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‘Art: How colour really works’ by Robert Hughes

In most English painting since the war, colour has seldom been an issue. It was localised into blandness, it sat on the surface of the picture and it worked as icing on the cake of form: ‘Look what a pretty patch I am.’ The development of colour as a consistent structural principle, and even as the subject-matter of painting, has to a great extent been concentrated into the last 10 years. And, in such a context, it is a radical development. John Hoyland’s exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, made up of paintings done between 1960 and 1967, shows how radical it is.

This is an immensely enjoyable exhibition. The eye basks in front of Hoyland’s wide fields of glowing red and green like a cat before a fire, immersed in sensuous pleasure. Only two or three times before – most recently with the Motherwell retrospective – has the Whitechapel been more sumptuously filled. (It’s being rehung tomorrow, with additions.)

The disconcerting thing is the simplicity of Hoyland’s means. It’s true that Rothko and Newman have accustomed us to the fact that a very simple form on a large field can be as dramatic and eventful as any baroque grandiloquence, but extreme simplicity can have its own rhetorical hollowness, and it’s this inflation of less into less that Hoyland neatly avoids.

His pictures are never as simple as they look, nor, as Bryan Robertson suggests in the catalogue, are they what, at first glance, they seem to be: there is always an implied double-take. Particularly with the colour: the vibration which Hoyland sets up between an orange bar and its green field is dazzling: colours float, disembodied, off one another, but their apparent position in space is contradicted by a smoky dark edge of washed paint that pulls them back again, turning a veil of pigment into a solid object.

But truth, in Hoyland’s work, is not in the nuance: it is in the explicit statement of a visual event. The paintings are beyond interpretation, just as Bridget Riley’s or Newman’s are. You cannot describe them in terms of something else, since they do not allude to nature, or even to the constants of pure geometric form. But as investigations of the way colour works, loaded with intense feelings (but never bothered with self-disclosure), they are an unforgettable experience.

© Guardian News & Media Ltd 2013