John Hoyland by John McEwen

John Hoyland is Europe’s finest painter in the tradition of the modern American school. He was born on 12 October 1934 in Sheffield, centre of the British steel industry and soon to experience the full wrath of Hitler’s bombers. With his father away at the War his mother refused to let her children be taken off as refugees to the safety of the countryside, relying on a kitchen-knife by the door to repel invading Germans.

He could have gone to grammar school, the state option for academic high-flyers, but preferred the technical education in the arts then available. His training, which began when he was 12 at Sheffield School of Art & Crafts and culminated at London’s Royal Academy Schools, lasted 14 years.

In his youth he and his best student-friend, the painter Brian Fielding, would walk around Sheffield, much of it still in ruins from wartime bombing, talking of their artistic heroes, seeing ‘Van Gogh’s “starry night”’ and ‘Rouault’s judges at every corner’, until ‘the last buses were about to leave’. The only glamour was provided by the cinema. Hollywood stardom made the American Dream seem a reality – the idea that anyone can succeed if they truly want to. His own ambition was soon recognised: ‘Ah, I see, Hoyland, you want to fire the big guns!’ commented one of his Sheffield teachers.

In 1953 he went abroad for the first time, hitch-hiking with a friend to the South of France. After bleak Sheffield it was a revelation. As his biographer Mel Gooding writes: ‘Travel was to be for Hoyland an increasingly necessary part of his creative life.’

The abstracted landscapes of Nicolas de Staël (1914-55), seen in the memorial show at London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery, made a lasting impression. As did the New York School action painting; paint applied to canvas laid on the floor rather than traditionally propped on an easel. Its most famous exponent Jackson Pollock (1912-56) explained: ‘It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture. Each age finds its own technique.’ Pollock also said: ‘I paint on the floor and this isn’t unusual – the Orientals did that.’

Oriental art, especially Zen Buddhism, was a preoccupation of the 1950s avant-garde, which became mainstream fashion in the 1960s. Hoyland was an enthusiast. ‘I’ve loved Japanese and Chinese art. Been a huge influence all my adult life,’ he later recalled. ‘You know there were these painters in Japan who specialised in painting wind – just wind!’

In 1958 he married Airi Karkkainen. They had one son, Jeremy, but later divorced. Hoyland’s graduation exhibition at the RA Schools in 1960 caused a scandal. It consisted entirely of abstract paintings which were removed by order of the outraged President of the Royal Academy. It was only the intervention of Peter Greenham, Acting Keeper of the Schools, that saved the day when he reminded Sir Charles Wheeler of Hoyland’s landscapes – evidence that he could paint properly.

His minimalist abstraction, which evolved into spectacular ‘walls’ of colour, impressed the curator and Whitechapel director Bryan Robertson (1925-2002), who advanced his career in several ways, eventually giving him a solo show at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1967, the youngest artist during Robertson’s directorship to receive this accolade. Success was compounded when Leslie Waddington contracted him to Waddington Galleries, his career further boosted between 1967 and 1973 with long periods in America, based in New York, where he showed with André Emmerich Gallery. Here he mixed on equal terms with artists who had been the heroes of his student days, in particular establishing a close friendship with the abstract-expressionist Robert Motherwell, spokesman of the New York School pioneers. He also began a life-long friendship with Anthony Caro, his sculptural counterpart in the history of British abstract art. An influential discovery was the abstract paintings of Hans Hofmann (1880-1966): ‘Hofmann gets there by way of what he’s seen in the outside world and not just the inside world.’ Hoyland’s minimalist ‘walls’ of colour were now succeeded by paintings of greater complexity, increasingly influenced by the observable world and his own feelings.

First acquaintance with the tropics, through revelatory visits to South America and the Caribbean, greatly stimulated these developments. ‘If Turner had ever been able to go in an aeroplane and seen the clouds on a flight to Jamaica it would’ve really done his head in,’ Hoyland wrote in a sketchbook. Sketchbooks were memory aids deployed ever since that first trip to France.

Back in England Hoyland had an important mid-career retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in 1979. The same year he travelled to Australia via the Far East with another close friend, the painter Patrick Caulfield. In 1982 he won the John Moores Prize, at that period the most prestigious award for painting in Britain.

Meeting Beverley Heath in the late 1970s, the fashion model whose beauty titles included Miss West Indian, consolidated his love of the Caribbean. As their friend the architect Ian Ritchie has said, her ‘particular sensitivity and understanding of John’s need to be alone a lot of the time’ combined ‘with humour, style and beauty’ provided ‘a rock in his life’. They soon wintered annually at their apartment on Montego Bay and in 2008 they married.

In 1987 Hoyland won the Athena Art Award, then the richest British art prize, and in 1988 he curated Hans Hofmann for London’s Tate Gallery, the painter’s first European exhibition. In his introduction to the catalogue he wrote: ‘What makes painting vital for me is that volume can be perceived through colour, and colour perceived as light, radiance.’

Travels with Beverley included several visits to Bali, another inspiration. ‘Painting is between the noise of bells and running water, between birds and leaf, between the mind and earth,’ he recorded in his notebook (Bali, July 1997). His increased travelling from the 1980s made him more of a ‘metaphysical’ (meta, Greek for ‘beyond’) painter. ‘I’ve stuck to non-figurative painting because I think it has the greatest potential for metaphysical depth. Painting Paddington out of the window seems turgid to me. I believe painting has to be for life, a positive thing.’ ‘Life’ he found more in the exotic abundance and stormy drama of the tropics than in habitually overcast England. In his painting he sought equivalence of nature, not its illustration.

Hoyland was elected a member of the Royal Academy in 1983, appointed Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy Schools in 1999 and the same year received the rare honour for an academician of a retrospective. His long association with the RA had come full circle since the furore of his diploma show 40 years before.

In 1995 Bryan Robertson wrote to him: ‘As an artist, without the shadow of a doubt, you’ve provided for me the greatest and most acute… pleasures. The sheer imaginative force of invention, its rigour, always, and its intelligence – pictorial intelligence – never ceases to delight me.’

The deaths of such close and long-standing friends as Robertson, Caulfield, Motherwell and the painter Terry Frost led to a series of powerful pictorial elegies or farewells. ‘When you’re young you paint what you know. When you grow up you take on the challenges of the time. But when you’re old you paint what you don’t know,’ he said.

In 2010, 50 of his paintings entered the collection of the Yale Center for British Art as part of the Lurie Gift. It consolidated his unrivalled reputation as a foreign artist among the American abstract painters of his generation. The Center’s 2010 exhibition celebrating this donation sadly proved his swansong.

John Hoyland died of heart failure on 31 July 2011. His friends mourned the passing of an inspirational artistic force and a joyous spirit, renowned for his generosity and hilarious jokes and mimicry, often at the expense of art world pomposity. As Andrew Lambirth writes, Hoyland’s ‘greatness as an artist lies in his ability to give back his relish of the world’ (‘John Hoyland: Scatter the Devils’, 2009).

ⓒ John McEwen