When I woke up in my seat, I could tell the older man next to me, Jeremy—who had struck up a pretty lengthy conversation with me earlier in the flight—was no longer in any shape to talk.
His headphones were on and he was staring straight ahead at his screen. I tilted toward him, peeked at his screen, and discerned that he was entranced by the documentary Val—a film I have actually seen, about the thrilling actor Val Kilmer, who suffers a major setback, throat cancer, and has to get a tracheotomy. Take it from me, the film is very moving. Jeremy had made an excellent choice.
Meanwhile, Jeremy’s tray stand was crowded, maybe even sagging slightly under the weight of … let me count them: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 … eight empty minibottles of complimentary Pinot Noir.
Jeremy was an intriguing older man, but let me be honest, the only reason I even tolerated him initially (the guy who just happened to be seated next to me on my red-eye to London Heathrow International Airport) was because he made me laugh. He also made the flight attendant (who like me was Asian, and about my age) laugh, when she came down the aisle serving drinks and handed Jeremy the first of his eight minibottles of wine (the equivalent of one glass) and he looked up at her with these childish eyes, held up his mini red wine bottle and asked: “do you have like, um, a … mini corkscrew?”
“Why,” she asked.
“Won’t I need it to open this?” The flight attendant and I were both pretty shocked at first by the man’s total stupidity, but quickly caught on. Need I explain?—he was pretending to be oblivious to the fact that A) there’s no such thing as a mini corkscrew, and B) his plastic wine bottle was obviously a twist-off, same as your basic plastic bottle of Mountain Dew.
Another thing that Jeremy Sigler (I believe that was his last name) had going for him was his excellent taste in movies. He had settled on the only in-flight movie worth watching, other than the one I had watched, starring Nicholas Cage—a cult movie star from way back in the ’90s—as himself, out of work, broke, and long overdue, if not desperate, for a role, if not a revival. Cage was famous in movies long before I was born in the year 2000—a year before 9/11 if that helps—meaning I am Gen Z, meaning I am very quick on all handheld digital devices. It is important that I clarify that my reason for liking Nicholas Cage (let alone even knowing who he is) is due to a photograph I saw of him recently on Twitter, walking down the street with his new hot, way younger Asian (I would say Japanese) wife, who was about six months pregnant with, according to the picture’s caption, his child.
After Val ended, the cabin lights flickered on, our tray stands were cleared and we were served a fresh round of complimentary Pinot Noirs. While twisting open my plastic bottle, I watched Jeremy fumble around in the pocket of his very wrinkled navy pinstripe button-down oxford, spill an assortment of various shaped pills out onto his tray stand, and study them closely. He then picked a light blue one, tossed it in his mouth, and washed it down with a swig of his wine.
“What was that?” I asked.
“What was what?”
“That, I said, pointing to the remaining scattered pills.
“Ohhhh, that!” He took another swig of wine and answered, “speed. Well technically amphetamines … Adderall.”
“Of course, Adderall.” Just as I was about to ask him for one, he politely offered.
“OK, just a half,” I said.
He snapped it. Down the hatch it went, and instantly, we were cooking on all burners, as they say, fully engaged in conversation. And while it was clear to me that Jeremy was pretty much totally out of it (dependent on God only knows how many substances), he was also, I have to admit, kind of on his game, and (thanks to his regulated amphetamine bumps) capable of carrying on a pretty lively conversation without losing his train of thought, which was pretty remarkable for any guy—even the young guys in their 20s.
I quickly gathered that Jeremy was some kind of gun for hire in the niche field of art criticism—he was an expert in art and therefore had the power to assign value to works and to help dealers, auction houses, and collectors make money. Jeremy’s writing could, prior to auction, seriously inflate or deflate a work’s price. Right now, he was on the trail of some paintings of Amy Winehouse, who was supposedly some kind of wretched rock star of the 1990s, meaning that she probably shot herself in the head, or stabbed herself in the heart. The paintings were by a British artist named Gerald Laing, who specialized in pop art, which is something that died before I was born.
Anyway, I began to ask questions. And Jeremy’s answers kept coming. The key to the location of the paintings was a man named Donald Rosenfeld, who had a mysterious involvement with the artist and the gallery preparing to show the artist. My guess was that he had some skin in the game—that he, in other words, had works by the artist in his own collection.
