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‘The Bright Side of Life’ by Howard Jacobson

The painter John Hoyland is now in his seventies, but his breathtaking giant canvases still radiate strength and vitality. Howard Jacobson spends time with him in his studio

The floor of John Hoyland’s studio resembles a jungle undergrowth after a storm – a wonder of wild colour, fertility and iridescence, nothing still, nothing quiet, every causality somehow turned to aesthetic advantage. It is sticky enough for me to fancy that if I walk with purpose on it I might be able to take a couple of his paintings home on my shoes. As the least conceptual or ornamental of painters, Hoyland wouldn’t mind that. Since he paints with the whole man, and aspires to paint everything it’s with every part of yourself that you feel you should possess him.

As with his paintings, so with the atmosphere in which he works: what strikes you immediately is the fecundity. Not only the masks and tribal artefacts picked up on his travels, but the outlandish glass and ceramic sculptures he has made himself, great phallic excrescences that dominate his dining furniture, taking the place of dinner guests – actually excluding dinner guests, since there isn’t room at the table for sculptures and people – hinting at an impatience with the conventional niceties, not out of some impulse to primitive slumming (for he is definitely a man of now) or abstemiousness (for is no less definitely a man of appetite and indulgence), but as though he cannot bear to be in only one place or inhabit only one dimension at a time. The restlessness of the man is tangible.

‘All my stuff comes out of going to the tropics,’ he tells me, as though, treading the jungle floor of his studio, one needs to have that pointed out. ‘Something about the abundance of life there – the danger, the music, the light. I love the light there, the dawn, the sunsets. I can’t get going here.’

There and here. Though he does not come across as fraught or anxious, there is no missing the tension in him between where he is and the would rather be. The work vibrates with somewhere else. He reels off the places he has lived – Bali, Australia, the Caribbean, Haiti, Mauritius, Thupelo Village in South Africa, Amsterdam, New York. The notebooks commemorating these sojourns – pictorial diaries, aide-mémoires, sketches made with oily markers at the moment of seeing – are exquisite. Quick and intense, witty, angry, rhapsodic, page after page of Matisse-like absorptions in the light and colour of the natural world, but romantically footloose as well, in the spirit of Gauguin.

‘In their own way, some of these are quite humorous,’ he says, almost by way of an apology. ‘I think of them as a bit like Bob Monkhouse’s joke book; you know, the one in which he copied out everything funny he ever heard, and then lost.’

I am struck by the half-shy way he hands them to me, as though, for all their humour, or maybe because of it, they are more intimate than the impenitent canvases that dwarf us in the studio. They are also, as he says, more raw. ‘When I do a painting I analyse what I’ve done. You try to make a synthesis with a painting. But there’s no editing with diaries.’

Apparently, I am not the first person to wish to see these notebooks made available in some form; the sweeter underside of his better known, more highly worked abstracts, like whisperings in a forest.

It isn’t strictly true that he can’t get going here: the four or more shows to which he has committed himself this year alone, the work he continues to produce, without the slightest diminution of energy or invention, and without any concession to more modest or manageable scale, attests to how much getting going he remains capable of. And when I say without any concession to manageable scale, I do mean without any. Some of his canvases are so massive he has had to have giant steel letter-boxes constructed between his studio and the outside world, so that he can get them out.

The trouble comes when the gallery meant to be showing his latest work isn’t comparably equipped. ‘And anyway, they don’t sell that well when they’re this big,’ he concedes, which we agree isn’t too surprising given that most people, even most art collectors, don’t live in rooms the size of the Parthenon. ‘But I like doing them,’ he goes on, ‘for myself.’

There are not many painters who can sustain canvases of this enormity, whether the public is in the market for them or not. It excites me to be among them, the way small boys are excited to be near dinosaurs in museums. They lend a monumentality to his studio; they are the ancient trees which you do not want to imagine ever not being there.

