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‘John Hoyland’ by William Boyd

Essay accompanying the exhibition ‘John Hoyland: Stain Paintings 1964-1966’ at Pace Gallery, New York 2017

“It is only posterity that allows us to see art in perspective” – if I may paraphrase Henry Hazlitt in The Anatomy of Criticism (1933).  You could fine-tune the adage by declaring that posterity’s most useful tool in this endeavour is hindsight.  While an artist is living and working all judgement is relative: who knew in 1904 that Picasso was about to follow his blue period with a rose period, or that three years later Les Demoiselles d’Avignon would astound the world? But once an artist has died and the work has inevitably ceased then hindsight’s shrewd vision comes into play. It then becomes possible to see the patterns of activity in an artist’s work with more clarity; to chart progress and development accurately; to analyse why one style gave way to another, and so forth.

And its true of most artists in whatever medium that there is usually a period in their working life where every instinct and talent seems to cohere, where the artistic cogs appear to have meshed most smoothly – and this is where hindsight can confirm the judgement. One thinks, for example, of André Derain during his Fauve period or of Oscar Kokoschka’s work in Vienna immediately before the First World War, or Georges Braque’s Cubist paintings. Novelists, poets and composers also demonstrate this phenomenon of a period of near-perfect creative harmony.

I bought my first John Hoyland in 1994.  It was a large (4×8 feet) predominantly red abstract with two rectangles of acid green – in a L-shape — at the bottom left-hand side, painted in 1966, dated 12.4.66 (its title, also). It was painted four months earlier than the painting in this exhibition entitled 16.8.66. The five shapes in the painting, four rectangles and a thin triangle are identical, only the colours are different and the triangle is pointing the other way.  It was at auction – at Christie’s – and, as it turned out, I was the sole bidder.  Auction houses are a very useful indicator of the random vacillation of an artist’s perceived worth and fleeting reputation (but not intrinsic merit). Posterity and hindsight have yet to cast their judgements.

So it was, twenty years ago, for John Hoyland’s work.  A little under a decade after that first acquisition I bought another Hoyland, again at auction — another large square abstract of vivid acid green with three lozenge shapes at the foot, pale acid green, dark purple, slightly paler purple. Its title is 21.7.64 and one can see precisely where it fits into the exploration of shape and vibrant colour that Hoyland was then investigating.

My route to Hoyland was a strange one.  I first became aware of him through a book called Private View published in 1966 – and something of a collector’s item itself, now. Its subtitle is “The Lively World of British Art”. Even though it was cashing in on the whole Sixties “Swingin’ London” phenomenon, it is in fact a very large book, hundreds of pages long, and a compendious and serious overview of British painting since World War II, written by Bryan Robertson and John Russell and copiously illustrated with colour reproductions and hundreds of photographs of the contemporary art world – artists, teachers, gallerists etcetera — taken by Snowden, many of them superb. There is no better conspectus of what was going on in the British art world at the time, and it reflects the patent excitement and originality of the Sixties’ scene. This was Hoyland’s era — and the precise context for this PACE show. He was a young artist, in his early thirties, and making something of a stir, clearly. In the book there was a full-page full-colour reproduction of a refulgent 1963 Hoyland abstract – amorphous forms of pink and a dark and lighter blue conjoined in the middle of a square field of glowing lemon yellow. I was particularly drawn to it.

Pure abstraction works on the viewer very quickly: that combination of colour, form and composition provokes an almost instinctive, instant response – or not. It only takes a few seconds to decide whether you like an abstract painting and I was immediately held by this Hoyland, the first I’d ever seen. Bryan Robertson wrote the commentary to the illustration.  Hoyland’s work, he wrote, is “stated in terms of strong resonant colour which cuts out tonality. The play between the shapes themselves, and the tension between the all-over space are dramatic and highly subtle. Hoyland is a true inventor.”  This is as good and succinct an analysis of the Hoyland effect as any I’ve read and it quickened my interest.