Over the course of our conversation, I discerned that Donald was otherwise known as a big movie producer—presently documentaries, like a PBS documentary on Andy Warhol directed by Ric Burns in 2006 (the brother of Ken Burns); a film called Forty Shades of Blue which won the top prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005; and a film called The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick, which won top prize at the 64th Cannes Film Festival. He also produced Effie Gray, a film about John Ruskin and his hideously bad marriage. Before that, like back in the ’80s and ’90s, Donald was the president of Merchant Ivory Films, and had produced a bunch of Academy Award-winning films like Howards End and The Remains of the Day, which were nominated for eight and then nine Academy Awards, and starred British actors like Emma Stone, or Emma Thomas—no, Thompson! In 1992 Donald was elected to be a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, meaning he was a pretty gigantic mover and shaker in Hollywood—the kind of guy who could get me in touch with Nicholas Cage by speed-dialing his number on his cellphone.
But most of the things Jeremy told me about Donald actually seemed like total bullshit. For example, he said, “Donald had his bar mitzvah on the Allman Brothers’ tour bus.”
“The almond butter what?” I asked, picturing an aisle at Trader Joe’s.
Jeremy didn’t bother to explain. He just went on telling Donald’s story. “The band was in St. Louis around 1967—they were actually called Hour Glass back then—and they found a moment of euphoric success at the height of the Summer of Love and booked a 30-day concert series at the famous Crystal Palace Theater in the Central West End of St. Louis, which was back then a rather dangerous neighborhood. The theater was owned by a close family friend named Jay Landesman.”
“Go on,” I said.
“So Donald’s father’s first cousin Jimmy offered Greg and Duane Allman a comfortable place to camp out and rehearse—at his Uncle Irving’s palatial apartment overlooking Forest Park in St. Louis.” Jeremy stopped to take a sip of wine and snap another Addie, taking one half and handing the other to me.
“And then what happened,” I asked.
“Get a load of this. It was fucking incredible. Donald’s father brought him and his younger sister (they were only 6 and 5) over to Uncle Irving’s, which is where they discovered the Allman Brothers literally set up in the living room with all their big Marshall stacks and electric guitars and stuff, jamming the blues at ear-splitting volume! And there were all these friends and groupies hanging around, drinking beer and dropping acid and stuff. And the jam session went on for hours. What Donald remembers most is when the band’s drummer, this guy known as Jaimoe, like, grabbed his stuffed Tigger doll and refused to return it, and he started crying. And then Duane, bless his heart—he would later die in a motorcycle accident with a peach truck—rescued Tigger and gently returned it to him with a sweet wink.”
Jeremy continued to go on and on and on about this guy Rosenfeld. “You would not believe the lunch we had! He took me to this Chinese place in midtown that served the best—I mean the best—Peking Duck I have ever had, bar none.”
By now Jeremy was, like, reenacting the scene at the table when he held one of the pancakes up to the chandelier. “They were so thin I could see right through them! They were so delicate and, with a little hoisin sauce (he imitated the spreading of the sauce and using imaginary chopsticks to set down a slice of green onion), positively delicious!” Even after I told him like 10 times that my family was originally from Shanghai, and that I was really more a connoisseur of soup dumplings, he just wouldn’t stop with the Peking duck.
“But what is the project?” I finally asked, sensing that Jeremy was in fact maybe a little ADHD for real, and not just consuming Adderall recreationally. “Focus man,” I said, and then raised my voice a bit louder: “Focus!!”
“What project? Oh, this project. My gig. Well my editor at the Tablet, this dude David Samuels who is pals with Donald and, like, one of the true legends of the lost art of long-form journalism, and moves in mysterious places I don’t get invited to, assigned me to write a long, colorful feature on the late British artist Gerard … oops, no, I mean Gerald, Laing.”
“So it’s our job to, like, resuscitate his career, to like, rediscover him?” I asked, with, I have to admit, far greater curiosity than I would have expected myself to feel in a million years.
I smiled, flashing Jeremy my most charming selfie face.
Jeremy just nodded, “I think it’s our job to, like, discover him—to start from tabula rasa.”
Jeremy continued: “He’s been discovered and rediscovered so many times already. Once upon a time, Gerald Laing was a very big deal in New York. At the outset of the pop art movement, he was right at the center. And then he, like, vanished for a few years and reappeared again at the center of minimalism. In 1966, Kynaston McShine included him in his very famous show Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum. So Laing, like, disappeared off the pop radar, and three years later reappeared on the minimalism radar with an entirely new aesthetic, and was suddenly being associated with artists like Donald Judd and Larry Bell, instead of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. He’s really quite a remarkable figure—in somehow being totally off the radar. As if he was digitally scrubbed out of art history.”
“Where do you think he went?”
“That’s what I (or I guess we) are going all the way up to Inverness to try to figure out.”