Yet for all that, there is something illusory about his place of work. He is not, one feels, painting where he is. Sometimes he will draw inspiration for a painting, big or small, from his notebooks, but often it is simply as though his imagination is saturated with that tropical abundance he speaks of, and when he shakes the plastic bottles of acrylic, listening to the paint’s viscosity but otherwise with no prior knowledge of what shapes or depths are going to form – ‘I love not knowing,’ he says. ‘I try to make the pictures paint themselves, you can’t force a painting, you have to coax it’ – the one sure thing is that the painting will be an expression of his longing for the intense light and riskiness of other places.

I am not saying that the subject of his recent painting is exile. As a writer, I am at pains to show him I understand that abstraction does not have a subject in the way that a novel has a subject, except in so far as eternity is what we are all about. Indeed, there is a comic moment of painter/novelist anxiety between us when Hoyland identifies one of his own recurring motifs as a bird, but is quick to explain that he doesn’t mean a literal bird, but the idea or trace of a bird (‘It’s the movement and speed of birds I do’), its agitated passage through space, and I am no less quick to explain that an actual bird is the last thing I would expect to see in one of his paintings, whereupon he is quicker still to explain that he knows that I know what not to expect. After which we both fall silent in front of ‘Spirit River’, wondering just how much actual bird he might in fact have painted. What I’m thinking, faced with that painting, is Icarus – a thought I keep to myself.

But that there should be so much as a suggestion of a bird shows how far Hoyland has travelled from the chaste geometrics of pure pigment in his early work, when colour and that was all ye knew on earth and all ye needed to know. He talks at length, with remarkable verve and recall, of the great Americans who propounded and put into practice the austerities of Abstract Expressionism – Clement Greenberg, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman et al – brilliantly evoking the priestliness of every theory they espoused and every hallowed New York paving-stone they walked on. ‘Greenberg and I were like two dogs who didn’t get along,’ he tells me. ‘He was always finding little ways of putting me in my place, like waiting for everyone to be seated at table, then saying, “John, you’re sitting in my chair.” But he did once say to me, “I cannot wholly dismiss your work,” which from him I took to be a compliment.’

Of Rothko he speaks more affectionately, recalling how generous that most spiritual of painters could be about artists quite different from him, even De Kooning at his most sensual. Suddenly, perhaps prompted by the incongruous pairing of Rothko and sensuality, he breaks into a laugh. ‘I remember visiting his studio one day, and him saying, “What do you do in the afternoon, John?” And when I told him what I did, he said, “In the afternoon I think a lot about flesh.”‘

Vividly as he conjures these ghosts of men less impetuous and ebullient than he is or ever was, it is as though they too are of an abundant other world, as far away now as Bali or Thupelo. Hence, you can’t help thinking, those dark birds of passage, sometimes indistinct and spidery, sometimes almost like a crucifix hurled into the sky, but always in distracted motion, traversing time and place, emissaries vagabondage and memory.

Age will have its way with you. Hoyland is only in his early seventies, nothing for a painter. He exudes immense strength, and looks, for all his temperamental transience, immovable. Even if you didn’t know he’d been born in Sheffield you’d pick him for a Yorkshire or Nottinghamshire man; there is something of the coal miner about him, but also something of Ted Hughes (if you can imagine Ted Hughes in Cuban heels and cowboy belt), the bulk carried deftly as though it is no accidental part of his nature, but explains everything he has been up to, his devilishness, his confident sensuousness, his wholly serious sense of purpose. You live more convincingly out of the whole man when the whole man has stature.

Part of what is so exciting about the work is the physicality it embodies, the unembarrassed gestural marks – so out of tune with the tentative ironies of contemporary art manufacture which he holds in magnificent contempt – the great curtains of thick paint suggesting sempiternity, never mind longevity, the bold death-defiance of the glowing colours. But he has been a force in painting for a long time; movements have been and gone, friends and fellow-painters too. And one of the ways that age, or simply, if you like, duration has its way with you is melancholy. When we stand at his window and look out, discussing the flight of birds again, his conversation turns repeatedly to old painting and carousing companions, fellow marauders and journeys to lush and distant places, like-minded musketeers of art and danger, who have not survived the big adventure.

