Press |  2000s | 

‘A painter shows his true colours’ by C J Schuler

John Hoyland emerged as one of Britain’s leading abstract painters in the Sixties, exhibiting with both the influential Situation group in 1960 and the New Generation artists – along with Patrick Caulfield, David Hockney and Bridget Riley – at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1964. Later that year, he went to New York where he met leading Abstract Expressionists including Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko.

His early work features broad, calm rectangles in the manner of the American Color Field painters, but Hoyland’s distinctive contribution has been to break with the modernist insistence on a flat surface and to put perspective back into abstract painting: his mature work is characterised by depth and texture, in which strange objects float in the foreground or middle distance, against an often mysterious background, in a way that is oddly reminiscent of Miro.

The Sheffield-born Royal Academician enjoyed a major retrospective last year at Tate St Ives; this new exhibition showcases work from the past eight years. What is stunning is the vitality of these 10 enormous canvases, several as much as 10ft square. Powerfully affirmative, full of light and life, they combine the romanticism of Rothko with the macho energy of Pollock. Superimposed on to shimmering, luminous backgrounds are brilliant, explosive splashes of colour and activity. Acrylic is applied in a thin wash that shrinks on the canvas to produce a delicate craquelure. Over this, slabs of thicker paint are allowed to run down the canvas, and over these are brightly geometric shapes in bold impasto, often squeezed straight from the tube.

In several of the paintings, vertical stripes are deployed somewhat in the manner of Barnett Newman, to divide the field, creating a sense of tension and even conflict. In ‘Memory 4-07-1999’, the canvas is partitioned two-thirds of the way across by violet, yellow and green bands; to one side, outlined in red paint, is what looks like a human form, possibly that of a woman. The drips that run from this sketchy figure suggest blood, or tears, and, against the deep blue background, evoke an atmosphere of mourning.

While abstract painting can sometimes seem difficult, cerebral and aloof, Hoyland’s canvases are vibrant, tender, atmospheric – and richly enjoyable. The poetic titles, and the inclusion of the date – a practice he has maintained for decades – suggest the work forms some kind of emotional autobiography, though many defy literal interpretation.

Maurice Cockrill, a fellow Royal Academician, has called Hoyland ‘the Muddy Waters of British painting – relentless, driven, and still an old rascal’. The sheer energy, scale and ambition of this recent work abundantly demonstrate that, at 72, Hoyland has still got his mojo working.

[Review of new work at The Arts Club, London]

© C J Schuler /