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John Hoyland: Stunning Visitor


Mostly broader than they are tall, these lovely, rectangular paintings, all done within a three-year span in the mid-60s, range up to 13 feet in width or 10 feet in height. They contain ultra-simple compositions, with a ground most memorably in a violent red (though sometimes in a marginally less violent green).

The figure on this ground usually consists of a few sizeable, slightly darker vertical rectangles in equally stark but contrasting colors (blue, green, purple or golden orange). No reproduction can do justice to the brightness of these colors.

These rectangles are usually rectilinear but sometimes with slanted sides that suggest perspective, and occasionally replaced by a row of short and wide or narrow blips. (Their titles are the only unappealing things about them, as they consist solely of the date on which the painting was made.)

It would be tempting to call these paintings “geometric abstractions” or “minimalist compositions,” but they lack the busy, fussy detail of most latter-day geometric abstractions, to say nothing of the impersonal and even mechanical look of so much minimalist work from the same period.

Rather, they have wonderfully expressive surfaces that “breathe,” like those of the first generation of abstract expressionists, but also like those of such color-field painters as Kenneth Noland & Helen Frankenthaler – both of whom were at the peak of their careers at the very same time that these magnificent Hoylands were painted.

How much did the British artist derive from his exposure to American painting? And, if so, when and where did he derive it?

There is not much doubt that American painting of one or more kinds played a formative role in his development, but it would be oversimplifying to suggest that either one or the other kind was the exclusive source for his inspiration.

Like creative spirits in general, Hoyland seems to have derived inspiration from a multitude of sources, and not all of them American either.


The logical place to begin my investigation into Hoyland’s development was the “conversation” held at the show’s opening between Arne Glimcher, chairman of Pace, and Mel Gooding, London-based art critic and author of a 2006 monograph on Hoyland (as well as a 2016 one on Frank Bowling).

If I can read my notes correctly, Glimcher started the ball rolling by asking Gooding a series of questions. Their gist (if not their words) included how would Gooding describe the work and who would he say was Hoyland’s greatest influence.

Both men (as well as everybody in the audience, thanks to the show’s press release) knew that the paintings in this remarkable show were executed after Hoyland’s first visit to New York in 1964, and before his first retrospective in London, in 1967.

The New York visit had taken place sometime in the latter part of 1964, after Hoyland had appeared in an important group exhibition entitled “The New Generation 1964.”

It had opened in April 1964 at the Whitechapel Gallery, which, although located in the working-class East End of London, was the most “happening” gallery of that time.

As one of the participants in this show, Hoyland had then been given a travel grant enabling him to come to the USA.

Glimcher wanted to know what was happening in New York at that time, and how the Hoyland paintings in this show differed from other paintings, adding that his interest was a search for beauty and truth.

Gooding responded that this sounded like John Keats, the English Romantic poet, who wrote ‘”Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” and he added apologetically, that he considered these paintings beautiful, though he knew the word was somewhat out of style.

(I couldn’t agree more: these paintings are truly beautiful.)

As to influences, two in particular were mentioned by Gooding. First, I already knew that it has been said that during this period, Hoyland was particularly influenced by Hans Hofmann, and by Hofmann’s late style in particular—especially those hefty vertical & rectangular slabs of straight-edged color.

It is certainly easy enough for me to see this resemblance: big vertical (though not necessarily rectilinear) rectangles are very much a feature of most of the Hoylands in this show.

However, Gooding added the to-me fascinating information that when Hoyland was in New York, Clement Greenberg was the one who had taken him around to the Kootz gallery and seen to it that he was shown some Hofmanns.

This was, for me, particularly fascinating because “the conversation” between Gooding & Glimcher had and would continue to include the seemingly obligatory dumping on Greenberg and color-field painting in general by both speakers.

(Further dumping on Greenberg & color-field painting ensued in an otherwise enthusiastic review of this show by a younger geometric abstractionist painter that was published in Studio International)..

I get so sick of all this negativity, though I’m sure Greenberg would have let it roll right off his back. He knew that any public figure is going to get criticized. That is the price one pays for becoming prominent — it goes with the territory, as they say.

Anyway, Gooding did what he could to undo his reference to Greenberg by saying that really Anthony Caro was a bigger influence on Hoyland, the biggest one in fact.

Indeed Caro must have been a very good friend (the only time I met Hoyland myself was around 1970, when I was living in London, and the Caros invited both of us to dinner).

Still, Caro was a sculptor and Hoyland was a painter, so any influence of one upon the other must have been a more or less philosophical and generalized one — indirect as opposed to direct.

Glimcher indicated that he was reminded by these paintings by Hoyland of Donald Judd. Ronnie Landfield, who was in the audience, volunteered during the Q & A that in 1964, he had seen a solo exhibition of Judd at the Green Gallery in Manhattan.

