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‘John Hoyland: Paintings 1960-67’ by Bryan Robertson

Essay accompanying Hoyland’s first solo museum show

Apart from the obvious size and radical colour of John Hoyland’s paintings, their main characteristic is energy and the concentrated force that its intelligent and sharply directed use declares. Force rather than passion, because the work seems to be the consequence of intellectual thrust or speculation rather than emotional surrender to a specific event or situation. This speculation attends the slow and thorough deployment of minimal visual factors. Hoyland’s paintings are, therefore, structural declarations rather than romantic declamations because rhetoric is avoided together with the possible vagaries of perception or any suggestion of equivocal atmospherics. As all painting is about something, physical, philosophical, or metaphysical, they should also be recognized in essence as active, interrogatory, declarations of an ‘intellectual-imaginative’ nature expressed in terms of physical order. The paintings are not acquiescent statements which merely confirm an existing or accepted arrangement of formal elements.

To this extent they have also a bristling, loaded warmth, verging on aggressiveness, as opposed to the discrete inflections, studied and final, that might inform a more wholly cerebral statement. Another dimension, more sensual and less temperate, continually dislocates the balance or equilibrium suggested by the paintings, or actively postulated by them – and then denied: ruthlessly, and in no uncertain terms. For the whole of a Hoyland painting is not only so much more than the parts: it is surprisingly different to what the dismembered evidence leads one to expect, and altogether grander. A Hoyland painting opens up possibilities and does not close them down: departure is the objective rather than arrival. If this artist is concerned with absolutes, which he appears to be, he leaves them in a state of majestic suspense. Logically so, for one painting continuously discloses another and thus engenders a series.

The rationale behind any particular series is intuitive and impetuous at the outset (though far from mindless) rather than calculatedly programmatic. But the series is painted and with considerable voltage; it is not projected anonymously in terms of colour and shape. Hoyland’s handling of paint is so expressive, if tightly disciplined, that although the ‘arbitrariness of perception’ or ‘atmosphere’ is indeed avoided, the paintings finally are suffused with a particular quality, integral to the registration of colour and the projection of form, which indicates a special condition, sometimes a sensation. It is this implicit physical condition or sensation, enveloping a formal declaration, which takes the place of an explicit event or situation. But the dramatic tension brought about by the edgy partnership between ends and means, and the disconcerting split-second lapse or discrepancy between them, has the weight and presence equivalent to an explicit event. There is a double-take of one kind or another in every Hoyland painting as if an object and its reflection were dislocated from logical alignment, but the underlying thread is drama. Rarely, in recent English painting, have such apparently elementary constituents been invested with so much drama or achieved a transformation into such resplendent spectacles. It is, on occasion, as if three matchboxes and two matchsticks in a large empty space were miraculously transformed into a water carnival in Thailand.

But this is a subjective digression: in reality the paintings, so apparently simple, demand the most elaborate hairsplitting in verbal terms if their subtlety is to be fully appreciated. At another level, but in a parallel sense, their derivations seem often to be obvious: Rothko, Hofmann and Louis come easily enough to mind: but these references, in turn, shift from their proper focus and the Hoyland painting assumes its own individual authority.

It is this special force, this extra cutting edge, that it may be useful to analyse; with difficulty, for like most artists these days Hoyland presents us with something of an immaculate conception. As a coherent and self-confident activity, the painting commences as it were in mid-stream: work prior to that moment is suppressed. Origins are invisible though biographical information suggests a moderate expressionism. In effect, Hoyland’s painting begins publicly as a wholly abstract concept, which is normally arrived at gradually. He does not permit himself the luxury, equally a digression to all of his generation, of self-scrutiny in terms of imaginative sources or intentions. On the contrary, the artist remains affably entrenched in current formal terrain, resting content with an abstract vocabulary of colour, texture, surface, space, and shape.

