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‘Looking for Hoyland’ by Bryan Robertson

Following his historic show last year at Waddington, the modest chronology of paintings by John Hoyland in the ‘mixed’ exhibition of groups of work by British artists at the Hayward Gallery (too big and broad with too many officially licensed dullards as described by John McEwen in the Spectator of 18 May) clinches the fact that Hoyland today is the next big thing to Ben Nicholson.

This says a good deal. Think of Nicholson’s intransigently circumscribed pure white reliefs of the mid-thirties; equally the abstract coloured paintings, at once chromatically sharp-keyed and mellow, also with squares and circles, of a slightly later period; the more figuratively abstract and radiant paintings of the forties and fifties with Italian and Greek references wholly digested and reinvented; and the tough brown, blue and green long phlegmatic lateral reliefs of the late sixties and seventies. It’s hard to think of paintings by younger artists in recent years that can match the effortless formal assurance, unforced unstrident luminosity of colour and aristocratic handling of pigment in these paintings. Aristocratic? Yes, sensuously and intellectually at ease with the double but integrated privilege of life and art, exuding the unforced authority of genius secure within its alignments, as Ben’s father, William Nicholson, was – though more trapped by aesthetic convention and narrowly domestic locale than his son.

Hoyland, a funny, good-humoured but sharply accurate mimic on occasion, plays with huge style art games that are so concentrated and witty in reference that they bypass any conceivable plagiarism from Louis, Hofmann, Olitski, Poons et al. and end up established in their own right as Hoyland’s own game. Think of Masaccio, then of Pontormo. Without Pontormo, our understanding of Masaccio would be incomplete. In another sense of games, Hoyland produces groups of paintings, almost invariably en série with seemingly the same guileful accuracy, effortless speed and resilience as the practice match of a crack tennis player.

Hoyland habitually uses acrylic paint as a medium, and the image, the colour field or whatever, seems sometimes more beautiful than the execution – there’s something in acrylic pigment which allows a sensitive surface to thinly washed or stained pigment, as in watercolour technique, but restricts a thicker impasto to the textural character of shop-cake cream filling or icing, and Hoyland sometimes likes to use a palette knife. It doesn’t seem to matter. The presence of the best paintings is so strong through colour and design that they haunt me long after their physical removal. It’s as if Hoyland composes mentally in English or Anglo-American but puts it down in some depersonalised, asexual, and rootless dialect. As with the present split between reason and emotion, it’s like the time when men thought in Italian but wrote in Latin. Acrylic paint, internationally a perpetuating falsifier and leveller, has much to answer for.

What does matter is Hoyland’s authority which, resisting easy plausibility, has the awkward edge and acerbity of Schönberg in relation to his contemporaries, who later said much the same thing as the innovator but with far more tactful eloquence. Hoyland also seems often to be achieving one thing when aiming at another, though he paints with the ‘force, lucidity and ease’ that Edmund Wilson so shatteringly recommended as the correct use of language for written expression. At once sophisticated in utterance and innocent of eye, Hoyland paints with the same absolute and unfathomable calm authority as the way in which the great Joseph Needham, biochemist and author of the quintessential Biochemistry and Morphogenesis, writes when he adds another volume to his monument to Science and Civilisation in China (where’s the Nobel prize?) – an authority that has an extra and peculiar dimension because it is existential and a by-product, almost, of other knowledge. If Needham, a Christian Marxist, brings the imaginative warmth of an artist to the intellectual rigour and probity of scientific history, Hoyland’s highly mannered and formal painting, whose dramatic planes and eruptions of action seems to work inside an invisible proscenium, has also its own breath of life, its own fresh air.

His best paintings have in addition the same relaxed but taut economy of behaviour as a sailor on shore leave – if this sounds a bit cute, it’s because I want to stress formal and tactile dichotomies, differing substances of source, like behaviour on land and conditioned by life in the water, and the fact that the resonance of the paintings is both frontal and oblique. Hoyland’s paintings seem also like the artefacts of some unknown country, made by an artist in exile to a different land. Studiedly divisive alienation, in European and American cultural terms, has never been more potent.

All this personal stuff is aimed squarely at the work, but phrased in this way because I believe with Robert Motherwell (who also warmly admires Hoyland’s work) that the rationale, the logos of art is essentially and crucially a matter of identity – imaginative identity, of course. This needs stressing today because we keep on hearing about ‘crises of identity’, right? So who knows what’s what or who’s which. To narrow it down, if art is a big house with many rooms and Rauschenberg’s peculiar charm is the way in which he continually leaves all the doors and windows open (whereas Rothko or Pollock, in their absolutism, left no options open for other artists), then Hoyland is some sort of gardener prowling around indoors.

As landscape is often the surrogate of intense personal feeling, so Hoyland’s abstract paintings – far distant as they are from landscape, like the pastoral memories of a city dweller – are also glowing tokens of an individual response to life as well as to art, or place and time. Clement Greenberg said that English landscape was so ‘neat’ (I’d like to take him over the Wharfedale country near Otley in a February storm) and that, ergo, our art was so neat. None of Hoyland’s painting is dishevelled, but the most recent work is about as neat as Bangkok, the Venice of Indochina and a city that’s also elaborately divisive, like Hoyland’s sense of placement.

Hoyland often carves out space in his paintings, disposing it to the left or the right or above and below like orders and decrees from the grant vizier at court – again the sense of a theatrical tableau within a prescribed space, arena or proscenium. Again paradoxically, the placement has, as well, the authoritative disposition of quantity surveyance.

If Kierkegaard was right when he said that life is a dream lived backward, art is perhaps an attempt to re-enter Paradise, the enclosed garden, from which Plato’s republic had driven artists when its ideal nature ruled out the need for their existence. Hoyland would certainly prefer the sophisticated Paradise of an enclosed garden to the more innocent if wilder Garden of Eden, but he tends to loiter round the gate – while Bernard Cohen, another painter exhibitor at the Hayward, gets caught scrimping. Cohen is an intelligent and likeable mannerist performer and there should be a didactic art movie called A Bigger Dot.

I write at such length and so warmly because Hoyland is a terrific artist and people don’t seem to know what’s authentic and what isn’t right now or the difference between what’s academic and what adds an authentic inch or two to a great tradition, as the American painter Morris Louis did with his translucent painted veils and neurasthenic draft of speed and movement, and as Hoyland’s work, very differently, does now – only he goes much further. Hoyland is not only a far bigger artist than Louis, he’s of quite a different order. It is the simple truth that Hoyland began where de Staël ended. The American attitudes were digested long ago. What Hoyland is really painting now is Hoyland. […]

© Bryan Robertson / The Spectator