Press |  1970s | 

‘Waiting for the click… ’ by Edward Lucie-Smith

The John Hoyland retrospective which is currently on view at the Serpentine Gallery is full, as one might expect, of big, swagger, confident, abstract pictures, ablaze with colour.

But there is more – much more – to be said about it than this. In fact, it is one of the most interesting exhibitions by a leading British artist to have taken place in London for some time.

Hoyland belongs to a group of painters, and indeed a generation of painters, who are now very much under fire. It is not merely that the mass public remains obstinately unconvinced by abstract art. It is also that the part of the public which is convinced has increasingly begun to question what Hoyland and his peers are doing. By his peers, I mean chiefly the artists of the so-called ‘Situation’ Group, which came into prominence at the beginning of the ’60s, at about the same time as Hockney and other leading pop artists. Several have had retrospectives within the past few years. Almost without exception the effect has been to demolish a reputation rather than confirm one.

Yet Hoyland’s work has vocal supporters as well as equally vocal detractors, more so than other art which falls into the same category. One critic can say sourly that if Hoyland had not existed it would have been necessary to invent him, but even this, if you think about it, is almost as much of a compliment as it is a condemnation.

The point at issue is Hoyland’s position as an English abstract expressionist – an abstract expressionist who is only in his forties, while the Americans who invented the style are most of them dead. Do we need this kind of art in England? Do we need it so belatedly?

Hoyland would probably resent these questions. Last Saturday BBC2 showed a good film about him called ‘Six Days in September’. In it one saw the artist working on a large canvas – splashing, swabbing, attacking it with a palette knife. The criteria, he made clear, were entirely subjective ones. He was searching for the ‘click’ – his own personal conviction that the work of art was completed and ‘right’.

But Hoyland’s subjectivity, so it turns out, is full of references and not merely to American abstract expressionism as represented by Hans Hofmann, Willem de Kooning, Jules Olitski and Larry Poons. Clear debts can be also be seen to the French painting of the ’50s, when Hoyland was still at art school: here a reference to Poliakoff, and there one to Nicolas de Staël.

What Hoyland has done is to find a context for pre-existing ideas, and to reinterpret them in a personal way. Pound and Eliot did the same when they constantly quoted other poets in their own poetry. So long as art itself fascinates you, you are certain to find something to like in this ebullient exhibition.

© Edward Lucie-Smith / The Evening Standard