Press |  1970s | 

‘John Hoyland’ interviewed by Adrian Searle

AS: The colour seems to have become more complex.

JH: When I had the Whitechapel show in 1967 everyone went on about the colour. In fact I really hadn’t thought about colour very much: it had been the least of my preoccupations. I wanted brilliant, full, unmixed colour, but basically it was reds, greens and oranges. I was much more preoccupied with shape, where to locate colours, what kinds of shapes to use, and so on. This was all in the wake of Rothko, etc. – it was trying to come to terms with those paintings of his, but knowing that one couldn’t go on making them that simple. I just happened to like those colours, and I still do. But the way edges met, how colours impinged on one another, and the way that that affected the space was much more of a problem. I couldn’t deal with colour so I suppose after the Whitechapel show I attempted to deal much more with those things, making a more complex, physical, tactile surface. I also began to mix colour more. Right through that period – around the time of the Waddington show in 1971, and the paintings done in New York in 1970 and ’72 I was putting myself in the position, quite consciously, of using colours which didn’t come very easily to me. I made myself use all kinds of strange, high-key colour relationships. I didn’t know the hell how to mix them or what to do with them. Stretching myself. I’ve now come back to using what could be described as more characteristic colour, but with an added knowledge. I’d like to be able to use every kind of colour, all in one painting; to use a dirty grey, a black, and to make them sing with as much light as a cadmium red or yellow. Make them all go in one picture. I’d like to be able to use colour in all different sizes, qualities, relationships and surfaces – like a group of characters in a novel, interlocking with each other. They don’t have to be of equal intensity – just have their own place, their own strength.

AS: And like characters in a novel, things crop up again and again in the paintings – in different guises and situations, different moods.

JH: That’s one analogy; I also see them like… walking through a familiar landscape at different times of the day or year – in brilliant summer sunlight, or on a dark grey afternoon. You don’t always take the same route, you come upon familiar things from a different angle, see them in a new setting. It’s like taking a walk, you never know quite which way you’re going to go, what you’ll find yourself focusing on.

AS: The central slab often seems to read as a head or a personage. The paintings face back at the viewer in a very direct way.

JH: It’s important to me to establish some strong visual and physical relationship to the image while I’m painting, while I’m standing there. One establishes very direct relationships: to one’s body, one’s height, eyes and so on. It becomes a way of measuring one’s emotional and physical responses.

AS: Do you work out a colour range before you start, do you know what general value the picture will have?

JH: Not really, it’s very personal. If you have a very heavy meal the night before you probably want a light breakfast – so if you’ve done a dirty, great, dark, thick, heavy picture you probably feel like doing something light, silvery. You can get quite disgusted with what you’ve done.

AS: One can get quite fascinated figuring out the mechanics of these paintings – what was painted when, and so on. There are spots and drips of colour which don’t seem to have resulted naturally from the process – they’re not produced organically.

JH: I use the process, but only when it works for me, I’ll add to it, or adapt it. In this painting here… I don’t know which bits came naturally, some did and some didn’t. These notes of colour serve as a way of directing the eye, or of holding the surface together, holding the painting in check. When they become decorative embellishments they don’t work – they’re over the top – but they are like subsidiary characters.

AS: You say that there is a lot of revision – is that partly why the surface gets as thick as it does?

JH: I don’t start out to paint them thick but I do like there to be some difference between one form and another, one surface and another, in both colour and application. But the heavy paintings have been the unavoidable results of revision.

AS: Weren’t you mixing ‘Polyfilla’ into the paint in these very nougatty-surfaced paintings in 74-75?