My reference to a friendly and comparatively relaxed parti pris is not irrelevant since John Hoyland has consistently sustained an attitude that can only be described as agreeably intransigent in composure, both to the art scene as a whole, aesthetically and politically, and most pointedly of all to his own work. He is not complacent. With the special force that I have referred to, he brings to the act of ordered disruption all the hot impulse and cold device of an expert polemicist. His paintings are radiant, and artful.

This achievement deepens and illuminates the otherwise seemingly perfunctory nature of some of his work, in itself a constant guard against what might otherwise become ‘artistic’. It may also explain the drive to establish a large body of work en série in which calculated shifts of circumstance in each ‘theme’ are developed. But such objectivity should not suggest the laboratory or an intelligence that could be held by clinical research. The beauty and presence of a painting by Hoyland in isolation refute any limitations of this kind in the same way as the poetic intelligence of Ezra Pound, or Marianne Moore – or Mallarmé – confounds so luminously their respect for the precise nuances of an isolated word. A Hoyland painting, like the cumulative effect of their words, is disclosed in a tonic freshness of light, space, and colour. And in the way in which Pierre Boulez has recently set Mallarmé’s abstract poem Pli Selon Pli for voice, large orchestra, percussion, and gamelan instruments, but from these complex means retained, by sparse use of such immense forces, an extraordinary simplicity in which intervals of silence assert their own eloquence – in the same way Hoyland sustains a massive simplicity by complex means.

His painting is also adamantly physical both in its registration and in what it describes. The handling of colour, for example, is so direct and uningratiating in manner that even though resonances are set up between contrasting areas, often radically opposed in character, the final effect is of colour left in its original chemical constituency. Its purity is not tempered in any way; it is not experienced in depth and it does not suggest the refinement of having been sieved through a delicate and sophisticated sensibility as in the case of bright colour when Matisse handles it. It is neither coarse nor naïve in a Hoyland painting, but when it is made to work it is often unreflective, either of mood or place: on the contrary, it is blankly itself and not indicative of psychological state or physical condition. We are usually forced to accept and consider the colour on functional and decorative terms.

This is the most extreme form of non-associative, uninhabited colour. Many artists use green abstractly, for instance, without implying a field or landscape. But their use of green, whether light or dark, might automatically suggest a mood of serenity and gaiety, or a more oppressive state. Hoyland restricts green to an entirely neutral function: it is bright or dull, light or clouded, opaque or translucent, ‘tonal’ or pure, but otherwise undemonstrative. His control over colour is severe: it stands for nothing except shades of artifice, without reference to anything else. The use of acrylic since 1963 could explain Hoyland’s colour range in terms of the high-pitched brilliance of the recent spectrum disclosed by the synthetic emulsion paints but, in fact, the oil paintings executed before then have the same impact, the same absolute force. Hoyland subdues materials in the same way as he eliminates the suggestiveness or alliteration of colour.

Something less obvious is retained, its character determined by dramatic considerations. These are implied by the way in which the pigment is concentrated or diluted through the manner in which it is applied to the canvas. We find a completely solid and unbroken area of colour, a body of colour without variation and with no trace of its imposition over the canvas. Colour here is the only animation. Elsewhere, it is broken by uneven handling in which the solid area is lightened or deepened in places, irregularly, and so implies a more traditional ‘colour space’ rendered tonally by a form of chiaroscuro. Even this is executed solely in terms of the initial colour, varying its depth by pressure of the brush or thinning of the pigment: only rarely is the ‘depth’ illusion achieved by a different colour-ground beneath the final hue. Its irregular lightening or deepening is sometimes varied by a broader, more concerted and evenly directed movement of the brush, producing an effect like rain, foliage, water, or flowing curtains, though none of these objects or elements are portrayed. Pure colour is thus modified only by light or by texture.