I nodded, still a little unsure if Jeremy had actually surrendered to the realization that he had already, more or less, invited me to tag along and help him with his work. But there could be no doubt that my enthusiasm (along with the amphetamines coursing through Jeremy’s system) was getting this old dog going.
“Recently there’s been renewed interest in Laing. A 1963 painting of Brigitte Bardot, made from a photograph and rendered in half-tone dots, sold at a Christies auction for almost a mil, and in 2016 there was a retrospective spanning his entire career with all its fascinating contradictions and clashing impulses and styles.”
“It was held at the Fine Art Society in London. But somehow his family, mainly his two sons, put together this gigantic, 500-page, totally comprehensive catalogue raisonné. It’s what I call a 20-pounder.”
“Sounds like we are on the cusp of a Gerald Laing moment.”
“That’s for sure,” Jeremy said, shifting to Laing’s last body of work, the paintings of the very tragic rock goddess, Amy Winehouse. “I’m not really much of a Winehouse fan, but I’m intrigued by these. They’ll be shown next month at Palo Gallery on Bond Street in Lower Manhattan. It’s this space designed, and partially owned, by the starchitect Annabelle Selldorf.”
Jeremy then started spewing out names as if he had art world Asperger’s: “Neue, Rubell, Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, Gladstone, Haunch of Venison, Acquavella, Michael Werner … she designed all of these galleries.” He paused …“What was I saying?”
“Right. Palo Gallery. It functions as a showroom for Selldorf’s line of furniture, called Vica, and will also exhibit art curated by her business partner, Paul Henkel ...”
“But wait, tell me more about this Gerald Laing character.”
Jeremy reached for the tote bag under his seat, pulled out an exhibition catalog and handed it to me. “I actually wrote a short text on Laing already,” he said, handing me his reading glasses, which were perched on top of his gray, frizzy hair. “You may need these,” he said, “the type is small.”
I smiled. “Dude, I’m like 22. I don’t need reading glasses.” I began flipping from image to image. Paintings from ’64, all made in a hypergraphic style that was popular back then, usually accomplished by appropriating images from found sources (like Life magazine) and projecting them onto large canvases. These were pop blow-ups, apparently—one showed a skydiver in a helmet and goggles, surrounded by a colorful, wavy parachute that appeared to be fluttering in the wind; another was a helmeted daredevil auto racer sunken down in the cockpit of of a drag car behind smoking tires and a massive chrome-plated engine; and then there were softer, more Beach Boy-ish paintings of pretty girls with stylish haircuts in bikinis. What actually grabbed me most was a large, flat green painting with a matrix of colorful dots vaguely articulating the bodies in the Lincoln convertible at the catastrophic moment when JFK was struck. “I like this one.”
“Yeah. That’s when JFK’s motorcade drove past the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza. It’s taken from one of the stills from the infamous Zapruder film. I guess it’s known as frame 313.”
I flipped a few pages further to a later painting, of an anorexic-looking Amy Winehouse in a skin-tight black dress, squeezing her tits together and a retro beehive falling loose over her face into a shaggy tangled mess, probably as sticky as a mop dragged through a puddle of her own puke. The simple word “ew” escaped from my mouth. I studied her tattooed upper arm—a retro, pin-up girl named Cynthia in a red shirt knotted at the waist and a skin-tight pair of blue short-shorts that I could see myself rocking.
In the painting, Winehouse is holding hands with the bad-seed boyfriend—in a dark suit and fedora hat—who got her addicted to heroin.
I took a deep breath and began reading about Amy, wondering what had inspired Laing, in 2008, after 44 years of letting his brushes collect dust, to pick them up again and paint this diva at the most pathetic phase of her career. In another painting, Amy is pushing a vacuum cleaner at her front door while dragging on a cigarette. Jeremy’s text commented on how the vacuum was a metaphor for an exploited superstar “being pimped out and jerked around to suck up every last speck of money and fame.”
“Poor Amy,” I said.
“Poor Laing,” Jeremy replied. “Like Amy, he was fast out of the starting gate in the ’60s, considered one of the leaders in the first wave of pop, and then dropped.” Jeremy opened a research folder with a bunch of xeroxed pages from a July 16, 1965, article in Life, titled “You Bought It, Now Live With It.” In it, the reader is taken on a tour through the home of two of the earliest and most dedicated collectors of pop art, Robert and Ethel Skull. The walls of their home are jam-packed with large (now very famous) works by Warhol, Rosenquist, Lichtenstein, Indiana, Wesselmann, Johns, Rauschenberg. Right there among them is Gerald Laing.