JH: Yes. But the more you thicken up acrylic paint the more unpleasant it can be – it can get to look like some kind of leatherette. I guess I was trying to extend the character of the paint. Acrylic can be very limited – in both the colour range and surface. It’s less flexible in mixing than oils. I was trying to extend it. Plus it was part of the build-up: it became necessary to go over things and in order to cover them I had to go thicker and thicker. It’s always made me furious that I couldn’t paint good small paintings – there’s no reason why you can’t make small abstract paintings, but I still can’t do it except once in a while. When I made large stain paintings in the 1960s the small paintings I did always looked like maquettes, never like real paintings. I thought that perhaps what they lacked in colour-volume could be compensated for and regained on a small scale by emphasising the physical character of the paint – compensating for the lack of area. In fact, some of the small paintings don’t work so well when they are translated into big paintings because the thick paint becomes unnecessary – they look overdone.

AS: What looks like thick paint on a small picture doesn’t look the same on a big one. If the surface were to be scaled-up to the same extent, relatively, it would be ludicrous.

JH: It also seems that you can use stronger colours on small paintings.

AS: You seem to try and get a lot out of acrylic – not only its efficacy as a large-scale watercolour medium, but you also use its viscosity as a gel.

JH: Used as watercolour it’s really good, but it has its problems. Helen Frankenthaler’s best paintings work, I believe, totally, but I often feel, with the less successful ones that there’s not enough there – they somehow get flaccid or flabby, they need to be tied down. We all do paintings which at certain points look beautiful and there is a dilemma whether to leave them – ‘gloriously suspended’ – or whether to make something more permanent. It’s like the difference between a Cezanne watercolour, which is almost unfinished, very beautiful, and one of his portraits, which has been repainted so many times that he’s almost carved the thing out by the end. The paint quality is quite unpleasant – but he has achieved, by the end, a kind of monumentality and permanence that watercolours don’t have. The trick would be if you could get both these qualities. One tends to lose one for the other. I think it’s too easy to make beautiful pictures with staining. You have to risk going on with them, recomplicating; which Helen is now doing, her surfaces have changed a lot in the last few years. I think you have to listen to your own hunches. There are times when you can paint simple pictures but this isn’t the time. It’s too easy to make beautiful pictures.

AS: Why do you believe this is a time for making complicated pictures?

JH: I think it’s fairly obvious. Take drawing. A lot of people have been dealing with that, how to get drawing in without going back to drawing, you know. Some of the best drawing I know is in Caro’s sculptures. (John Walker has been trying to pick up on that in his work. I don’t know that he altogether succeeds with it.) Caro uses objects like scissors and so on – but how the hell do you do that with painting? A lot of sculpture is collage, using the floor as a ground. Collage has also been a way for painters to get back into drawing.

It was hard to simplify paintings. When painters first stripped it down they were also achieving a synthesis of something more complex. But not, to just make a bland rectangle on another bland rectangle is too damn easy. Any student could do it, in fact students have done it, so much so that they don’t bother to do it anymore.

All these issues – like where to locate form, where to locate colour, how to get colour and form into and on the canvas simultaneously – and on a large scale – are, I think, a big problem. It’s a challenge.

AS: Surely the desire to make complicated paintings is caused by more than the challenge of a formal problem – it’s not just a pressure exerted by painting itself. Surely it has to do with life in 1978. You have said that you want to make paintings which blow people’s minds. Maybe that’s getting harder to do.

JH: I’ve felt for a long time – about 15 years – that painting can only go forward by becoming more complex. When it all boils down, I’d like to make simple paintings, but I don’t think you can just go for simplicity. You’ve got to put in all these other things that are on your mind too, just to see what emerges, what comes to the forefront. You’ve got to put in all this turmoil, all of one’s ideas. There’s no easy way to make it simple. You can’t go back and emulate Rothko’s late paintings. It has to be complex, it is something artists have got to work through. In the mid-1960s sculptors in this country went forward with confidence and complicated their art – re-examining the issues of shape, surface, colour and so on, partly because the territory was wide-open for them, there had never really been very much abstract sculpture here – bits and pieces maybe – but there had never been any real, concerted effort to do it. But it was more difficult for painters because we were still labouring under the enormous shadows of Newman, Rothko, Still and the rest of them. Marvellous as their paintings were they didn’t really give one any room to go into in painting: they opened up the door for minimal art and even conceptualism, but for painting they seemed to close the door. I think Rothko is a really good example of an artist who painted himself into a corner. So I felt – as a young painter – that one had to re-examine the basic things, in the way that the sculptors were doing. At that time most American artists were saying that these were old-type European preoccupations. Maybe so, but the reason Hofmann was so influential was that basically he was an old-type European artist, stuck with those values. He was the guy who really set about complicating the surface again, dealing with illusion again, with the plasticity of paint, using a full chromatic range, using all these things that had been eliminated from painting by the second generation of American artists. I hadn’t even seen Hofmann’s work when I decided to take that step, but I had seen English sculpture. When I did get to some of his work I thought it was terrific. In the 1960s he was regarded more as a teacher, it was harder to see how interesting his paintings really were. I think he was regarded as a bit of an eclectic.