Although the colour in Hoyland’s paintings is indeed abstract and its handling equally free of figurative connotations, these tonal and textural modulations produce a particular friction which affects the nature of the image as a whole. It is not useful at this stage to seek an easy way out and take refuge in ready-made, only too familiar, explanations. One could say, for examples, that those paintings in which the pigment is totally opaque, without alleviation, are tougher, more positive and resilient than those in which the paint is more obviously ‘brushed’ or in which it appears as a form of veil over the canvas. The second category could presumably embody a more vulnerable, certainly less impregnable, condition: the very admission of a broken texture or the action of light and dark in this airless context of high artifice suggests frailty, impermanence, instability – tragedy, even. Such an interpretation is not especially fanciful when experience with other abstract paintings come to mind but in this case it is almost certainly irrelevant. Hoyland appears to be deliberately restricting himself to strictly formal disclosures: their later translation in the eye of the beholder is another matter. Certainly there is little ground for digression in what he presents to us; but if we accept all this, respect the essentially physical premises of his paintings and recognize the fact that they make a singularly extrovert act from a process of meditation about the nature of painting itself, we are left with that disruptive element, that gap between ends and means, or form and texture, or colour and handling of pigment, which is the invisible agency of friction at work in any Hoyland painting.

Finally, the colour (which also means the pure pigment) either sits or rests on the surface of the canvas, presenting an unbroken, unflawed surface or the canvas is saturated in it and thus becomes an active textural ingredient in the surface of the colour. At other times, the medium is allowed to spill out around the edge of the colour, producing a floated ‘shadow-stain’ beyond the circumference of the colour.

We come at last to the ‘double-take’ in this artist’s work. Although Hoyland stresses, by a certain dry economy of means as much as in any other way, the physical character of his work and underlines by the very subtlety of its execution the comparatively elementary language of his chosen terms, it is precisely this act of underlining which gives the work its spring. It is redeemed from being ponderous by Hoyland’s vigour and laconic sobriety. But it is also made stranger than the prosaic sum total of its parts by the games which Hoyland plays with his simple terms. An eccentric and unpredictable urge to bend events in an unexpected direction continually nudges his arm. Not only do events change their course: inanimate slabs of colour are taken for a walk, are made to climb around the edge of a canvas, touch each other and make a new corporate form by contrast to those left undisturbed; a long straight tubular shape will appear to curve, from a certain angle of vision; a purple placed alongside a red will detonate a visual explosion which dazzles – and dislocates – the optical nerve; a set of massively abutting rectangles will group themselves into a stage and a proscenium; one rectangle placed low between two supporting rectangles is instantly transformed into a path down a long corridor, and so on. Some of the rectangles disintegrate along one edge, or take fire, or melt. Even at their most restrained, these relationships jog the attention. One thing converges on another without arriving at transmutation: individual identity is always retained. These engaging and often surprising formal antics are disconcertingly near surrealism: one factor is not exactly seen in terms of another but it is certainly enveloped in its aura or else it crosses the path of the other in such a provocative way that their identities become momentarily blurred. What is more, the action has that peculiar intentness, bordering on obsession, which surrealism so happily supports. I am indebted to Mr Robert Melville for this insight into Hoyland’s work. The same critic conducted a dialogue with me on the nature of English art which is printed in the catalogue for ‘The English Eye’ exhibition which Mr Melville and I devised in the winter of 1965 for New York: here, Mr Melville indicates that in his view a flow of quasi-surrealist imagination flickers in and out of English inventiveness from the earliest times, still evident in recent abstract work, and points to the way in which a flattened plane or a sudden convulsion in an otherwise smoothly flowing vertical column in a Paul Huxley painting will imply an otherwise non-existent horizon line in a flat and empty-coloured space. The same is true, in other ways, of John Hoyland’s work and it gives his paintings a degree of surprise, grave or playful, which mitigates against their austerity.

A particular aspect of their activity, both resourceful and recurrent, is the repeated use of the base boundary line of the canvas and the side edge. Shapes are continually made to converge on either or both of these edges, or flow or undulate along the base and creep up the side. The slabs, lozenges, or rectangles of pure colour are made to ‘perform’ in the same way as the footprints, painted in black outline on bare canvas, by Andy Warhol in his series of paintings of 1960-1, based on dance steps, a notable abstract exercise in its day. Endless games are also played in which isolated shapes rest upon the coloured ground, or pierce it, or glow through from an apparently recessed point, or disturb it in some unexpected way. Their placement always affects this ground or space: its sonority, its scale, or its vertical or horizontal action. A Hoyland painting is never inert.

