Press |  1990s | 

‘The finally inexplicable’ by Bryan Robertson

John Hoyland’s latest paintings are not being exhibited by any gallery, to the disappointment of the critic Bryan Robertson who believes them to be among his best. Here Robertson, the curator of two previous Hoyland shows, questions the artist about the new work and his development as an abstract painter since the 1950s.

Bryan Robertson: I’ve always understood, maybe over-simplistically, that the great abstract art of this century came about by a process of working through reality or some aspect of the physical world – the nude, landscape, the interior or still-life – in stages towards simplification, and then, like a sort of exorcism, a casting away of what Rothko called ‘crutches’, venturing into some form of abstraction without any obvious references to the physical world, but maybe with some distilled, remembered vestiges of its appearance – like Mondrian’s sequence of trees. But you seem to have begun, back in the Fifties, straight off as a fully-fledged abstract painter.

John Hoyland: I was a figurative painter for about eight years before I even dreamed of moving into abstraction. I’d already been a student in Sheffield for four or five years before, as a student at the Royal Academy Schools, I saw a Mondrian for the first time. Nothing could convince me that it meant anything more than a tablecloth design. You’ll recall that the problem in art at that time, as everyone saw it, was how to make a painting that was both figurative and abstract. De Staël is the best example of what I mean; Robert Medley was simplifying form and moving in and out of abstraction – he loved Guston’s still-life paintings; Nicholson and Scott were also concerned with that particular balancing act.

Where I came from, Sheffield, nobody had ever explained the content of modern art to us. When fellow students who had been on courses at Newcastle – where Tom Hudson, Harry Thubron, Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton were among their mentors – began to explain the evolution of Mondrian’s work to me, the metamorphosis of his drawings of trees, for instance, towards making an autonomous painting, or Matisse working directly from the nude model but ending with an independent image – then it seemed an exciting possibility, to make a painting that was independent of local colour or illustrative form.

At art school in Sheffield, we were taught to draw in a kind of Renaissance tradition of line drawing. Hockney continued in this tradition and even developed it, but we all began with it. I learned to fake it, reasonably well, but I never felt comfortable with it. It didn’t seem natural to me to draw a triangle between the eyes, the nose and the mouth, or to try to render the curve of a cheek-bone purely in line.

At the Royal Academy Schools, you faced a three-month probationary period when you were only allowed to draw. I felt that drawing was the weakest element in my work and I knew earlier that I was fudging it, and I decided to go along with the RA discipline and confront it in the incessant work of the life class. Rejecting line and contour, I began to draw with charcoal and coloured crayon, looking for plane and volume and arriving at the form from inside rather than outside. If you draw with line you hope to suggest form with line, but I was blocking it in with almost the equivalent in charcoal or crayon of paint marks. You arrive at the contour through volume. […]

BR: Your best paintings have always seemed to be in overdrive or filled with a romantic excess, a blaze of light or fire like a tropical sunset or forest fire, or a heat-drenched Mediterranean coast scene. And you’ve always been a self-proclaimed abstract painter and seen as an abstract artist. In the early 1980s still-life seemed to appear, however wildly and loosely, the nearest you’ve got to something explicit, from reality.

JH: Art is about making ethical and poetical judgements; with discerning taste, bringing together a group of generalities to a concrete, formal conclusion to make a bridge between the artist and his audience. From the beginning I’ve always been excited by what I saw as the challenge of formal ideas, abstract precepts if you like. This has always seemed the most radical extension of visual language in my lifetime. I feel that the best non-figurative painting has a greater potential for meaning than figurative art. You can think of some big exceptions, but I find the best of it more profound. It has the mystery of the finally inexplicable. Of course I want it all – though I understand only too well the limitations of painting. […]

© Bryan Robertson /
(Originally © Modern Painters, 1994)