridge and around Hyde Park. He eventually traded it for a Mk2 twin-cam Ford Lotus Cortina, on impulse, at a stoplight, after losing a race. But, above all else, he used cars to put the world in context.
“The culture of LA seemed more nihilistic than that of New York,” Laing once said. “Driving along La Cienaga in a convertible with some kids I saw my first hotrod, a cherry red five window coupé. I said, ‘Gosh, look at that, isn’t it beautiful,’ and the girl sitting next to me said, ‘Yeah, let’s ram it.’”