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Essay for São Paulo Biennale by Charles Harrison

John Hoyland, born in 1934, belongs to that generation of British painters whose careers were decisively affected in the late fifties and the early sixties by the impact of American painting since the war. He is also one of the very few members of this generation whose work is not made to look provincial by the achievements of the Americans. Where many British painters, struggling to preserve their independence, have merely given prominence to qualities which do not bear isolating, Hoyland has willingly accepted and absorbed influences which have expanded his art without altering his identity.

The example of Rothko has been particularly important in suggesting the possibility of emotionally charged paintings in which the process, as we can reconstruct it, and the image, as we perceive it, are inseparable as means of embodying human sensation on a literal human scale. Certain conditions have dominated the best abstract painting in the sixties: the understanding that colour is the most immediately expressive ingredient (a truth learned principally from Matisse): the realization that in order to achieve full potential the requirements of colour must decide form rather than be prescribed within it; that in order to achieve independence, colour must be allowed to establish its own space and must not be used to create illusionistic space; and that for maximum expression colour needs to be deployed over an area to which we can relate physically in terms of our own size and movement.

In Hoyland’s paintings of 1961, colour was the galvanizing force by means of which essentially linear compositions became tense and emotive. Since that date the element of drawing and of form-composing has been progressively subjugated by the spread of colour. In paintings of 1964 to 1967 the drawn line became so thick that the colour with which the brush was loaded asserted itself as an independent form. Alternatively, in paintings of the same period (for example, 21.2.66), blocks of colour were placed in relationship on a wide field washed over with red or green. Form and ground merged into one another where paint ran and outlines softened. The sharpest contrasts were provided by the abutment of complementary colours, most frequently reds and greens, rather than by hardness of outline.

Unlike oil paints, acrylics allow highly liquid but deeply saturated colour to combine with the texture of canvas, giving potential and complexity to an independent physical surface. A lot of the recent history of painting can be located in the unmeasurable space between the real woven surface of the canvas and the intangible planes on which colours lie. In some of Hoyland’s paintings of 1966-7, as in Morris Louis’ work of 1960-2, the paint is so fluid that a change of colour carries with it no very perceptible change of texture or density. A broad swathe of red or orange is felt as having a certain emotional weight and intensity as colour, rather than as solid form (as in 16.7.67). This impression is heightened by the frequent softness of the edges where one heavily diluted colour merges into another. The danger is abstract colour painting has always been that in seeking independence for colour, the painter will come to rely upon a narrow range of forms and of formal relationships; when exploring new experiences in colour he will depend upon those formal situations within which he has found previous solutions. Hoyland’s way out of this dilemma has been to work fast and in series, rapidly exploring the expressive possibilities within one formal range and then forcing himself into another, often by means of a change of format to compel new dispositions of form and hence new relationships and new quantities of colour.

Recently he has produced a series of large paintings (e.g. 198 x 310 cm and 214 x 366 cm) in which areas of deeply saturated colour lie on neutral grey or brown fields. The preparation of the ground with washes of heavily diluted paint acts in several ways: it neutralizes the empty areas of canvas (which has in the recent history of painting come to have such powerfully seductive associations); it deprives the canvas of transparency, forcing the painter to use his colours as substances and not as atmospherics; and it provides a valuable first stage, separate in time and different in process, at which various elements may be fed into the picture which will add to its complexity and range when complete. Hoyland is not so much concerned, I suspect, with the effects to be obtained by laying one colour over another as he is with the need constantly to have one colour in mind when placing another. Rather than labouring with various means to produce only one kind of ambiguity or one kind of space, he allows each element an independent life within the space of the picture, while integrating his colours across its surface.

In his work of the last two years, Hoyland has heightened the tension between separateness of form as colour and integration of the picture surface as a total image. He has taken to using heavy impasto, often laid on with a palette knife, as if to force his colours to be seen as real and the experience of the painting to be felt as substantial. Form is felt not in terms of references or resemblances but in terms of qualities: size, weight, etc. We think not of a certain form painted blue so much as of the colour blue occupying a certain area, and having a certain weight, density and flow. By bleeding off washes of colour from the heaviest blocks into the ground colour (as in 3.8.68) he reminds us of the inextricable spatial interlock of colour with colour. Surprising colour combinations – dull red and warm yellow against grey, for instance, in 15.10.67 – provide that sense of the unfamiliar in the realm of taste which is the essential ingredient of colour painting and the one sure guide to originality in a colourist.

In the most recent canvases shown, small flecks of bright colour invade the spaces of neutral ground. We are not accustomed to focusing on something so small in a large abstract painting, unless as in a painting by Pollock it is the chance spattering of a more expansive gesture. But Hoyland’s recent paintings are not gestural. These small touches of colour were applied deliberately; yet they maintain the physical emphasis and obtrusiveness of accident. Hoyland has managed in this way to make us see detail, in a painting as large as one measuring 198 x 610 cm, not as detailed elements of composition, but as detailed colour, detailed paint. He has kept his colour, and thus his means of expression, free, somewhere between calculation and accident, by keeping it physical and real.

This ability to make us sense colour as something physical and emotive in itself, neither the representation of a physical object nor the record of an emotive gesture, is a part of the new dimension of abstraction gained for painting since 1950. Hoyland is one of the few painters anywhere who can move within this dimension with confidence and with authority.

In the finest pictures, such as 23.11.68 and the magnificent 28.2.69, we are made deeply conscious of the area of crisis between means and end, between stability and flux, between what is already given in the form of a painting and what is being embodied in the process of painting it: on the one hand knowledge and physical fact, shape and structure, on the other discovery and new experience, colour and space. In the processes of his paintings, Hoyland confronts human dilemma, and in his colours and forms he discovers human sensation.

© Charles Harrison (reproduced with permission)