In his text, Jeremy compared the Skulls’ living room to a collage made back in 1958 by the so-called father of pop, Richard Hamilton, titled “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?” In Hamilton’s artwork he depicts a room. In it, there’s a can of Spam; a vintage television set framing a woman holding a telephone up to her ear; and a bodybuilder holding a giant Blow Pop as if it were a dumbbell.
“That’s pretty phallic,” I said, as I studied the room’s back wall, with a blown up cover of a magazine that was, apparently, very popular back in the ’50s called Young Romance. Its poster-size scale in the Hamilton collage gave it the appearance a Roy Lichtenstein, but a decade before the first Roy Lichtenstein.
“I always assumed pop referred to a gun going pop!” I said. “But this collage suggests that pop was in fact a reference to a lollipop, something you suck, like, um ... a penis.”
“Yeah, that cherry-flavored Charms Blow Pop has the word pop printed right there on the label,” Jeremy kindly pointed out.
“So I guess pop is all about giving and getting blowjobs.”
“Well, back in the past, straight couples were a little squeamish about fellatio, whereas gay men might be more likely to walk right into gay bars, make a little eye contact, and go right back to some bathroom and do whatever,” Sigler instructed me. “Straight men, meanwhile, were still begging their wives to go down on them.”
“So pop was gay?”
“Laing actually does tell this story about Robert Indiana’s pretty much universally loathed artwork, LOVE—the one with the letters LO stacked on top of the letters VE. According to Laing, “Bob” (who was gay of course) told him that the “O” was pitched at an angle so that it would look more like the head of a penis.”
“Ha,” I blurted, “So pop was a blow job in a gay bar.” I think Jeremy actually blushed.
“I think pop was a bit more ambiguous,” Jeremy said. “The same way Andy Warhol was sexually ambiguous, if not asexual. In fact, Laing wrote a lot about Warhol. He describes his bland non-sequiturs, such as ‘I like boring things’ or ‘machines have less problems, I’d like to be a machine, wouldn’t you?’”
Jeremy then took out a spiral pad filled with scribblings. It looked like a fifth grader’s notebook, judging by the words Algebra 2 written on its cover with a Sharpie. Another quote of Laing speaking about another pop painter who was not gay, James Rosenquist, read: “I met Jim Rosenquist first. He is a Scandinavian from the Middle West. Fair-skinned and blond-haired, stocky and strongly built, he gave the impression that he could easily be at home on a tractor in some vast grain prairie … Jim’s technique owes everything to the advertising billboards which he used to paint for a living.” He then describes the “painted foam and a misty chill of condensed moisture sliding down the side of a glass of Heineken 40 feet high.”
“Another cock,” I shamelessly offered.
A few minutes later, our jet made a smooth landing in London, and I was standing in the clogged aisle unlatching the overhead storage bin responding to Jeremy’s questions about whether I had any idea which gate his connecting flight to Glasgow would be departing from.
“What am I your babysitter?” I asked, grinning. Guys Jeremy’s age, who consume that much alcohol and Adderall on international flights, usually don’t have a clue how to get to their connecting flights. Without their wives, they really can’t do anything, or get anywhere—which leaves them quite vulnerable to Zoomers like me. Not to brag, but in college, if the teacher was a frumpy white man over 30, I knew I could get an A in the class without ever attending the class. All I had to do was write the teacher a thoughtful email at the end of the semester explaining my traumas. Where should I start?
“Where are we going next?” I asked, tossing him his bag, which rattled with pills. I slung my backpack over my shoulder and gave him my best selfie face as he responded “Glasgow.”
After finagling with the agents at the British Airways ticket counter and managing to get new seating assignments, Jeremy and I were seated side by side on the short flight to Glasgow. Even before we had taxied out to the runway, Jeremy flagged down the flight attendant. “How ’bout a cold beer?” Picturing the Rosenquist, I added, “Can you make that two?”
Soon the plane landed and Jeremy reached for his phone, dialed a number, and spoke to whoever we were traveling to meet. “Hi. Is this Fucker?” I heard him ask, before realizing he was attempting to pronounce the Scottish name, Farquhar, which is often wrongly pronounced “Far-Quar” but is in fact closer to being pronounced “Far-Kur,” or just “Fucker.”
“So I don’t think I mentioned that I will NOT be arriving alone.” There was a short pause and Jeremy looked at me while speaking into the phone. “Excellent! I’m so glad. So we will be on the next express train to Inverness. You can expect us around dinner time.” Jeremy held his hand over the phone and whispered to me, “Farquhar wants to know if we eat pheasant? Do we eat pheasant?”
“Yes, we both love pheasant!”