John Hoyland was born in Yorkshire, in Sheffield, in 1934 went to the Sheffield College of Art and then came down to London to the Royal Academy Schools, studying there from 1956-60. His early work is highly competent figuration – portraits, cityscapes, interiors. Even though he became an exclusively abstract painter Hoyland could clearly draw well (something patently not true of most famous abstract artists). We forget what an intoxicating and stimulating period it was for British painting in the 1960s. Private View is a revelation in that regard. All the names we bandy about today were young artists making their reputation at the time – David Hockney, Patrick Caulfield, Peter Blake, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Howard Hodgkin – not to mention Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon.  However, the British art world was then overshadowed by the international allure and glamour of the New York School and emerging Pop Art and our artists always seemed to play second fiddle to the great abstract expressionists — Pollock, De Kooning, Franz Kline, Motherwell and such like.  But the work that was being done in London and elsewhere in Britain during the 1960s has become more properly evaluated and acclaimed as time has passed. British art of the 1960s is just as challenging, rousing and innovative as the art being made anywhere else but it just hasn’t been fully recognised – yet.

Then, in the late 1990s, I was asked to co-curate an annual exhibition in the Mall Galleries in London called “The Discerning Eye”.  It’s an interesting show because all the work has to be small – no painting can be bigger than three feet square. As one of the curators I was allowed to invite an artist – your personal choice – to exhibit.  So I chose John Hoyland.  This is when I met Hoyland for the first time. By then I’d bought another of his 1960 abstracts and was keen to encounter the man himself.

John Hoyland – then in his sixties — turned out to be a tall rangy figure with a shock of spiky grey hair and a seamed, handsome face. He still had a pronounced Yorkshire accent and it was almost immediately apparent that he didn’t suffer fools gladly. Dry, direct and blunt are three adjectives that would come to mind if you wanted to describe his personality, plus a fully functioning sense of humour. However, he was happy to show small paintings from his current work at The Discerning Eye, and so our brief personal acquaintance was born.

The large abstract paintings that Hoyland started to create in the 1960s are both beautiful and startling in their confident audacity. There is an intense and dramatic juxtaposition of colour and the blocks of colour are hard-edged and discrete – their placing and compositional design masterfully arranged.  Discipline, precision and control married to an almost joyful celebration of the power of sheer colour. I believe Hoyland’s status as a major post-war British artist will be grounded on these great abstracts of the 1960s – a magnificent selection of which is presented in this PACE show.

There is much discussion of the influence of the so-called New York School on British painting of the 1950s and ‘60s. And it’s apparent that Hoyland was very taken with the remorseless flatness of American abstraction at the time. There was a big Rothko exhibition in London in 1961 that Hoyland visited and was very impressed by — though it was a while before one could see any direct influence on his work. Hoyland was granted a travel bursary in 1964 and he went to New York and met Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, Barnett Newman and Rothko and visited their studios. The effect of seeing the work of these American artists transformed Hoyland’s own paintings and, over the subsequent years, up until his magisterial retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1967, he found his unique voice. He had taken what he wanted from the colour field abstractionists and re-forged their lessons into an art that was distinctly his – as this PACE show so eloquently and resoundingly demonstrates.

The last time I met John Hoyland was at the memorial celebration of our mutual friend, the writer Gordon Burn, who had died in 2009 at the age of 61. John seemed a bit morose and preoccupied – he was very fond of Gordon Burn – and did not stay long.  I never encountered him again — he died just over a year later. He was 76 years old.

Hoyland’s work of the 1960s and early ‘70s is, initially, a pure visual delight. Looking at a Hoyland is like looking at a big Mark Rothko colour-field — except with an acid, more rectilinear edge.  Hoyland’s colour contrasts are daring as well as being alluring.  Deep purple and lime green; raspberry pink and cerulean blue; pillar-box red and charcoal grey.  The colour is flat, acrylic on cotton duck (no tonality, as Bryan Robertson observed) and the shaped forms – rectangles, squares, ovals, thin bars of colour at the canvas edge — offer extremes of scale: square yards of one colour set against a small block of the other. The paintings can be very large – ten feet by five, eight feet by six, eight feet by twenty – and the effect of looking at them, of being confronted by them, is exhilarating, and at times breath-taking. These large canvases of the 1960s prove that, as a colourist working in abstraction, Hoyland is unmatched.  Over a period of approximately ten or twelve years, between the early 1960s and the early 1970s he produced work of tremendous ambition and intrepidity, with an impact that is almost palpable, and that should finally prompt a posthumous recognition that he is a modern British master – one of the great abstract painters of the 20th century.

William Boyd

© William Boyd 2017. All rights reserved.