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Beautiful Geometry: William Boyd on John Hoyland

I bought my first John Hoyland in 1994.  It was a predominantly red abstract with a rectangle of acid green at the bottom, painted in 1964.  It was at auction – Christie’s – and, as it turned out, I was the sole bidder.  Auction houses are a very useful indicator of the random vacillation of an artist’s perceived worth and fleeting reputation (but not intrinsic merit).  At the same time, you could easily see, for example, how Graham Sutherland’s prices had plummeted.  In the 1950s Sutherland was the highest paid painter in England, charging £25,000 for a portrait (a vast sum, then) but, at the sale that I bought the Hoyland, I bid for and won a small Sutherland gouache for a modest three figures.

So it was, twenty years ago, for John Hoyland’s work.  A year later from that first acquisition I bought another Hoyland at auction in 1995 — another abstract of precise blue stripes painted in 1961 when Hoyland was thirty and fresh out of the Royal Academy. There was no competition, yet again. I wasn’t complaining – I now had two Hoylands – but I was baffled. Couldn’t anyone else see how good he was?

My route to Hoyland was a strange one.  I first became aware of him through a book called Private View published in 1966 – and something of a collector’s item itself, now. Its subtitle is “The Lively World of British Art”. Even though it was cashing in on the whole “Swingin’ London” phenomenon, it is in fact a very large book, hundreds of pages long, and a compendious and serious overview of British painting since World War II, written by Bryan Robertson and John Russell and copiously illustrated with colour reproductions and hundreds of photographs of the contemporary art world – artists, teachers, gallerists etcetera — taken by Snowden, many of them superb. There is no better conspectus of what was going on in the art world at the time, and it reflects the patent excitement and originality of the Sixties scene. This was Hoyland’s era and context as a young artist and in the book there was a full-page full-colour reproduction of a refulgent 1963 Hoyland abstract – amorphous forms of pink and a dark and lighter blue conjoined in the middle of a square field of glowing lemon yellow. I was particularly drawn to it.

Pure abstraction works on the viewer very quickly: that combination of colour, form and composition provokes an almost instinctive, instant response – or not. It only takes a few seconds to decide whether you like an abstract painting and I was immediately held by this Hoyland, the first I’d ever seen. Bryan Robertson wrote the commentary to the illustration.  Hoyland’s work, he wrote, is “stated in terms of strong resonant colour which cuts out tonality. The play between the shapes themselves, and the tension between the all-over space are dramatic and highly subtle. Hoyland is a true inventor.”  This is as good and succinct an analysis of the Hoyland effect as any I’ve read and it quickened my interest.  I was a great haunter of auction houses in the 1980s and ‘90s, but it turned out to be a long wait before I saw the first Hoyland come up for sale.

In the meantime I met Bryan Robertson himself when I joined the editorial board of the magazine Modern Painters. Robertson, who was on the board also, had been the curator of the Whitechapel Gallery (from 1952-1968) where he’d put on some of the most memorable shows of the younger British artists, changing tastes and making reputations. In fact he had curated a solo Hoyland show at the Whitechapel in 1967. I asked him about Hoyland and he confirmed the verdict he’d made in Private View.  The real deal. And so I waited – and, eventually, the red abstract appeared in a Christie’s catalogue.

John Hoyland was born in Sheffield in 1931 went to the Sheffield College of Art and then came down to London to the Royal Academy Schools, studying there from 1956-60. His early work is highly competent figuration – portraits, cityscapes, interiors. Even though he became an exclusively abstract painter Hoyland could clearly draw well. We forget what an intoxicating and stimulating period it was for British painting in the 1960s. Private View is a revelation in that regard. All the names we bandy about today were young artists making their reputation at the time – David Hockney, Patrick Caulfield, Peter Blake, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Howard Hodgkin – not to mention Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon.  However, the British art world was then overshadowed by the international allure and glamour of the New York School and emerging Pop Art and our artists always seemed to play second fiddle to the great abstract expressionists — Pollock, De Kooning, Franz Kline, Motherwell and so forth.  But the work that was being done in London and elsewhere in Britain during the 1960s has become more properly evaluated and acclaimed as time has passed. British art of the 1960s is just as challenging, rousing and innovative as the art being made anywhere but it just hasn’t been full recognised – yet.

Then, in the late 1990s, I was asked to co-curate an annual exhibition in the Mall Galleries in London called “The Discerning Eye”.  It’s an interesting show because all the work has to be small – no painting can be bigger than three feet square. As one of the curators I was allowed to invite an artist – your personal choice – to exhibit.  So I chose John Hoyland.  This is when I met Hoyland for the first time. By then I’d bought another of his 1960 abstracts and was keen to encounter the man himself.

