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Painting back in focus: Jackie Wullschlager

People saying, “you can’t be an artist and a curator, you can’t be both,’ made me think, I’ll show you something, I’ll show you a different way.'”

Damien Hirst told Nicholas Serota in a 2012 interview. Now, decades after curating the seminal Freeze exhibition, Hirst shows us again. He marks his 50th birthday this year by launching Newport Street Gallery, a 37,000 sq ft private museum converted from a former scenery-painting studios, with towering ceilings and a lofty skylight.

Close to Lambeth Bridge, Newport Street’s sleek, White Cube style space stands midway between the galleries founded by Hirst’s dealer Jay Jopling in Bermondset in 2011 and his former patron Charles Saatchi in Chelsea in 2008. The three institutions represent the bricks-and-mortar legacy of the dizzying fortunes of Young British art in the 1990s. And legacy is what this project is surely about. Hirst has produced no serious or innovative art this century. Jopling rarely stages memorable shows these days and Saatchi never. As impresario and curator, can Hirst in his new venture, regain the TBA tastemaking flair with which this trio once shaped London’s cultural landscape? Hirst is certainly unnerving current conceptual sensibilities. John Hoyland: Power Stations, the inaugural show chosen from “Murderme”, his extensive collection of fellow YBAs and global contemporaries, is a retrospective of  early work by a provocatively unfashionable English abstract painter. Hoyland died in 2011 and, at his last show in 1999 spoke out against the YBA “fashion and marketing”. Hirst, he said, “is becoming a  entrepreneur….Artists should not farm their work out.” And “Art is a seismograph of the human being.” On another occasion he said “I don’t think you make great art unless you paint it yourself.”

Hirst began supping with his anti conceptual devil in 2009. The pair became friends – both came from working-class Yorkshire families -and paying by standing order, Hirst bought scores of Hoylands that fizz and seduce on Newport Street’s vast white walls. Everywhere the eye is overwhelmed with saturated colour. The opening gallery, the red room, with it’s1960s canvases – three or four metres wide – is dominated by smooth expanses of crimson, scarlet and vermillion, somehow both austere and voluptuous. And there are more ellusive works held between formal architectonics and spontaneity, from 1979-80, when Hoyland sought “the turbulent flux of appearances”. These include airily balanced forms suggesting sun, cloud and rock in  “Longspeak” (1979) and “Cobalt Glide” (1980), where the sheer face of a royal blue rectangle dissolves  into gold and black, beneath purplish russet layers evoking a Turner-esque sunset.

Hirst emphasises a careful unfolding of Hoyland’s development in the mid 1960s, beginning in 1964 with the bright liquid pools, derived from Jean Arp’s biomorphic forms, floating on walls of colour. In 1965 these are replaced with dark rectangles: raw edged, blurry, advancing across the colour fields on a horizontal axis, like sculptural blocks. By 1966, the blocks become columns, in shrill lime and orange on dark grounds. Within months – a grandiloquent grey/red canvas dated December 29, points the way – the columns open into broad screens like moveable stage-sets, now translucent, vibrant, in asymmetric, enigmatic compositions. This series continues until 19687 as Hoyland perfects an oeuvre of high artifice: colours raw and unfussy, space a drama of flatness and recession, light scintillating.

“If I had died in 1969 I would be a legend by now,” Hoyland complained in old age.

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