At first, I had been somewhat taken aback by Glimcher’s observation, and not only because Judd was another sculptor, not a fellow painter.

Also, I wasn’t aware that minimal sculpture had been much exhibited before the Jewish Museum’s “Primary Structures” show of 1966.

And finally this seemed inappropriate because by the time I met Greenberg, in 1969, minimalism and modernism were adversaries, not allies.


However, I took this “conversation” at Pace as my point of departure for further research, and one of the first things I did was check out that Judd exhibition.

It turns out that it opened in December 1963 and ran through January 1964, so Hoyland couldn’t have seen it.

Still, the only favorable review it got was by Michael Fried, better known during this period as a Greenberg friend & Caro booster. So it’s remotely possible that Fried arranged for Hoyland to make a studio visit to Judd.

Far more likely is the possibility that Hoyland’s paintings and Judd’s sculptures just share a look that was common in the ‘60s, of simple, bold and elemental shapes.

Even Caro’s sculpture was simple enough to qualify for inclusion in “Primary Structures,” after all.

And in the early ‘60s, even Greenberg wasn’t yet dismissing pop and its friends and relations as “novelty art.” He even found pop “refreshing” – at first.

Much more of my “research” was devoted to browsing Mel Gooding’s hefty 2006 monograph on Hoyland. Here I learned that the artist had been born in 1934 in Sheffield, Yorkshire, an industrial city in northern England.

His parents, according to Gooding, were lower middle-class. His father had been a minor executive in the garment industry who was to be away in the armed services during World War II, leaving young John to be raised primarily by his mother.

Showing an early gift for the visual, he was sent at the age of 11 to the secondary school affiliated with the Sheffield College of Arts and Crafts, and progressed to the college itself upon graduation from the secondary school.

Initially, his classes were evenly divided between arts and crafts, including drawing from the figure and still life but ranging on to carpentry, house painting and metalwork.

On the college level, he was able to drop the crafts and focus on the arts (besides general academic courses like English, math, history and geography).

At this stage, he was a representational painter, and his teachers discouraged his attempts to paint in the “modern” style of Van Gogh or Cézanne. On a visit to London, he picked up a book on Nicolas de Staël, the abstract French “matter” painter. This, according to Gooding, was to have a lasting effect – though it didn’t convert Hoyland to abstraction at that point.

After graduating from Sheffield in 1956, and several rejected applications, the fledgling artist landed a probationary place in the Royal Academy schools, and arrived in London. He was still a representational painter, nor was this at all unusual.

From what I can tell, after toiling down Wikipedia’s long list of British artists born between 1905 and 1920 – the period when virtually all of the first generation of American abstract expressionists were born – Britain never achieved a great deal in the field of abstract painting in the 1940s and 1950s.

I could find only three British abstract painters who were contemporaries of the first generation of American abstract expressionism, and whose names rang any sort of bell with me: Victor Pasmore (1908-1998), Peter Lanyon (1918-1964) and Patrick Heron (1920-1999).

Wikipedia also says that William Scott (1913-1989) and Kenneth Martin (1905-1984) were active in British abstraction in the 1950s, but their names mean nothing to me.

I don’t think that even Pasmore, Lanyon or Heron were ever well known outside the UK (though Greenberg, at one point anyway, thought highly of Heron, especially his art criticism).

The situation was different in sculpture, where the international eminence achieved by Henry Moore (1898-1986) had helped to bring Lynn Chadwick, Reg Butler & Barbara Hepworth into the international arena by the 1950s.

But Hoyland wasn’t a sculptor, and in painting, the pendulum was already swinging back into figuration in London.

1956 was the year that “pop” was born in London, in the form of “This Is Now.” This exhibition — again at the Whitechapel — established Richard Hamilton & Eduardo Paolozzi as the leaders of a group of artists fascinated by advertising, commercial design, and other manifestations of popular culture.

The name “pop” to describe this school of art came from a Hamilton collage of a cartoon-like domestic interior used for the show’s catalog cover & its poster. It featured a muscle man (like the hero of those old Charles Atlas ads) holding a huge lollipop like a dumbbell with a big “pop” lettered on its wrapping.

Six years later, when Warhol, Lichtenstein & rest of their merry crew became a stop-the-presses phenomenon in America that outgrew the art world, British émigré critic Lawrence Alloway would apply “pop” to the American phenomenon too.

In his monograph on Hoyland, Gooding merely mentions that pop was just taking off in 1956, and observes that it was accompanied by hard-edged abstraction that borrowed its style from advertising and design, as opposed to nature.

He also, and quite rightly, focuses more attention on the big shows of foreign (especially American) abstraction that were being staged at the Whitechapel — and even at the much more sedate Tate.

In 1956 and 1959, major group shows of American abstract expressionists were staged in London under the auspices of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. There was also a 1956 solo show of de Staël, a 1958 solo show of Pollock and a 1961 solo show of Rothko.