AS: Hofmann has been a big influence on you.

JH: An influence, but not so much as people like to make out. It becomes very convenient to point up the similarities but it is more difficult to point to the differences. People tend to be lazy and go for the convenient and the obvious.

AS: Since you set up these dynamics in your painting, of thick paint against thin stains, the solid abutting shapes and so on, which happened I guess in the mid-1960s, you appear to have proceeded to chart every inch of the course which that could take, as if you haven’t wished to miss anything which that might teach you. Have you ever felt like dropping it all, making a completely different kind of painting – don’t you ever get sick of all that acrylic, those solid shapes?

JH: No, the paintings I’m drawn to are somewhere in this area where I am – I guess I still have virtually the same loves I had as a student, it’s all fairly heavily imprinted on me. Looking at this Rothko catalogue here – I haven’t seen the show – it’s such a tremendous reminder of the level of those paintings, of what can be achieved in paint… you just have to hope, that in another ten years maybe… Do you know what I mean? They’re amazing… almost like Rembrandt, the way the underpainting works. Look at the daring colour! Almost a Matisse! The first time I saw Rothko was in the New American Painting shows of ’58… That use of white – blinding light. Even in reproduction. I’d like to see this Rothko show at the Guggenheim – it’s just the time for it, a shot in the arm.

AS: Do you regard yourself as a competitive artist?

JH: In that I’m working in a broad area of painting that could be called ‘mainstream’, and that I’m interested in what other artists are doing within that mainstream, yes. One is aware of other artists’ developments and innovations, that they are trying to take painting somewhere within that context. You are aware of your own limitations and perhaps also of the limitations of other artists – how they’re not able to go forward, trapped by their own history or whatever – and you are trying to find a way out of that.

AS: One might see other artists’ work in an acquisitive way – you might find their innovations useful to you, and vice versa, like being involved in a discourse with other artists.

JH: I think that is true… I recently found a reproduction of a painting by Jack Bush that was very interesting for me: I’ve always thought that Bush was a very good artist, but not really fantastic… but this was a very interesting painting. I’ve been dealing with this diagonal thing in my painting recently and this particular work had a diagonal going right across the surface, corner to corner, with, you know, coloured shapes. Jack was obviously aware of the way a lot of New York painting got itself trapped onto the edge and he wanted to bring form back in, to confront the problem of form head-on, to paint right across the surface.

AS: He was trying to challenge that whole reductive thing… I see some links with Larry Poons in your work – in the thick, trailing drips…

JH: Maybe I’ve been an influence on him or vice versa. I’ve always felt that his work had limitations and in a way my work is a criticism of his. My work is a criticism of itself, I think one’s work is a criticism or a challenge to other painting.

AS: Motherwell said something about painting being a once a homage and a criticism.

JH: That’s very true.