I watched Jeremy’s eyebrows grow intense as he listened. “No, my friend will not need her own room or bed. That’s no problem at all.” He didn’t even bother to look back at me, which struck me as kind of bold.
Anyway, we hustled by taxi to the station and hopped on the last train headed to Inverness. Again, not to brag, but it was only my Gen-Z smartphone skills that allowed me to purchase our tickets online and flash a barcode to the conductor just seconds before the train departed. Had it not been for me, Jeremy would have been stranded in Glasgow all night, probably blowing his earnings on whiskey in a five-star hotel bar.
Pretty soon we were well situated on the train, sitting across from one another at a little white table and staring out the window at the expansive mountain terrain and unpredictable cloud formations that occasionally locked together into ordered compositions of grays, pinks, purples, and oranges, then quickly evaporated into mist. We watched herds of crofting sheep drifting across green hills, clean of even a single tree, as our train rocketed toward our destination in the Black Lake region at the northern tip of Inverness.
I watched Jeremy dig through his bag, fiddle with the lid of one of his medications, spill out another blue pill, and this time use his credit card to crush it into a powder. He then formed it into a thin light blue line, rolled up a dollar bill, snorted half the powder, and handed me the bill. I inhaled the rest, taking my first-ever blast of pharmacy-grade speed, which I immediately knew was far better than any of the bad cocaine my friends and I tended to use as our “alcohol stabilizer.”
I grabbed for the book Kinkell: The Reconstruction of a Scottish Castle by Gerald Laing, and quickly became intrigued by still another aspect of the Gerald Laing experience. The man was an excellent writer. From page one, I just couldn’t put it down, until I came upon a word I didn’t know.
“What’s a ‘castillated dwelling?’” I asked Jeremy.
“A castle,” he replied, keeping his face basically glued to the window.
I read how Laing, “was able to obtain a ruined castle and begin work on it” with his “new bride” Galina—who was, back then, working in the city for this famous fashion photographer, Bert Stern, who had shot Marylin Monroe (in a gauzy yellow see-through top) and other big celebrities. It was Bert Stern who had given Galina a dove—like, an actual dove—to take home with her after they’d used it on a Dove Soap photoshoot. According to the book, using chance, Galina and Laing set the dove down on top of a huge map of Scotland’s upper highlands and decided that wherever the dove laid its first dropping would be the spot on the map where the romantic couple would be destined to find their ruined castle.
“These guys were pretty adventurous,” I said, but Jeremy wasn’t paying attention. I kept reading and came across a second amazing story of chance—about the moment that a hub cap fell off their tire and bounced across the pavement, right to the little gravel road that led to Kinkell.
“Listen to this,” I said, reading the next paragraph out loud to Jeremy about the day Gerald and Galina bought Kinkell off this old farmer named Angus Macdonald. “Whisky followed whisky; Angus became more voluble; the shadows grew longer and we grew more impatient to see the building. Finally we suggested that if we did not go soon it would be too dark to see anything.”
“And what did they find?”
“Says here: ‘the overall impression was of solid walls, but collapsing roofs and floors … The building was well on the way to returning to nature …’”
“I guess we will soon see for ourselves.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well that’s where we’re going!”
“We’re going to Kinkell?!”
“Actually it’s pronounced Kin-kell! With emphasis on the second syllable. But yes, that is where we are going.”
“No fucking way! We’re going to stay the night in a castle?”
“No, even better—in the guest house right next to the castle.” I looked down at my belly and imagined myself pregnant, just like Nicholas Cage’s wife, who was not just one, or two, but THREE decades younger than her husband.
“He can be very funny,” I said to Jeremy. “Listen to this part about when he was preparing to pose in a photograph with a bunch of hot British artists—Allen Jones, Richard Smith, and David Hockney—for this article about the mini-British Invasion: ‘I wore a new lightweight Italian suit which I had bought just before leaving London—one that, worn with the requisite aviator sun glasses and white leather shoes, projected the sort of image deemed appropriate: cool, efficient and full of a sang-froid which was brutally upset when my trouser seam split clear around the seat from stem to stern. The suit was very inexpensive. I kept my back to the wall and sat down for the photograph. I do not think that you could know by looking at it what had just occurred.’”
Our train pulled into Inverness station. Jeremy and I stepped out onto the platform, and were greeted very warmly by one of Gerald’s two sons. It was the younger one, named Sam. We slid into the van and I introduced myself from the back seat, looking at Sam through the rear view mirror. “I’ve never driven on the wrong side of the road,” I said, trying my hardest not to seem too much like a tagalong.