John Hoyland turned out to be a tall rangy figure with a shock of spiky grey hair and a seamed, handsome face. He still had a pronounced Yorkshire accent and it was almost immediately apparent that he didn’t suffer fools gladly. Dry, direct and blunt are three adjectives that would come to mind if you wanted to describe his personality. However, he was happy to show small paintings from his current work at The Discerning Eye, and so our brief personal acquaintance was born.

There is a huge and obvious difference between early and late Hoyland.  There is the same intense and startling juxtaposition of colour but where in the paintings of the 60s and the early 70s the blocks of colour are hard-edged and discrete – their placing and compositional design masterfully arranged — the later work is more free-flowing swirling thick impasto. Discipline, precision and control have been replaced by spontaneity, instinct and the aleatory.  I understand what Hoyland was doing and why his work changed but my own taste is for the paintings of the first half of his career as an artist. This sort of radical shift isn’t unusual in painters. If one thinks, say, of André Derain or Oscar Kokoschka there is a similar gulf between their earlier work (on which their reputation rests) and the work they produced in the later decades of their long lives. Hoyland, I believe, is very much in this category. This is not to diminish “late” Hoyland – it has its passionate advocates – but I believe his status as a major post-war British artist will be grounded on the great abstracts of the 1960s and 70s.

If you are familiar with the range of Hoyland’s work the beginnings of this change are very obvious.  First of all, he begins to give his paintings titles. The abstracts of the 1960s are identified only by the date of their completion: 23.7.67, 18.2.69 and so on. In the early 1970s the precise forms of his abstracts – the L-shapes, the lozenges, rectangles, ovals, trapezoids – began to be scumbled and overlaid with dripped or poured paint. You could see the precise geometry but as if through a mist or haze – the colours are fading, the sharp outlines are going; the free-form exploding coronas, the lucent amoeba-shapes, the vegetal, vermicular smears of paint that characterise “late” Hoyland are just around the corner. Now also, the paintings are named, have titles — and a title like “Grace” or “Broken Bride” inevitably prompts a form of interpretation.  It’s as if Hoyland was signalling a clear sea-change in the way he used abstraction: some sort of hard purity of intent had gone once the work became freer and looser. The rigour of the geometrically situated blocks of precise contrasting colour was being replaced by something more instinctive and imaginative.

I bought an unsigned, undated print from this period – the early 1970s — that I came across in a provincial art gallery. I suggested that I might try to have it signed. “Good luck to you,” the gallery owner said, with a sneer. “I asked Hoyland, myself,” he went on, “I wrote to him asking if he’d sign the print and received the most insulting letter I’ve ever had in my life. Ever! He’s the rudest man.”  Unperturbed, I contacted Hoyland and asked him if he’d sign the print for me. “Of course,” he said, genially. “Bring it round to the studio.”  He asked me where I had bought the print and when I told him the name of the gallery he skewered the gallerist with a few choice four-letter epithets. John Hoyland did not suffer fools, at all.

The last time I met him was at the memorial celebration of our mutual friend, the writer Gordon Burn, who had died in 2009 at the age of 61. John seemed a bit morose and preoccupied – he was very fond of Gordon Burn – and did not stay long.  It was the last time I saw him — he died just over a year later. He was 76 years old.

Hoyland’s work of the 1960s and early ‘70s is, initially, a pure visual delight. Looking at a Hoyland is like looking at a big Mark Rothko colour-field. Except with an acid edge: Hoyland is like a cooler, hipper English Rothko.  Hoyland’s colour contrasts are daring as well as being alluring.  Deep purple and lime green; raspberry pink and cerulean blue; pillar-box red and charcoal grey.  The colour is flat, acrylic on cotton duck (no tonality, as Bryan Robertson observed) and the shaped forms – rectangles, squares, ovals, thin bars of colour at the canvas edge — offer extremes of scale: square yards of one colour set against a small block of the other. The paintings can be very large – ten feet by five, eight feet by six, eight feet by twenty – and the effect of looking at them, of being confronted by them, is exhilarating, at times breath-taking. These large canvases of the 1960s prove that, as a colourist working in abstraction, Hoyland is unmatched.  Over a period of approximately ten or twelve years, between the early 1960s and the early 1970s he produced work of tremendous ambition and audacity, with an impact that is almost palpable, and that should finally prompt a posthumous recognition that he is a modern British master – one of the great abstract painters of the 20th century.