Press |  1980s | 

‘Canvassing the abstract voters’ by Andrew Graham-Dixon

When Leonardo da Vinci ran out of ideas he used to go out and look at ‘a wall covered with dirt, or the odd appearance of some streaked stones.’ Staring at these skeins of abstract form, he found ‘landscapes, battles, clouds, uncommon attitudes, humorous faces, draperies. Out of this confused mass of objects, the mind will be furnished with an abundance of designs and subjects perfectly new.’

Leonardo predicted the difficulties that would confront artists five centuries later when they tried to produce purely abstract paintings which are always in danger of becoming aesthetic Rohrschach blots on to which viewers project their own figurative fantasies.

This is a problem that has persistently engaged John Hoyland since he started painting in the Fifties; his stunning show of new paintings suggests that he has arrived at a personal solution. Hoyland is our finest abstract painter, yet his early experiments with abstraction when he was a student at the Royal Academy Schools so enraged the President of that august body that he ordered them off the walls. His large abstracts of the Sixties – one of which, the succinctly titled 17.7.69, hangs in the Academy’s current show ‘British Art in the Twentieth Century’ as a reproof to academic shortsightedness – were massive walls of colour, mutely resistant to the figurative imagination.

These were walls of paint in which even Leonard might have been hard pressed to discern faces, clouds and landscapes. Viewers in quest of figurative imagery were left simply with the drama of Hoyland’s virtuoso handling of paint; the visual tug and pull as one field of colour leaked into or overlaid another, his vivid drips, spills and controlled pourings. Hoyland’s painting has often looked as though it was aspiring to the condition of music – this has been mirrored in the vocabulary of critics, who have tended to describe paintings like the aptly titled ‘Don’t Explain’ of 1983 in terms of rhythm and counterpoint. This can be code for, ‘I don’t know what the hell this is about, so I’ll tell you what it looks like’, yet Hoyland himself seemed to encourage this kind of formalistic vagueness of response: ‘paintings are not to be reasoned with, they are not to be understood,’ he wrote tersely in the catalogue to his retrospective at the Serpentine in 1979.

But Hoyland is nothing if not adventurous, and his new paintings are extraordinarily daring, expressive abstractions that no longer seem frightened of metaphorical interpretation. His characteristic forms – ragged circles, triangles or rectangles – float in a free and ambiguous space, and have been supplemented by a whole new repertoire of shapes freed from geometry. A gorgeous flood of lilac splats hedonistically across ‘Kumari’; the painting’s surround configuration of expressively handled discs of green, aquamarine and red, all on a volatile stained ground of yellow, places it in a well-established tradition of abstract paintings that read as cosmic metaphors (Pollock’s drip paintings that were meant to mirror universal flux or more recently Julian Schnabel’s blue splurge titled, tongue-in-cheek, ‘Portrait of God’). […]

There is, too, a strong sexual undercurrent in many of the paintings – most notably in ‘Pleasure Rage’, a rearing phallic composition in violent reds and oranges. Hoyland is quoted in the catalogue saying he wants his paintings to speak of ‘enjoyment, love of life, fear of death, pleasure, passion, sensuality, voluptuousness, sex, drink.’ This reminds me of something else he once said: ‘anyone would think, the way some critics talk, that Rembrandt never went out, never knew anybody.’ Hoyland’s new exhibition is a potent reminder that abstract art need not be obscurely inaccessible, a hothouse plant that can only thrive in the artificial atmosphere of the modern art market. Inviting metaphorical or emotional response without resorting to banal symbolism, these paintings make questions like ‘yes, but what’s it meant to be?’ seem positively prehistoric.

[Review of new work at Waddington Galleries, London]

© Andrew Graham-Dixon /