“Welcome to the United Kingdom,” Sam replied in a soft voice with a beautiful Scottish accent. Soon we pulled into the driveway, past a stone wall, and there it was, Kinkell, the medieval castle pictured on the cover of the book I had been reading, surrounded by fields covered with rolled bales of barley ready to be hauled off, and a mountain range off in the distance. The sun was going down, so there was a golden, rosy glow on everything.
We walked across the yard approaching the castle and passed a very commanding jet-black metal sculpture perfectly positioned (by crane, supposedly) on the lawn about 30 feet away from Kinkell—in perfect dialogue with its white, sleek vertical stature. Jeremy pulled his long, frizzy, gray hair back into a bun and circled the 15-foot-tall artwork, which was clearly a cubistic head of a woman.
“It’s my mom, Galina,” offered Sam.
Jeremy kept circling the piece, apparently surprised by its contours and unexpected, scooped-away voids.
Just then Farquhar came out of the house and made a beeline toward us. He leaned in, gave me a soft kiss on the cheek and introduced himself to Jeremy with a very firm handshake. I immediately pulled out my phone and took a selfie in front of Galina. Then I had the good sense to ask Sam and Farquhar to pose in front of the sculpture with the castle in the distance. I was proud to have made myself of use, in a Gen-Z, iPhone-ish sort of way.
Jeremy compared the work to “Darth Vader.” He then compared the artwork to a famous futurist work called The Dark Horse, by an artist named Villon-Duchamp.
Farquhar stood with his arms crossed, as though he were admiring his own masterpiece as much as his father’s. “I wish Dad were still alive to see it produced on such a commanding scale. It’s never been done this large.” He gave it a single knock, creating a dull ring. “It’s hollow, and not a single weld shows. I think there are over 20 casted parts to it.”
“You made it yourself?” I asked.
“No, no, no. Now the foundry employs close to 15 men. We’re called Black Isle Bronze. We do projects all over the place. I actually took what I learned about casting bronze from my dad, who basically was self-taught, and developed a bit more expertise.”
“She really fits nicely with the castle,” said Jeremy. “Her face is fortified, as if she’s going into a medieval jousting contest. It’s not just a cheekbone.”
I followed the three men in through a very thick, solid oak castle door and suddenly I was surprised to find myself in a cozy kitchen, greeted by a beautiful and charming woman with a very friendly smile. It was Farquhar’s wife, Jill, and she was already preparing dinner. She joked that she was working very hard to remove all the lead shot from the numerous pheasants that Farquhar had killed in a hunting expedition over the weekend.
“Smells great,” said Jeremy, making some crack about “expecting haggis,” which I quickly googled, discovering a traditional Scottish dish that is said to be “an acquired taste.” Farquhar then offered to lead us on a tour of Kinkell, which began on the thick, stone, spiral steps inside the fortified turret. All I could think was that it was the first and possibly the last time I would ever step foot in a home constructed in the 16th century. Farquhar (or Silver Fox No. 2) stopped to explain how, back in medieval times, any Viking intruder would be forced to carry his sword in his left (weak) hand, in order to have enough overhead space to move up the steps, giving the man defending his home the so-called “upper hand.” Sam (Silver Fox No. 3) then squatted down and pointed to a tiny hole in one of the very thick, angled stone steps.
“See that little hole?” he asked.
“Oh! I read about it in the book,” I blurted out, a bit too much like a middle schooler trying to impress her teacher. “The owner of the house would use that hole to peek down and see whatever intruder might be trying to invade the castle.”
“Indeed,” said Sam, as we entered a room on the second floor. Farquhar lit a fire in the wood-burning stove, and Sam went in search of a bottle of whiskey and four glasses. We toasted to Gerald Laing and moved on to Gerald’s studio.
This is where Jeremy took an interest in Gerald’s record collection, lined up on a shelf under his vintage-looking stereo system. He blew some dust off an album cover and flashed it to me. It read Axis, Bold as Love by Hendrix. Its cover art is borrowed from a Hindu image of the various forms of Vishnu—what a rock journalist once described as “a lot of freaky looking Indian cats and gods, sages and one guy with an elephant’s trunk for a nose or something!”
Jeremy then asked Farquhar if he didn’t mind putting it on. Sam splashed a second bolt of whiskey in each of our glasses, and on came the crackling sound of this old record from the ’60s, and a song called “Castles Made of Sand.” Jeremy hushed us all and asked our hosts to turn it up, as he threw yet another blue Adderall into his mouth and chased it with a gulp of whiskey. I grabbed the album and began to read the lyrics, as the three silver foxes sang along with Jimi in unison.