Hoyland was educating himself in other ways, too. Starting in the later ‘50s, he had been to the Continent, overwhelmed by the light and sensuality of the south of France,and sketching in plein air in Italy.

He had familiarized himself with the art of other postwar School of Paris abstractionists, including Soulages, Fautrier, Manessier, Poliakoff & Hartung, as well as that of the Spanish Tapiés.

In summer school and evening classes with other teachers in London, he’d also learned the basics of the Bauhaus principles of design, as formulated originally by Klee & Kandinsky.

He’d been encouraged to move on beyond representation by WilliamTurnbull (1922-2012), a Scottish painter and sculptor who had been to New York and met Rothko & Newman.

Mel Gooding is very thorough and very enlightening on all this background information; it helps to establish the fact that Hoyland’s painting was not the product of any one single exposure to the art of others, but rather a synthesis of many different exposures.

Gooding is also very thorough in writing about the exposure Hoyland’s paintings were getting and the favorable responses they were receiving – as well as one big response that wasn’t favorable at all.

When Hoyland came to the Royal Academy schools, he was a representational painter (primarily landscapes and still life). But by 1958, he was painting abstract, in a somewhat loose, brushy style with bright and cheerful colors, to judge from one of the many fine color illustrations in Gooding’s book.

By the summer of 1960, when Hoyland had completed his course of study and it came time to stage his diploma presentation, he proudly hung it with his latest – abstract – canvases. The president of the Royal College was outraged, and ordered them all taken down. He did receive his diploma, though, based entirely on his earlier, representational paintings.

This classic avant-garde situation seems to have worked in the young artist’s favor – leading not only to a couple of part-time teaching jobs, but also exposure in a number of highly desirable exhibitions.

And he was not alone in these exhibitions – a number of other talented younger, mostly representational, and somewhat pop-like painters were getting similar exposure in many of these same shows: Peter Blake (b. 1932), Patrick Caulfield (b.1936) and David Hockney (b.1937) were among them, to say nothing of the mistress of op art, Bridget Riley (b. 1931).

THE SITUATION IN 1964-1966….

Gooding describes Hoyland’s 1964 visit to New York in some detail. It seems that he had already met Helen Frankenthaler in England (through Bryan Robertson, director of the Whitechapel Gallery), but now he also met Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman & Rothko. Gooding says that all except Rothko became good friends whom he would continue to see over the years.

He also says that Hoyland met Greenberg, Kenneth Noland & Jules Olitski, and learned about post-painterly abstraction from them. Not a word about whether or not they became friends.

He does concede that on one occasion, Greenberg took Hoyland and another visiting British artist, first to a warehouse where they were shown some Nolands, and then to the Kootz gallery, where they were shown two small Hofmanns.

I would guess that Hoyland hadn’t known too much about Noland’s work at that point, but it also seems to have been his first exposure to Hofmann, as neither of the two big MoMA shows in London had included work by him

Much of this book is based upon interviews that Gooding had with the artist, and at one point Gooding quotes him directly on the subject of why he liked the Hofmanns:

“I suppose that what attracted me to them…was that here was a German who loved all the artists that I loved. He loved the Fauves, he loved Matisse, he loved Van Gogh, that whole kind of lineage I shared with him….

“And then I thought, you know, he somehow managed to take all that, and then through living in America, through the kind of freedom and opportunities that America had offered to him, he’d somehow managed to do something, to break with Europe….he’d somehow taken it that bit further….

“So that, really you know, I liked the Hofmanns better than the Nolands….”

Whereupon there follows a further putdown of Greenberg, Noland and Olitski, together with a further jibe at Stella’s color…..

Gooding suggests that this was not the response that Greenberg “expected,” thereby implying that Greenberg “expected” Hoyland to like the Nolands better than the Hofmanns.

Very likely he was unaware of Greenberg’s true feelings about Hofmann, but Greenberg admired Hofmann enormously—and not only for what he had learned about art from Hofmann, but also for the paintings Hofmann had made.

Practically never did Greenberg contribute to catalogs published by galleries. If a dealer wanted him to write a catalog essay, he would be told to reprint an earlier review of that artist by Greenberg or to accept a one-line quote from him – both at no charge. One of the rare exceptions to this rule was a show he organized of Hofmann’s work for Kootz in 1959.

If you look for books on individual artists by Greenberg in, you will find one on Miró, one on Matisse, and one on Hofmann. He never wrote books about Pollock, or any other American abstract expressionist, or on any color-field painters.

In other words, it is putting it mildly to say that he felt it essential to Hoyland’s artistic education that he should see Hofmann’s painting.

I also think he considered it necessary that Hoyland see Noland – though not because he expected Hoyland to slavishly copy either Noland or Hofmann.