Bridget Riley has said that she paints ‘an event’. The same is true of Hoyland, given all these preceding conditions, and comparison between these two artists is revealing. Miss Riley imposes an iron discipline over her materials and her use of colour; her paintings are based on a series of drawings, in each case, which amount to mathematically formulated blue-prints for the painting. Nothing is left to chance. But the result is always a subjective situation or event in which distortion or a highly dramatic close-up of a formal disequilibrium is the entire subject, gravely and immaculately projected. Hoyland does much the same thing but in a less programmatic way and without resource to an anonymous surface: the action is far more self-indulgent, ‘painterly’ in a more accepted or understood sense, polychromatic and broader in formal range. Sharp optical disclosures are couched in romantic, sonorous terms: the discrepancy between the two is very personal. Hoyland’s earlier paintings of 1960, 1961 and early 1962 are very near Miss Riley in spirit, if not in facture or restraint. (There is an obvious contact also with the more expansive early paintings of Michael Kidner.) Very few people have yet assessed their originality and strength. Of both these artists, it could once have been said that a romantic impulsiveness strives against a classical decorum, but all these labels are open to question. It is certainly true that both artists share a barely concealed allegiance to surrealistisc disturbance which optical tensions barely disguise: neither are in any sense ‘pure’ abstract painters.

If one strand of the development in modern painting comes from an equation between Mondrian and Monet, clearly in evidence in one phase of Philip Guston’s painting, there is also a submerged confrontation taking place between Malevich and Magritte. The purist and environmental aspects of the one are no longer imposed over the vagaries of life, they are conditioned by them and emerge wholly compromised by their stresses and strains.

If the shapes in John Hoyland’s paintings are actively at work and are rarely, if ever, allowed to rest as passive areas of colour, then the way in which they abut, converge, rise, impinge on each other and generally delineate a plastic situation has a clearly marked progress. But if several series of related events fall into separate groups, it should also be seen that these divisions are not rigid. A particular series involving certain shapes and the consequences of their arrangement and re-arrangement will often be broken into by the conclusion or commencement of another which makes use of different shapes and an alternative combination of colours. One overlaps the other. In general there are usually not more than two of these series in evolution at any given time. Apart from this it is a straightforward matter to trace the progressions to date. At the same time, the artist’s working methods are equally easy to record.

The pictures are mainly large and rectangular, either horizontally or vertically with the former massively predominating. A square canvas is rare. The painting is made on primed canvas or cotton duck, stretched by the artist on wooden supports before painting. The pictures are painted flat against a wall. The centre of the canvas is at eye-level, and this is how it should be viewed.

The approach is in fact orthodox: there is no attempt to ‘get round’ the canvas on the floor and no interest in running pigment on to the canvas flat on the floor and then making use of this flow. But the pictures are sometimes reversed to allow the paint to flow, under direction, vertically towards the top. The pictures are not ‘edited’ or ‘cropped’ in order to focus attention on a supposedly concentrated area of intensity: they are painted conventionally, according to the restrictions of the edge of the canvas and composed accordingly, though the composition can shift in the process of painting and up to a certain stage be determined by it. The horizontal, or vertical, shape of the canvas is a strongly influential factor.

The work under consideration was made between 1960, when the artist left art school at the age of 26, and February 1967. Dates refer only to the day of completion, which may take weeks. Until the end of September 1963, the paintings were in oil pigment on canvas; from then on paint is acrylic plastic emulsion on cotton duck.

