Paintings & other work

‘Hoyland’s triumph is to have preserved the sense of the eternal without reference to symbols and, simultaneously, to have kept his paintings fresh and immediate; however monumental and indomitable his forms may be, they carry, too, a feeling of the transitory and a suggestion of the unexpected.’

Elwyn Lynn, 1980

Hoyland never stood still but constantly reinvented his art, trying out new forms and ideas. This was partly down to his relentless curiosity and taste for risk-taking but also his uncompromising pursuit of freedom. Over the years his need to push on to the next idea, the next painting, meant his work didn’t always find favour. But looked at now as a complete body of work his paintings are all recognisably Hoylands; they always have an essential formality, an emphasis on structure.

As well as being a painter Hoyland was also a highly inventive printmaker. This website is currently focused on his work as a painter; his prints will be included at a later date.

His first paintings, all oils, date from the 1950s and were mostly portraits and landscapes of his native Sheffield. Around 1960 his work turned entirely abstract; between 1960 and 1963 he was making large, hard-edge geometric paintings as well as experimenting with playful biomorphic forms in bubble-gum colours. From this period on he stopped using titles, referring to his paintings by the date on which the work was completed. In 1963 Hoyland discovered acrylic paint, then new to the market, and its ease of application and versatility revolutionised his working methods. 1963 was also the year of Anthony Caro’s hugely influential solo show at the Whitechapel Gallery. It opened the door to a radical shift in Hoyland’s understanding ‘of the painting itself as a complex object, free-standing, as it were, in real space’ (Mel Gooding).

In 1964, on return from his first visit to New York, Hoyland started work on a group of paintings that seemed to signify a maturation point; Mel Gooding has described them as ‘an astonishing series of huge acrylic canvases of high-key deep greens, reds, violets and oranges deployed in radiant fields, stark blocks and shimmering columns of ultra-vibrant colour. It was an achievement in scale and energy, sharpness of definition, originality and expressive power unmatched by any of his contemporaries, and unparalleled in modern British art.’

In the mid-1970s, at the suggestion of his New York dealer André Emmerich, Hoyland started using descriptive titles, not in an attempt to imply a programme to the work but, in the artist’s words, as ‘an oblique resonance’ which could be ‘open to interpretation’.

Various influences made themselves felt over the years. One important spur was a book on Miró given to him by Robert Motherwell c1984. It opened him up to the idea that allowing external stimuli to influence his work did not constitute a failure of imagination: ‘[Miró’s] supposed to be the great Surrealist with a fantastic imagination but he went on the beach every day picking stuff up – a bit of string, a shell, a bit of wood. If Miró needed outside stimulation then who am I to think that I can keep on developing through a kind of formalist grid?’

Another artist with whom Hoyland felt an affinity was Hans Hofmann, one of the least well-known of the American Abstract Expressionists, whose exploitation of the textural possibilities of oil made a strong first impression on Hoyland when Clement Greenberg first introduced Hoyland to him in 1964.

In 1973 he returned once and for all from New York, determined to paint works that were ‘resolved’, that came from inside him. He began to use a palette knife and polyfilla along with the paint, a working method he employed only as long as it suited him.

In the last couple of decades his method involved laying down a dark ground with a paintbrush, on top of which he’d skate glazes of iridescent paint. Working on the floor, he’d spill, pour, squeeze and squirt liquid acrylic from an army of bottles. The critic Andrew Lambirth described this method rather aptly as ‘collaborating with chaos': as Hoyland told him in a 2008 interview, ‘I like to try and make these pictures paint themselves. The less you impose, the fresher it is. Painting is a kind of alchemy.’

John in his London studio in 1989 (Photo © Ferdinando Carppanieri)

John in his London studio in 1989 (Photo © Ferdinando Carppanieri)