Down the street, you can hear her scream, “you a disgrace”
As she slams the door in his drunken face
And now he stands outside
And all the neighbors start to gossip and drool …
He cries “Oh girl, you must be mad
What happened to the sweet love you and me had?”
Against the door he leans and starts a scene
And his tears fall and burn the garden green …
And so castles made of sand
Fall in the sea
After the word “eventually,” Jeremy sort of rolled back his eyes in a kind of ecstatic moment, listening intensely as the room filled with a guitar solo, which, he somewhat obnoxiously pointed out, was recorded backwards causing it to pluck and resonate a little more like a Sitar or a Hindu harmonium.
After the pheasant dinner, exquisitely prepared by Jill and cleansed of lead, we climbed the steps back to the second floor, splashed our glasses again with whiskey, and sat around a table looking through an old photo album from Gerald and Galina’s glory days in New York, and then in Kinkell, which was seen in many stages of renovation. Both Farquhar and Sam also appeared in many of the pictures at different ages, as did visitors from New York, like their closest friend and art dealer, Michael Findlay, who is dressed audaciously, in one snapshot, in a tartan plaid kilt held up with a leather belt ornamented by a big fat Texan buckle.
“Gerald and Galina were real contenders,” Jeremy said, commenting on a picture of the couple together with Roy Lichtenstein at some fancy party. And then another where they are seen with Warhol, Gerard Malanga, and the famous drag queen Candy Darling.
“My mom, Galina, actually had lunch with Andy only a few hours before he was shot by Valerie Solanas,” Farquhar said.
We then admired a postcard sent via airmail from New York City to Inverness from Robert Indiana, dated 1979. The funny thing was that the four 8-cent stamps were Robert Indiana’s actual U.S. postal stamp, picturing, naturally, the ubiquitous “LOVE” (or as we now know, the love cock).
But the most fabulous image of them all was one gorgeous black-and-white studio shot of Gerald and Galina taken by the Jack Mitchell. The very hip couple is seen entirely nude, embracing. The image shows them from the side, so that their private parts are mostly hidden. Jeremy didn’t actually know who Jack Mitchell was, until he discreetly typed the name into my phone and discovered a very iconic black-and-white portrait of John and Yoko, and then many others of airborne Alvin Ailey dancers.
“So how is it possible,” I asked, kind of taking over for Jeremy as lead journalist, “that Gerald Laing is not a household name?”
Both sons got very serious, almost grave, and took turns explaining a few facts. “It’s very complicated,” Sam almost whispered, as if the ghost of his father might overhear. “They were tired of playing the game. People like Robert Indiana once told my dad, ‘You must be seen everywhere.’ And that was the way it was. And they got tired of being seen everywhere!”
I just nodded, knowing if I said nothing, I was about to learn more.
Farquhar continued. “My dad and mom’s decision to leave New York when he was at the peak of his career may not have been the best choice. Because his market pretty much dried up within a few years. Dad refused to stay with one style, the way Roy did, sticking rigidly to those same Ben-Day dots. Also my dad’s gallerist, Feigen, decided to focus on the secondary market, and he kind of dropped his young talent and liquidated his contemporary art, rather cruelly selling a huge number of my dad’s early paintings at auction for nearly give-away prices.”
“So you’re saying that Feigen maliciously hurt your dad’s career?” Jeremy asked. “Because evidently, certain critics, like Barbara Rose, had written pretty scathing reviews of one of his shows, claiming that his ideas were ‘received,’ or in other words, derivative of other pop artists. Rose also said Laing’s work ‘lacked content to an astonishing degree.’ Remarks like that, in print, certainly couldn’t have helped.”
I just had to cut in. I was no art scholar, but I just couldn’t hold back. “Maybe she failed to see how interesting your dad’s subjects were.” I had the stage. “He really seemed to understand the adrenaline and the exhilaration of consumerism, not merely products like Campbell’s soup cans on the supermarket shelf.”
Sam, Farquhar and Jeremy were silent.
It was, like, my moment. “On the plane over, I read one quote by your dad …” I brought it up on my phone, as I had snapped a picture of the text earlier on the train. “Even the dealers would slip away from their own galleries in order to appear, however briefly …” I said the word “popular” in my head and kept reading how he described the remarkable turnout to his first show that included Leo Castelli and Roy Lichtenstein, everyone who was anyone. “Andy Warhol, Jim Rosenquist, Tom Wesselman, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and, of course, Robert Indiana—came to my first opening.”
“So, bold as love,” Jeremy said, “off they went to try to do something really romantic!—instead of settling for a life of slavery to the New York art world.”