Terry Frost he misses particularly, and he laughs remembering what he calls the ‘dream language’ of his paintings, and the time Frost accused him of poisoning his Thai fish soup. Bob Motherwell, too – ‘A romantic legend. A terrific example of how to be an artist.’ When I ask why, his answer surprises me. ‘Because he was the most all-round cultured person I’ve known. Music, history, literature, politics – he could cross-reference them all.’

The all-round culturedness does not preclude grand boozing reminiscences, such as Motherwell’s being ordered to give up drinking the very day he took possession of a cache of precious wine as his payment for designing, like Dali and Miró before him, a new label for Rothschild. Fortunately, Hoyland just happened to be in New York at the time to polish off the plonk for him.

But it’s Patrick Caulfield, once the leading figure of British Pop Art, whose loss he feels most keenly. ‘I saw Patrick almost every day,’ he muses. ‘We had lunch together three times a week.’ He mimics Caulfield’s cut-glass accent, acquired when he was a student at Chelsea because he thought the upper-class girls he encountered there would prefer that to the leaden music of his native Bolton. ‘Big mistake,’ we laugh together. But then we are born northern men who still sound like northern men.

‘You’ve got working-class feet,’ he told Caulfield once, noting that his big toe was bent as a consequence, presumably, of going without good shoes. ‘That’s because I am working class,’ Caulfield answered. ‘Did you have a car, did your father have a job? Well, we had nothing. That’s why I have a right to be a snob.’

When Caulfield died after a long illness last year, Hoyland delivered an address at the funeral, some of which, in a determinedly robust voice, he reads to me: ‘Patrick did not attach himself to movements or theories and had no interest in politics. He could not understand why anyone else should… He continued to explore the idiosyncrasies of his inner mind until the end, which was all he needed to sustain his growth.’ We both know who he is really talking about.

He is not maudlin – even when he delivers phrases such as ‘until the end’ he is not maudlin – and it would be a brave man who dared to find any of the sweets of sorrow either in his person or his dynamic life-committed canvases. But I notice shapes or presences in his recent work – ‘intimations or other-dimensional space’ might be a way of describing them – that were not, I think, there before, or at least not there with the insistence with which they recur today. And, to my eye at least, those shapes or densities pulse with emotions to which I am not sure I can satisfactorily give a name, but ‘tragic’ is a start.

Are they moons, suns, craters, or just space disappearing into itself? There are circles aplenty in these new paintings, involutions of richly-applied colour that call to mind Van Gogh’s Catherine-wheel stars, themselves invoked in Night Sky – Hoyland’s homage to Vincent – as icy fireballs of pure white, like damage to the mind. A blue circle in a halo of red hangs where a moon should in Lone Dance. Ring of Fire does what it says, one Cyclopean eye, redder-ringed than a drunk’s, commanding a field of green which doesn’t look as though it’s going to last long.

But the eye in Kingdom shrinks towards its own centre, a green deepening to black. In other paintings, such as Rio Crystal, the heart of the painting becomes a void, engulfing itself in silence, defying the fizzing squibs and fiery atoms to come anywhere near. And the deep blue space in Night Sky appears to be heading our way, getting larger.

However you read these, whether as vortices suggesting the beginning of things, the nothingness out of which something came, or as the end, the nothingness to which we have no choice but to return, the sense of some abiding grandeur, a quiet at the heart of creation notwithstanding all the fireworks of paint, is unmistakable. What’s extraordinary is how dynamic even in their reflectiveness these paintings are. If Hoyland is heading for a late phase, it won’t be one of philosophical surrender.

As we’re talking – though I haven’t had the courage to talk to him about a ‘late phase’ – Hoyland’s friend the painter Martin Fuller turns up to join us for lunch. Seeing the new work, he shakes his head in mock-grudging admiration. ‘Full of bloody life, you old bugger!’ he says.

Which is, I think, the final, heroical word on Hoyland.

© Howard Jacobson /