MM Design is celebrating after submitting its winning bid to acquire a rare portfolio of original 1968 silkscreen prints by the British Pop artist Gerald Laing.
The portfolio of 5 silkscreen prints, recently purchased at auction in New Jersey, depicts dragster racing cars, an aspect of American culture that Gerald Laing first started to look at when he visited New York in 1963 .
“These cars, specialised to such a degree that their engines can only run for a few seconds, are designed solely for straight line acceleration over a (short) course. As wheels grip, vast rolling clouds of smoke from the burnt rubber of the tyres billow out behind the car, and when the engine is cut a few seconds later at the end of the strip, a parachute is popped in the sudden silence to bring the car safely to a standstill. The cars and helmets of the drivers are painted in bright heraldic colours and the cryptic symbols of sponsors; they race in pairs down the mile track in bright sunshine, and it seemed to me that they represented a modern version of the medieval joust in almost every respect. The extravagant and ruthless specialisation reminded me of the armour designed especially for the tournament; the ceremony and curious rituals, some necessary and some simply a matter of style, cried out for commemoration’.
Painter and printmaker Gerald Laing, whose last works included pop art featuring the late singer Amy Winehouse, was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and had been living on the Black Isle, near Inverness up until his death in 2011. He spent much of the 1960s working between London and New York and was a close friend of artists Robert Indiana, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.
Laing’s particular interest was the relationship between photography and painting. For Laing, the dreariness and hardship of the post-war social landscape, suggested that the perfection of the photograph and the printed image, particularly in the form of the advertisement (with all its persuasive powers), represented not only an ideal but also a vision for the future. For many, this was a welcome and refreshing change and there was hope that this new aesthetic would gloss over a discredited past.
Although parallels existed between those US and UK artists who were to form the Pop Art movement, there remained a fundamental difference between the two. The Americans had experienced no recent social, economic or political hardship. They had grown up in the midst of the American Dream to which many young British artists were, at that time attracted, and by which many American artist were repelled.
The early 1960’s were were the earliest days of the “space race” between the USA and the USSR, which seemed to begin when the Russians put Yuri Gagarin into orbit in Sputnik I, followed in short order by the American Astronaut Gordon Cooper outdoing him by making 22 orbits. Pilots volunteered to attempt to withstand severe physical tests in the name of research. The general public followed these events with an avid interest, fascinated by both the risk and the technology – from the giant rockets, the capsules and launch sites to the spectacular space suits with their air conditioning in a small suitcase attached to each astronaut by a convoluted umbilical cord, and other arcane items such as zero inertia tools for use in weightless conditions.
Drag racing and hotrod building were a cultural phenomenon peculiar to the United States that was, to some extent attuned to the widespread and historic interest in speed and distance as a metaphor for progress. It began with illegal racing in hijacked cars on closed-off sections of the highway. (Think James Dean, “Rebel without a Cause” and cars racing side by side in pairs in a straight line). The ceremony, danger, imagery and accoutrements involved made it difficult for Laing to avoid comparisons with medieval jousting.
A Drag race is a quarter mile sprint from a standing start, in which the cars can reach a phenomenal 250 miles per hour in under four seconds. As the track or road runs out, engines are cut, there is dead silence, and a parachute is released behind the car to slow it down as safely as possible. Laing’s images such as AA-D and CT STROKERS show the moment of sudden acceleration and ferocious racket, when the engine howls and the enormous flat back tyres spin on the track throwing up clouds of black rubber smoke.
At the end of the summer of 1963 Laing returned (temporarily) to London to finish his last year at St Martin’s.
That November the shiny image of the USA clouded as Laing heard the news in his studio, when radio broadcasts were interrupted to announce the events in Dallas and Kennedy’s assassination.
Laing detested the talk of “Camelot” in Washington and Kennedy as the Arthurian hero and wrote:
“In spite of the extreme violence which pervaded the twentieth century, we had been presented with a sanitised version of the past, which produced in us a sense of stability and rectitude which was as deeply felt as it was false. Thus, when the President of the richest, most powerful, and apparently most moral country – the land of the good guys – proved to be vulnerable to the assassin’s bullet, it came as a terrible and fundamental shock, which obliged us sooner or later to adopt more realistic, if less comfortable attitudes. It drove from us our wilful naivete. Henceforward we became less easy to please or deceive, and much harder to placate.”
Gerald Laing revisited his interest in dragsters in 1968 and produced a limited edition portfolio of 5 screenprints: “AAD”, “Deceleration I”, “Deceleration II,” “Swamp Rat IV” and “CT Strokers”.
Thanks to www.geraldlaing.com for source material and Gerald Laing quotations.