I used to see a lot of Larry Poons and a couple of other younger painters – John Grieffen and Ronnie Langfeld – when I was in New York in 1969 to ’70. At that time Poons was pouring paint onto unstretched canvas on the floor, puddling the paint and getting these very dry, cracked surfaces. It always seemed very inflexible in that you couldn’t really manipulate the paint much, once the paint went down – you couldn’t move it, you could only pour more on. I was working around the corner in another studio, and I was pouring thick paint into stain paint, always working on the frame so I could arrest or change the direction of the paint at any time. But for me the pouring wasn’t enough – I wanted to introduce some kind of opposing element. For him the pouring was the whole thing. His earlier poured paintings looked like the backgrounds in the pictures I’d done two years earlier. A few months ago I saw some reproductions of early Morris Louis paintings where he had done precisely the same thing – at least ten years before me. It’s not important who did it first. A lot of artists have been an influence on my work – Motherwell, Rothko, Morris Louis, Anthony Caro…

AS: Caro uses an incredible diversity of shapes. Generally you work with chopped-up rectilinear forms. You hardly ever use a curved form. He also uses real objects which can really complicated shape relations. Do you see any way of making an equivalent in paint?

JH: I can’t handle anything as complicated as that at the moment. I don’t know how to do it. It might be possible for me in the future. Of course, painting deals with a lot more things and primarily with illusion. The whole thing adds up to an illusion. If you give students some abstract notion about constructing something on a flat plane they have a lot more difficulty than if they have to do it three-dimensionally. It’s easier somehow to conceptualise in the third dimension, because these objects actually exist, in a material way, they are a fact. But in painting you’ve got to make them real, believable and convincing. Conversely, good sculpture invariably creates some kind of transformation of real things into illusion. Painting works the other way round – it involves an illusion which you have to make concrete. You have to make painting real and, if you like, sculpture unreal. I don’t know how to do all that, I wouldn’t want to complicate… I don’t know… There’s so much to be done with paint itself, the stuff, the way paint behaves.

AS: The paint does seem to have a life of its own in your pictures, sometimes it’s as though something has left an imprint and passed on.

JH: I have been pressing colour on; it’s another way of backing into drawing – because if I draw directly with a brush I tend to get self-conscious about it. If you press it on it’s one stage removed from the hand and wrist, it allows the process to intervene in the making of the shape. If it doesn’t come out right you just scrape it off and do it again till you get something you identify with. The paint is usually scraped, pressed or dripped. I don’t use a brush much in the finishing of a painting. I can draw with a knife in a way I can’t with a brush.

AS: ‘Arras’ – the biggest painting in the last (Sept 1978) Waddington show seemed to have been painted a lot more thinly than we are accustomed to from you. The facture was more acute, less physical. The breaks along the diagonal in that large red triangle were treated almost graphically.

JH: That was an unusual painting. I had a much clearer idea of what to do than usual, and when I started it I knew I was going to finish it with that red shape. I never normally know. ‘Arras’ was a summing up of that group. It was a fairly quick picture – which is how I like to paint them.

AS: I saw a painting at the gallery which didn’t eventually go in that show which had a strange shield-shaped centre figure.

JH: It was influenced by some small works I did in New York last summer, and the shield shape relates to some picutres I did a few years ago, but breaking up in a new way. I was trying to paint the centre of the picture and I couldn’t do it; I didn’t have any paint-rag so I was wiping my knife on some packaging which my materials arrived in. The way I had wiped the marks onto this packaging was much better than what I’d done on the painting; I ended up collaging it on – but in such a way that you can’t tell that it’s collaged. I was trying to get that feeling into the painting but it didn’t work.

AS: The subdued ochre-brown and black colour was also very uncharacteristic.

JH: I’ll take that painting back, maybe I’ll be able to do something with it later on. You can sometimes get a glimpse of an idea, an advance on what you’re actually capable of doing and a couple of years later you find yourself doing it, without forcing it. I think I was forcing it there, trying to make it happen.

AS: You work at pictures one at a time.

JH: I might start several but they always get finished one at a time. Sometimes you need several to kid you along, you work on them till one starts to look better than another, so you start to build the others up to that level and so on… But eventually you have to really commit yourself to one, to nail it down. Then I turn the others to the wall, so as not to be distracted.

AS: What’s your failure rate?

JH: I think it’s easier to ask about my success rate.