In 1960-2, the theme was thin or thick lines, straight or curved, in close or more widely separated alignment, invariably travelling horizontally across a square or just vertical canvas. When the lines are thicker they can more properly be read as bars. The lines are one colour against a contrasting coloured ground; or in two or more colours, light and dark, in opposition to the ground. The purpose of these lines is to animate the ground, obviously enough, as well as to divide it into calculated areas – straining towards shapes. For the way in which the lines themselves are graded tonally or dramatized by a single line of a different colour, and the way in which the lines also blend towards the edges of the canvas or rise and fall in a slightly asymmetrical wave-like formation, more than animates the main ground or coloured space: it positively disrupts the surface of the painting. If renaissance, classical or cubist perspective is no longer of interest to artists, Hoyland at this stage seems intent on a trompe l’oeil perspective device in which parallel lines either lie flat or appear to bend back into recession, or seem to advance out from the flat picture plane. But the resurrection of perspective is less valid than the restitution of shape. Painting at that time was excessively concerned with the overall picture plane: Hoyland wanted to put shapes back into it, suggested by his expansive use of line. These paintings have a sensuality and ease about them which a bare description can hardly suggest, their colour ranging from warm browns and blacks and white, through violet, blues and green to dull red and yellow.

Towards the end of the series, the dark surface equanimity was finally split by the intrusion of a sharp, if gently flowing, diagonal zig-zag shape; itself composed of asymmetrically aligned bands of white, red, yellow, blue and green. The picture seemed to divide into two. Subsequently, the left and right edges of some later paintings appeared to be bent, leaving two flap-like sections above and below the nipped-in side areas; or the apparent fold-in could occur at the top and base of the picture.

Even at this stage, there is a spasmodic exercise in either centripetal or centrifugal device; but instead of comparatively elements (1) moving in toward the centre or (2) moving out from the centre towards the edges, there is some interest in allowing the content of certain paintings to flow out of the painting altogether and to vary the procedure in which the painting is (1) complete and self-contained or (2) implies a continuing action outside the picture.

In 1963 a considerable amount of work was executed which can now be seen as a long, complex phase of consolidation and advancement. Nearly all of Hoyland’s chief themes were stated by the end of this year in one guise or another, nearly all of them developing logically from the work of the preceding three years. In the greater part of 1962 the artist went through a protracted phase of awkwardness, with much trial and error, producing a number of works that are intelligent and compelling in varying degrees – but finally unconvincing. In 1963, the paintings became more assuredly formulated. The main course is set in a number of works in which a roughly circular shape is offset by an adjoining tributary, as it were, of an undulating, ripple-like movement, as if the circle spirals down into this movement. In other pictures, adjacent ripple movements make a counterpoint in contrasting colours with a good deal of deliberate ambiguity of depth in the otherwise flat, resonant colours and between the containing contours and the way in which they echo or mirror each other. Later, circular discs of colour fit into the curves of these rippling bands; subsequently these discs are wholly contained by the bands.

At a certain stage in 1963, these bands are narrowed, lifted out of context, greatly shortened, and placed in a plain field of colour, still moving almost in unison like sluggishly flowing parallel rivers. They lie flat on the surrounding space but also appear to move into it. At the same time, the discs with surrounding coloured bands are set down in a flattened, foreshortened way so that they also appear to be ‘lying down’ in their space. All these bands, discs and ripple movements perform and are put through some curious paces.

By the end of 1963, Hoyland’s range of interest was practically complete. Since then there have been changes in the shapes which he deploys, an increased adventurousness with scale, as well as pure space in which small or severely restricted incidents in isolation are set in a great emptiness, and certainly in the range of colour and quality of paint, but 1960-3 really saw the birth of all the typical Hoyland units and field tactics. At this point, in 1967, it is possible to see the broader strategy of the series in the various stages of their disclosure.

In the winter of 1962-3, visiting the artist’s studio, I saw an illustration of a Chinese vase or lamp pinned up on a wall which was evidently a source of the paintings concerned with a sinuously moving band of colour, like a river, later to be complicated with additional bands. This is the only tangible physical reference known to me, but there are doubtless others. This device was used also by Paul Huxley, though differently and independently: Huxley and Hoyland are old friends and at certain moments (not continuously) their respective work conducted a formal dialogue. There was no question of ‘influence’ in any subsidiary sense.