We said our goodnights, confirming that indeed, we would love to meet them in the kitchen at 9 a.m. for a bacon and egg breakfast. Farquhar handed Jeremy what remained of the bottle of whiskey and encouraged us to polish it off back at the guest house. We carefully made our way down the spiral steps commenting that we were feeling lucky not to be carrying swords. And we walked out into the very dark night. No moon or stars were in sight. The fog had rolled in like a velvet curtain over the deep black horizon.
Back at the guest house, Jeremy popped an Ambien and ran himself a bath, while I got out of my clothes and slipped under the cool, crisp, starched, four-star, 100% cotton sheets. I took out my laptop and began to peck away at my keys, writing as fast as I could possibly move my fingers.
Emotions started pouring out of me about the tragedy of Amy Winehouse as I tried to describe one of Laing’s painful last paintings of her copied from a clipped newsprint cover of the Daily Mirror dated Friday, Nov. 9, 2007, with a headline reading “Amy’s man is cuffed and off to cells.” The painting was almost entirely black and white with its diagonal rays of half-tone dots and solid saturated flat shapes. It captured the frozen moment Amy clutches her boyfriend with bare hands holding on to the naked flesh of his face desperately kissing him goodbye. Our inquiring eyes then slip across the young man’s black tee down his white thin arms to his hands which are held in police cuffs behind his back. It had that French new wave aesthetic, or perhaps it was even more breathless—like the ‘80s film Jeremy had compared it to by John Lurie, Stranger than Paradise, with the unforgettable song he played for me by a guy named Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, “I Put a Spell on You.”
The painting’s title once again required Google: It was quite biblical actually, “Gethsemane,” which, according to Wikipedia refers to the olive grove in Jerusalem where Jesus lay in “agony” (was he suffering from withdrawal?) the night before being escorted away, nailed to a cross, and left to just hang there.
Who in Laing’s allegorical painting, I wondered, was playing the part of Jesus? Amy or her ne’er-do-well boyfriend? And would Amy be saved by the grace of God who presumably had called the cops to come and drag away the evil druggy enabler and punish him for all our druggy sins? Was Amy being depicted as a martyr, on the verge of soul sacrifice. Or was she finally being set free to sing the gospel?
As I wrote, I arrived at the conclusion that Winehouse’s problems ran deeper than her bad-seed boyfriend, with his class A crack and her infamous father who was also her worst exploiter. Amy’s downward spiral was written into her every fiber—her perfect Warholian car crash moment was coming head on in slow motion from the first time she ever stepped out on stage. It was the drug of celebrity that failed her, the spot light that spoiled her rotten.
I took another swig and went searching on YouTube and discovered a handheld cellphone video poorly shot of Amy’s last performance before her death from alcohol poisoning on July 23, 2011, at the age of 27, when she joined the 27 Club (Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain …). In a very poorly attended venue, Amy is caught out on stage trying to sing, while her sturdy backing band stands around indifferently letting her unravel. She no longer seems to know the words to her songs or how to sing them. She can no longer find her legs or keep her balance. There’s no more foxy lady, or cool Lady Day; no more R (rhythm) nor B (blues); she’s just a black-out drunk and drugged victim being urged on by a few cruel hecklers to humiliate herself a little bit more.
I could hear Jeremy singing in the bathroom.
Towering in shiny-metallic-purple-armor
Queen Jealousy, envy waits behind him
Her fiery-green gown sneers at the grassy ground
Blue are the life-giving waters
Taken for granted …
They quietly understand
The once happy turquoise armies lay opposite ready
But wonder … why …
The fight is on!
Then he came walking out of the bathroom, entirely naked, dripping wet with a towel in his hand, and belted out:
But they’re all bold as love …
Yeah, they’re all bold as love …
Yeah, they’re all bold as love …
Just … ask … the axis
Jeremy crawled into bed, picked up the Kinkell Castle book and started to read out loud a section describing a raid that might have once taken place on the castle: “The vaulted ground floor … was very strong and also fireproof—an important consideration when a flaming torch might be thrust through an arrow slit or gun loop.” Then the Ambien must have kicked in, because Jeremy was fast asleep and snoring.
So I popped one of Jeremy’s Adderalls, washed it down with a swig of whiskey straight from the bottle, and kept on typing. I knew I’d be up all night writing, and that by morning I’d have a text about the missing pop art painter Gerald Laing and his mysterious Amy Winehouse paintings to send to editor David and that other guy Donald, who’d had his bar mitzvah on the Allman Brothers tour bus.
Jeremy Sigler’s latest book of poetry, Goodbye Letter, was published by Hunters Point Press.