JH: I usually keep working on the terrible paintings till they’re not totally terrible any more. Some still end up totally awful. You often end up liking the failures because of what you’ve put into them, and because nobody wants them and they stay around, so you get used to them. It’s like having a child – you probably don’t feel much for it when it’s first born but after a few years you probably like it a lot – even if it’s got a wooden leg. Often the failures are the seeds of good paintings.

AS: What do you regard as a failed painting?

JH: When you’ve had to fake it and fake it and fake it – hoping that it will get you over to something else and you never get there. You’re just left with layer upon layer of fake. When the painting gets to a physical state where it’s impossible to change it, then it’s had it. But you can be faking it – or rather, kidding yourself, which you have to do to keep your spirits up, and you hope that somehow you can pull an arm-lock on the painting when it’s not looking and you can say, ‘Right, that’s you done!’. You almost have to kid the painting along, and slowly pull something on it. Maybe once in a while I get away with it.

You’ve got to be tactical, the whole thing with yourself, and everything. You stretch up a blank canvas and for a while it’s like shadow boxing – hitting an opponent who doesn’t hit back. Slowly the painting starts to impose itself. When it dictates where it wants to go, and I let it, it never works. I’ve got to be slightly on top of the painting. But you can’t get heavy with a painting. You have to watch it out of the corner of your eye. It has to be allowed to go its own way to some extent. It’s a compromise. Paintings can dry in completely unexpected ways and you have to be ready to meet a new situation every day. It’s only when I’m very lucky that they get finished in five shots… Maybe three or four concentrated, concerted four-hour sessions and then perhaps two or three things aren’t quite right, but you’re not sure exactly what… You keep going in and coming out, making yourself cups of coffee and sneaking back in, hoping to surprise the painting – I sometimes find I’m all dressed up to go out, and I’ve told myself I’m not going to paint – I’m going out to teach or something – but I go into the studio to take a quick look, and end up with either paint on my good shoes or I’ve got the painting right. I probably wouldn’t do something quick if I knew I had the whole day to work. Sometimes I’ll change one small detail, a spot of colour. But you can change one thing and very often end up having to change everything else – I had a big painting recently which I thought I’d finished so many times, till finally I was sure it was there; I showed it to Patrick Caulfield and he felt that there was one element too many. I realised he was right after a while so I took it out, but of course it made the others wrong. The other forms began to shrink without the buttressing support of this column I had removed. So I had to compensate. It happens all the time.

AS: The horizontal slab-paintings of the late 1960s were much ‘of a piece’ – take 18.6.69. It had a terrific impact when I saw it at the Royal Academy in 1977. There was no sense of adjustment, that it had been juggled around – as these more recent paintings do. The orange-yellow sheet looked like it had just been slammed in… It was like a John Coltrane ‘Sheet of Sound’, it was just there.

JH: And all the breaks in that long slab…

AS: I guess it was about twelve feet long.

JH: The pauses and breaks that fracture the yellow in that painting are, again, key points – physical pauses in the midst of it.

AS: You have likened your art to music.

JH: I’ve used that as a rough analogy. I think if you’re talking to someone who knows nothing about non-figurative art then music is one of the easiest analogies. People often have likes and dislikes in music which are based on experience, on listening, but in art their likes and dislikes are usually uninformed, not based on anything. Prejudices. I would like it if one could make art which could reach a lot of people, I don’t think it’s impossible. This idea that abstract art is inaccessible, that it can’t reach people is nonsense. It’s just that they haven’t been really confronted with it, haven’t been given any information on the context. Nothing exists in isolation – if you show art from one cultural context to people living in a different context they won’t understand it. If you play jazz to an Eskimo he’ll wonder what the hell it’s about. Or Bach to an Amazon Indian. I don’t believe there is a resistance, especially among young people – to non-figurative art, but critics tend to imagine that there is.

AS: What do you see as the critic’s role?