Until 1964, the handling of paint had been self-effacing: a creamy, smooth skin of paint, rather peremptorily handled, resting on the canvas, or a thinner, even, stain of paint which saturates the canvas and is indivisible from it. From 1964 onwards, the paint quality becomes more elaborate, with these two kinds of painted surface sharing the same canvas; or a more loosely and unevenly applied surface takes over. In 1964, also, a ‘shadow-stain’ envelopes the edge of the shapes in some paintings and lozenge-like rectangular bars of pure colour are an additional ingredient. They are subjected to variations of the earlier perambulatory exercises.

At the end of 1964 these small rectangles are greatly enlarged and change into big squares or rectangles of colour, sometimes with rounded corners, set against a contrasting ground, either isolated, joined or in close juxtaposition. The ground becomes increasingly dramatic in variation, sometimes appearing as a panorama of dark-to-light or vice versa, and with many variations in surface texture. At least once, the enlarged rectangles curve slightly at one end, and assume some of the properties of a clipped, staccato version of the sinuous bands of colour in other paintings. Elsewhere, the rectangles are drastically enlarged and so joined together on one plane that a kind of path or platform is suggested. The use of drips, or running paint, blurred edges or broken contours is also intensified: the rectangles become more personal and subjective in tactile attributes. From 1964-7, the main colours of the grounds have been red or green, with light or dark colours set against them.

In 1966, a series of paintings was commenced featuring the use of very tall, narrow verticals, like bars or poles, which divide the overall space of the painting, sometimes appear to bleed-off or project a shadow into it, and horizontally or vertically are used along the edges of the canvas, either contained by these edges or flowing out of them. This ‘containment’ or ‘over-flow’ is true also of the pictures containing large squares.

In general, the colour is becoming either sharper or more sonorous, in fact more dramatic; the handling of paint more obviously expressive; and the content of each painting more solidly a ‘scene’ or ‘situation’ of greater weight or elaboration than earlier canvases which seem to be concerned instead with an enlarged ‘incident’ in close-up. All the paintings continue to suggest a depth of emotional feeling which, though controlled, illuminates the abstract speculations like the intrusion of human life into the vegetable kingdom. Many of Hoyland’s paintings during the last three years have a clearly ‘heroic’ ring to them; the work as a whole is extraordinarily dignified and measured.

I have tried to depict in words the ethos of John Hoyland’s work: what it declares and the high subtlety of impact which so confounds the immediate obviousness and simplicity of his chosen means. I have also set down, in compressed form, the principal sequence of events which flicker or loom in and out of his work from 1960-7 (though several innovations must perforce be ignored), and at this stage the first approach may inform the other. I do not want to label, let alone ‘trap’, the artist and his intentions with words; but the seriousness of Hoyland’s approach to art, the intensity of feeling which he loads so disconcertingly into his painting, and the formidable body and scale of work for one so young, demand serious attention. Barnett Newman has accurately said: ‘Art criticism for artists is like ornithology for the birds.’ But contact with the public leads me to believe that visitors to galleries rarely given sufficient time to studying paintings: everyone is visually conscious because we live in an age of visual aids, props, signs and half an hour to listen to a symphony or a piano concerto, three minutes to read one page of a book, but the public expects quicker returns visually and is conditioned to slogan-like visual messages, instantly received, recorded and understood. Verbal interpretation may at least suggest that there is more to Hoyland’s work than its immediate effect.

