Press |  1990s | 

‘Cool dude struts with his holster full of colours’ by John McEwen

It has been a long time coming, but ‘John Hoyland’ at the Royal Academy (until October 31; supported by Donald and Jeanne Kahn) is well worth the wait. To reduce the 40-year career of our most flamboyant non-figurative painter – he insists on ‘non-figurative’ in preference to ‘abstract’ – to 22 canvases is like limiting Gary Sobers to that one over when he hit every ball for six; but in the confinement of the Sackler Gallery it works. […]

The Academy’s show curator, Paul Moorhouse, has had the inspired idea of reducing the selection to three sections of monumental paintings entitled Construction, Expression and Imagination – from the late 1960s, late 1970s to early 1980s, and 1990s.

Hoyland is, above all, a high-risk operator, out to astonish every time, and the dramatic presentation suits his gambler’s spirit. In the context of English expressionist painting, his lack of drab worthiness gives him a peacock distinction.

Non-figurative art frees the artist from the restriction of description. As Hoyland has said, his paintings ‘are an equivalent of nature, not an illustration of it’. Quick drying, water-based acrylic paint is ideally suited to his energetic technique.

The invention of acrylic coincided with his youth, and he is surely its most masterful and daring manipulator. Slow-drying oil paint is not the stuff for a shoot-out.

Travel has played an important part in Hoyland’s evolution from a studious student of landscape and portraiture to the most vibrant of colourists. Sheffield was ‘a grim, black city’ in his youth. As with many northern painters, his love of colour is allied to a love of sunnier climes. First it was the south of France, then Italy, later the world – New York, Los Angeles, Australia, Brazil, the Caribbean, Africa, Bali – although he has rarely abandoned London for more than a few months. […]

Travel followed art. The luminous abstracted landscapes of Nicholas de Stael drew Hoyland to the south of France; but it was seeing the Jackson Pollock memorial show at the Whitechapel in 1958 followed by the Tate’s survey of Abstract Expressionism in 1959 that blew the lid off conservative caution for him and a generation of young English artists.

Anthony Caro was the first to achieve a transatlantic reputation as a non-figurative artist in the bold new style. Hoyland was spurred on by the formal crispness and rich colour of Caro’s abstract sculptures, as well as by Caro’s ability to make it big while remaining in Mickey Mouse England.

Bryan Robertson, brilliant young director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery was the catalyst for this dynamic new generation of English artists. Robertson eased Hoyland’s entry into the New York art scene in the 1960s. As a result Hoyland met and was befriended by some of the Abstract Expressionist pioneers, notably Robert Motherwell. It is a pity Robertson is not a contributor to the catalogue of the Academy exhibition.

The show opens at this New York stage of Hoyland’s career. Concentration on painterliness and method is accentuated by an absence of titles other than the completion date. Construction is a tremendous room, with two paintings in particular of a wonderful richness of hue and harmonious plenitude. It was paintings such as these that first earned Hoyland a place in the heavyweight rankings.

One KO is delivered by 28.2.65, still in the collection of the artist and unseen for 30 years. Blocks of painted crimson stand against a stained ground, lit with yellow like fireworks in a Whistler ‘Nocturne’. It combines majesty and harmony and establishes two facts that still apply: Hoyland is best big, and his art always contrasts stillness and movement. […]

One should remember that these shows, and an array of small paintings in the Friends’ Room at the RA, represent only the tip of the iceberg – in prints and ceramics as well as painting. A major retrospective at Tate Modern at Bankside must be next.

A while back Hoyland told an interviewer, ‘Jean Renoir once asked his father, “Why don’t you use more colour?” Renoir replied, “Because I’m not from the north. Most of the great colourists are from the north.”‘ Hoyland is one of them.

© John McEwen / The Sunday Telegraph