JH: To interpret to a wider audience what the artist is doing. In very excpetional cases you get a critic who is like a poet – and who makes some analogous, equal contribution to what the artist does, but only by analogy. But the critics can’t tell the artist what he should be doing. Richard Cork talks about being an intervener – to intervene. I don’t think he can handle it. He’s like a vicar who wants to meet real people, wants to get down and boogie with the workers.

AS: I think the art should always come first in the relationship – the art precedes the criticism. It’s up to the critic to meet the demands of the art, and not the other way around. Critics who want art to mediate between some general social context and their own hang-ups should shut up and do it themselves.

JH: I think painting is very much an extension of one’s interior self. If you can get the painting to be a true extension of the way you feel – physically and mentally, all the emotions – if you can make that concrete, then you’ve got this authentic thing. You can’t hide anything in a painting. You have to kid yourself along but in the end the painting is either true or it’s not true. Of course they’re not all true, nobody’s are, all the time. All Matisse’s paintings aren’t all true.

AS: True to your feelings… Or visibly… What do you mean when you say ‘faked’?

JH: I don’t exactly know. But you know when you see it – a complete summing up. Another painting will still have the hand of the artist, that person, on it but it’s incomplete, partially complete .

AS: And for yourself?

JH: I think I’ve had my moments. (Laughs.) You can’t always tell straightaway what’s true and what isn’t. You’re so involved in what you’re put into them, you just don’t know whether they’re true. It takes a long time for the work to stabilise – some artists’ work doesn’t look so good after a few years. I don’t think it’s fashion, the quality that a good artist gets into his work. If I think of my own work – when I put that show on in ’67 I really wasn’t sure that those paintings would have any authentic feeling about them, but I now think that they did, after ten years. When I get out the paintings I did in ’74 we shall see how they look. You might have it one year and not the next.

AS: You say you need a milieu – do you think that this is a good time for painting in England?

JH: There are a lot of young artists who’ve been out of college for perhaps ten years who aren’t going to give up, they’ve got a lot of work behind them and they’re all hungry – they’re maybe on the scent of something, if they can keep going.

I’ve avoided that Tate thing – the retrospective, I’m glad they’ve never offered it to me. Once you’ve had that there’s nothing else here.

AS: All you can aim for in England is a show at the Tate or a floor at the Hayward.

JH: In the television film they’re doing they interviewed Peter Fuller and he said that I was to American art what Cliff Richard is to Elvis Presley. It’s so superficial, such a provincial view of what British art is capable of. Hofmann suffered a similar criticism all his life – that of being an eclectic. Guys like Fuller are so naïve – they think great painting just comes jumping out of the fucking ground. Anyone would think, the way some critics talk, that Rembrandt never looked at anybody’s art, never went out, never knew anybody – just stayed at home and stared in the fucking mirror all day. Art has never been made in isolation, you need the support and the strength and the enterprise of other people. I need to be with other painters. Turner had to know about everything, he had to try and beat everybody at their own game – he didn’t just stare down the river all day. That’s why people go for novelty art – it doesn’t look like anyone else’s stuff, it has the appearance of instant originality.

I would like to make paintings that people can think about afterwards, I’m drawn to paintings that overwhelm and mystify me, I’d always prefer a mountain or a waterfall to an English garden complete with gnomes! I’m not interested in that kind of dinky, idiosyncratic art: pictures should change one’s perceptions, good pictures go on being elusive.

AS: Are you a consistent worker?

JH: I try but I do have lapses. When I go and see Bob Motherwell and the way he’s working, it makes me feel like an amateur. People always say that I’m very prolific but I just think that other people don’t work at all. I don’t work that hard. I don’t force myself, I don’t have to force myself that much; no regular eight hour days or anything like that, I get too tired. If I don’t paint for a couple of months I get to feel a bit unreal, empty, as though I’m on the slippery slope. I always feel that I haven’t got any work, as though I’ve got to get it done now. Anxious.

AS: You feel you’ve got to get through a lot.

JH: Right, so hopefully I can get onto the better stuff. I’d do it now if I knew how to do it. © John Hoyland / Artlog