Last, where should this artist be placed in the general situation of art today? This is not for me to say, but for my colleagues and the public to assess. Some conjecture, however, is hard to restrain. The first question that must be answered relates to Hoyland’s originality. The shortest reply is that he has done original things with inherited means. The artist is of his time in the way in which he has rejected the past, notably in English painting, and pays allegiance to the American artists whose work was seen in London just before Hoyland left art school in 1960. Rothko was obviously a major discovery and, to a lesser degree, so were Albers, Hofmann, and Louis. But Hoyland’s work is free of mere ‘art debate’ demonstration pieces; his works seems always to come from strong psychological and emotional compulsion as well as from intellectual conceptions. He avoids the occasional ‘teacher painting’ aridity of Hofmann; the insubstantiality, the semi-mystical veil of Louis is, I believe, beyond Hoyland and its rarefied air of blooming debilitation alien to his purpose. The colour theories of Albers could not be contained by the quest of his formal and tactile range which so often makes a logic of what is illogical. The tragic intensity and the radiance of Rothko, filtered through so much memory and experience, are equally beyond Hoyland but apart from limitations of age he seems intent on more factual explorations. To offset the American framework, there is ground to suppose that Hoyland shares certain interests of contemporary English sculptors in the way in which the side or base of a painting is an integral force in the action of the shapes contained inside. Similarly, sculptors use the floor and wall as an additional element in their sculpture. It is best to leave the last word to the artist and record a number of observations, in abbreviated form, that he has been kind enough to pass on to me, and which will, I hope, confirm my earlier conjectures. The language is substantially John Hoyland’s:

A colour is used as the key for a painting or series of painting. Red or green, for example, can satisfy two polarities of some kind of an antithesis, like black and white. And if the paintings are not all about one thing, you can only understand one thing at a time: there is a need to explore its possibilities very fully, as colour for example. Green is immensely variable in possibilities, blue-green up to lemon or lime-green, dark to light, and in range of feeling. Red is more limited but you can activate it by what happens on it. Red passes through pink to orange and near-violet or crimson but it is no longer red. Green retains its character. In doing this, green is also more open, and wider in potentiality; red only achieves this by what occurs with it or on it.

All colours change so much from weight or volume in atmosphere or mood, or by the way in which they sit on the canvas. A red on the horizontal tends to look less solid than red on the vertical. This tends to work with most colours; but format, the shape of the canvas, affects everything.

In some canvases, a shift from dark to light or a change in hue can be echoed by the forms that lie within in it. In the red pictures these tend to be predominantly dark tones. In green pictures, they are lighter, or equivalent in tone to the green.

Colour is used instinctively, not intellectually. But once an instinctive choice is made, the colour tends to be played through as a long sequence. Where to put colour is the crucial question and decision, and always the problem. Recently, it has been used adjacently, as in the striped canvases of Louis; or the concentric circles or Vs of Noland; or concentric rectangles as in Albers or Kelly – but making one limited volume from two or three adjacent areas of colour. This became an excessive search for making one thing out of several components, and a trap because some artists were tied to those components. Making a space work in one way only, meant that nothing could destroy an overall surface tension.

The idea of unity-in-division exercised me, as with Riley or Newman, but it was impossible to put in a shape. And if you have a rectangle it is interesting to add to it, to enrich and complicate the area by giving an independent life to shapes inside it and not allow them to be endlessly restricted by their unification with the overall picture plane. In trying to do this, it is possible to get both actions at once: a separate existence inside a totality.

The importance of process, the way the paint is put on, is constant. I cannot accept either the wholly conceptual or the purely fortuitous. It should be natural, like the way water flows, and if there is accident it must be controlled. There is the ‘finding’ concept, also: to know from the outset the determining form, but to allow other things to filter in and flow. The painting must come to life in its own way, as a natural process. Temperament, process, and image all come together: you cannot use one without the others. That is why Rothko is such a marvellous artist: I cannot imagine him farming his work out to be executed.

As for scale, there is no mystique in what I do about the human scale, though a canvas is often as high as or higher than a man, and longer than one can reach. Scale is just very precise and in no way arbitrary: it is incapable of diminution or enlargement. It is like natural phenomena.

‘Introduction’. Text from John Hoyland: Paintings 1960-67 catalogue, Whitechapel Gallery, April-May 1967. Reproduced by permission of the Whitechapel Gallery, Whitechapel Gallery Archive