I can’t help believing that Hoyland must have seen Frankenthaler’s work, too, even if he failed to mention it to Gooding (this wouldn’t be the first time that she’s been left out of discussions of color-field painting, beyond the usual brief & grudging references to the fact that she started the whole school).

After all, if Hoyland was such good friends with Motherwell, he must have gone to Motherwell’s home — which was also at that time Frankenthaler’s home, since they were married to each other.

I myself have a vivid recollection that “His” and “Hers” paintings hung on either side of the fireplace in the living room of their East 90s townhouse.

What was the result of all this American experience? How did Hoyland’s work change as a result of all of it? It’s difficult for me to say, not having seen for myself any of his work from the period prior to his journey.

However, from the color reproductions of work from 1962-63 in Gooding’s book, it seems that immediately before Hoyland came to the U .S., his work was characterized by brightly-colored, but rather cheerfully bouncing little biomorphic forms.

They had less to do with American abstract expressionism or color field painting than with the British pop art of the period, for example that of Hoyland’s good friend, Patrick Caulfield.

By contrast, the work in the Pace Gallery show is characterized by a less staccato forms, and a broader and more dignified sweep that suggests the wide open spaces of the American West, and the gravitas of first generation abstract expressionism.

To the extent that Hoyland had never made such graciously-spaced & restrained paintings before, he could be said to have picked up this all-American notion of grandeur from Hofmann (along with his rectangles).

But these paintings are stained – as even the title of the Pace show insists – and Hofmann wasn’t into staining. Instead, he slathered on the paint, working in oils where Hoyland was working in acrylics.

And who else do we know was staining with acrylics? How about Noland and Frankenthaler?

To judge from Gooding’s treatment of this question, whether in his book or in his “conversation “ with Glimcher, Hoyland preferred to believe that he got his staining technique as a delayed response to the Rothko exhibition in London in 1961 (presumably updated through his studio visit to Rothko in New York in 1964).

However, he wouldn’t be the first artist I’ve known (and I won’t name any names) who preferred to credit the influence of a senior on his or her work – and to deny any possible borrowing from her or his contemporaries.

It’s interesting to note that when Hoyland returned to the U.S. in 1967, for the opening of his first American solo exhibition at Robert Elkon, Gooding’s book says he renewed his associations with Greenberg, Motherwell, Frankenthaler, Noland and Olitski. He also became friends with Larry Poons and an artist identified as “Ronnie Langfeldt.”

Gooding goes on to tell how, for the three or four years after 1969, Hoyland lived intermittently in the U.S. (before returning to settle permanently in the UK until his death). Among other reasons for his American stay, he was keeping company with an American singer, Eloise Laws, and traveled across the U.S. with her (she often performed in Las Vegas).

However, he was also in regular touch with Poons, “Langfeldt” and John Griefen, as well as “maintaining contact” with Noland. There was also a brief stint as a visiting artist at Colgate University in upstate Hamilton, NY, which resulted in Hoyland’s taking a studio in Hamilton as well as one in New York City.

All this suggests to me that, regardless of what he may have said to Gooding in his old age, during the ‘60s and the early ‘70s Hoyland was traveling in Greenbergian circles to an extent that Gooding may have been unaware of.

I say this not only because of these many artists associated with Greenberg whom Gooding mentions, but also because that portion of upstate New York was in those days, so to speak, Greenberg country.

Hamilton is only about 65 miles or a 1½-hour’s drive, from Ithaca, NY, where Friedel Dzubas was teaching at Cornell. It is also under 40 miles, or an hour’s drive, from Syracuse University, where Darryl Hughto was teaching.

Most importantly, it is under 20 miles, or less than a half-hour drive away from Chenango Lake Road, in Norwich, and the house where Greenberg was spending a lot of his time in the ‘70s.

I can’t evaluate Hoyland’s paintings from this period on the basis of the reproductions in Gooding’s book. I can say they appear to have become much more freely-formed and painterly than his relatively hard-edged, geometrically-formed works of the later ‘60s.

I can also say that this – in a general way – is not unlike what was happening in the paintings made by many other painters whose names can be associated with Greenberg, not least Olitski & Poons. Noland was one of the few whose works of the 1970s could still be accurately described as “post-painterly.”


But enough of this caviling! The thought to hold is that after returning to London in 1964, Hoyland started painting up a storm.

In the spring of 1967, he was rewarded with his own retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery that became, in Gooding’s words, “A defining moment in British painting.” Nearly 40 of the 63 paintings in its catalog were over ten feet wide, and all of these dated from 1964 or later.

“The ambition, intelligence and originality of these more recent paintings established [Hoyland] without question,” writes Gooding, “as one of the 2 or 3 best abstract painters of his generation anywhere in the world.”

One may or may not want to make allowance for a dash of British patriotism here. But certainly, the sampling of paintings from this precious vintage at Pace is very definitely worth seeing.