Press |  1970s | 

‘Campaigns in Colour’ by John Spurling

John Hoyland: Paintings 1967-79, Serpentine Gallery.

The resistance to abstract art is amazing. After three-quarters of a century the standard view is still that it’s ‘just marks on a canvas’, decoration, not to be judged as serious art. Are Bach, Beethoven and Bartok merely decorative? Are Berlioz and Strauss the more serious artists because their music has literary content? And, if not, why is abstraction allowed to the ear but not to the eye? Sheer conservatism is the only explanation. […] Logically it’s absurd to believe that what the musician’s pure craft can do the artist’s can’t, but in practice it’s clear that the best part of a lifetime, during which most of the major artists have been abstractionists, has not been enough to shift this deeply embedded idée reçue.


This last decade, though we are slow to recognise it, has been remarkable for the contributions of several British abstract artists, most of them originally influenced by the American Abstract Expressionists, but by now a law to themselves. Of these John Hoyland should be – with his ebullient colours and grandly dramatic compositions – among the easiest to respond to. Yet the plain man is still baffled, still alarmed by marks on the canvas which can’t be read as recognisable objects. For where Kandinsky dissolved his objects into paint, Hoyland begins and ends with paint and canvas. It is the variety and energy with which he causes the first of these old cronies to transform and animate the strict dimensions of the second that distinguish him as a potentially first-rate artist, regardless of whether he chooses to include painted imitations of cows, crucifixes, human figures or to leave them out.

Of course he does leave them out, since they are entirely irrelevant. The detail in these paintings is supplied by the paint itself, first in its capacity as a flowing and quick-drying plastic medium, secondly as colour. Confronted with so many huge, multi-coloured canvases, the viewer is tempted to react superficially, to scurry from one to the other; and this temptation is sharpened by the sense of reckless momentum in the way the paint has been put on, splashed, slapped, pummelled, chivvied, spatulated, dripping here, skiting [sic] there, the undercoat showing through, the topcoat scarred with rents and slashes. But settle down to outstare a single painting, to be bold in looking at it as Hoyland has been making it, and you become aware of the infinite number of minute, counter-balancing decisions, both of texture and colour, which underlie this apparently careless rapture. […]

Indeed Hoyland’s steadily confident development looks in retrospect like a successful general’s career, starting simply enough with the organisation of one or more coloured incidents on a plain-coloured ground, graduating to large panels of pure, thick colour with hard edges which float over or lead into a stained canvas (the exhibition begins with these) and, from the Seventies on, progressively complicating and enriching this basic relationship of foreground and background, of edge and centre, until his main units of colour and form – and their fragments and scouting-parties – are all caught up together in a maelstrom of action where foreground and background constantly interpenetrate and turn one another inside-out and head-over-heels. […]

© John Spurling / New Statesman: