Press |  1990s | 

‘Mastery in living colour’ by Charles Hall

Charles Hall finds a dazzling new freedom in the work of one of England’s leading abstract painters.

John Hoyland has always been a virtuoso painter, but the paintings in his new ‘Bali’ series look more daring and assured than anything he has previously attempted: his sugary, metallic, unashamedly synthetic palette doesn’t so much flirt with bad taste as engage it in a torrid holiday romance. ‘I can be refined if I want to,’ he says, ‘but I like to take risks, to use colours that shouldn’t go together.’

Perhaps it has something to do with having reached 60? ‘When you’re young, you want to show everyone how tough you are. When you get older, you want to show people how clever you are. When you get older, you’re not balancing everything all the time. The English are always tidying up: Matisse never did.’

All of which makes Hoyland sound just what he has always been – a formalist, whose art is based on an unquenchable curiosity about the workings of perception, about ‘plane, colour, volume, form, quantity.’ And it’s hard to think of any other British painter who could cram more technical variety onto a modestly proportioned canvas.

But Hoyland is much more than a flamboyant formalist – he is also a reformed figurative painter. He began working in something akin to Kitchen Sink realism: ‘When I started,’ he once said, ‘I looked at something and then I put a mark on the canvas of what I thought was the same colour. Later, I looked, then thought about how I looked before I painted a mark. Gradually the painting itself became more autonomous… instead of the simple process of look-think-paint, the process became look-think-paint-think-paint… ‘

But it’s always worth remembering that ‘look’ still starts the process: even in the very early 1960s, he was concerned that Morris Louis and other leading abstract painters had reduced the legacy of the surrealists and expressionists to a decorative mannerism. ‘I’ve been plotting my way to freedom ever since. I’m not there yet.’

Maybe – but he’s not far off. The Bali paintings draw their detail and complexity from a return to the real world: details ranging from banners and clothes to flowering parasites on a tree trunk, or even a bunch of balloons hanging over a hotel swimming pool. These traces of the ‘real’ world offer a starting point for the viewer following Hoyland into the purer world of painting. And it’s there that we find the best expression of the artist’s delighted discovery of ‘the light – the revelation of light, of vegetation, of dance and music, every morning and every evening.’

The catalogue essay makes a good deal of the darker side to the work (‘a ceremony… a warning’). But Hoyland is one of art’s few genuine bon viveurs. He likes to recall the moment when ‘I was on my way to a fashionable restaurant with a very beautiful woman, and I looked up and saw Frank Auerbach coming down off Primrose Hill all covered in charcoal dust. I thought: ‘One of us is going about this the wrong way – and I don’t think it’s me.’

© Charles Hall / The Times