Purchased from Richard Feigen Gallery in 1964 by the celebrated American publisher and art collector Harry N. Abrams, the present work stems from Gerald Laing's seminal series of eight ‘Skydiver’ paintings. Created between 1963 and 1964, these works stand among the great icons of the artist’s early oeuvre, with examples held in the Denver Art Museum, Colorado; Tate, London; and the University of New Mexico Art Museum, Albuquerque. Alongside the ‘Astronauts’, ‘Dragsters’ and ‘Starlets’ that the artist produced during this period, the ‘Skydivers’ embody the spirit of exploration, discovery and optimism that swept Britain during the 1960s. The works were based on a photograph of a parachutist from Life magazine, which Laing had discovered whilst visiting Robert Indiana’s studio in New York in 1963. He returned to the city the following summer, following his graduation from St Martin’s School of Art in London, and would remain there for the next five years. Combining bold, geometric passages of colour with half-tone dots in a manner that referenced contemporary printing techniques, the present work bears witness to Laing’s dialogue with Roy Lichtenstein, who was independently exploring similar ideas. Indicating a key moment in the transatlantic development of Pop Art, it captures the birth of a brave new world: one that would shatter the boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘low’ forms of image-making. The motif of the falling man, arms outstretched against the void, speaks as much to contemporary scientific advancement as it does to art’s extraordinary leap of faith during this period.
For Laing, the mechanically-reproduced nature of his source images was as tantalising and miraculous as the world they portrayed. ‘The dreariness and hardship of the post-war social landscape’, he wrote, ‘… suggested to me that the perfection of the photograph and the printed image, particularly in the proselytising form of the advertisement, represented not only an ideal but also a plan for the future which could replace a discredited past’ (G. Laing, quoted in L. Ingram and R. Halliwell (eds.), Gerald Laing Prints & Multiples: A Catalogue Raisonné, London 2006, p. 9). In New York – home to America’s booming advertising and media industries – Laing was brought face to face with the seductive promises of printed imagery. Pictures of fast cars, glamorous women and the glories of the Space Race were made all the more alluring by their glossy proliferation: there was, he recalls, ‘[a] notion that reproduced media images had a stronger sense of reality than reality itself’ (G. Laing, quoted at https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/laing-skydiver-vi-t03842 [accessed 23 April 2019]). Laing’s encounters with American artists, including Indiana and Lichtenstein, was equally infectious: ‘they eschewed the use of muddy palettes to which we seemed condemned’, he enthused, ‘and mixed their paints wholesale on large sheets of glass … even their paint tubes were bigger than ours’ (G. Laing, quoted in L. Ingram and R. Halliwell, ibid., p. 51). The image of the skydiver and parachute would recur throughout Laing’s practice during the 1960s, increasingly leading him towards abstraction as his fascination with pattern and repetition intensified. In the present work, we are presented with the image in its purest state: a bold, vivid expression of youthful hope and clarity, alive with the thrill of new adventure.