Bold, Beefy, British: John Hoyland Stain Paintings of the 1960s
John Hoyland: Stain Paintings 1964-1966 at Pace, New York
September 14 to October 21, 2017
32 East 57th Street, between Madison and Park avenues
New York City, pacegallery.com
Back in swinging ‘60s London, John Hoyland (1934-2011) was already being called by some the best British abstract painter. Those who knew best his starkly simple, large and brilliantly colored canvases were aware that he’d been paying attention to Yankee painting.
The show at Pace focuses on those glamor years; it enables us to revel in the work’s beauty and to sift through the artist’s antecedents for a historical perspective on where and how they coalesced into fresh, distinctive work.
Not least among Hoyland’s recent admirers is an unexpected one: Damien Hirst, the “Young British Artist” better known for pickled animals, pill paintings and a diamond-crusted skull. When Hirst opened his Newport Street Gallery in south London two years ago, to showcase work from his collection, he inaugurated it with a display of paintings by a fellow Yorkshireman – John Hoyland.
The catalog to the Pace exhibition excerpts a conversation between Hirst and Hoyland in 2009. The junior artist (b. 1965) recalls how in his youthful visits to the Leeds City Art Gallery he saw “a great painting of yours…with a big purple rectangle at the bottom – 12 feet or something, with oranges in the middle.
“You were creating a lot of big paintings with unarguable power,” Hirst continues, “paintings that give you a slap: a physical, gut reaction to some sort of spiritual – or not spiritual but hugely emotive — transcendental, thing. You know, a big thing, and grand. There’s a great meeting of geometry and organic forms.”
Another catalogue essay is by William Boyd, the celebrated Scottish novelist who has likewise begun collecting Hoyland paintings. Yet more enlightenment concerning the painter’s possible antecedents came from a public dialog held at the Pace show’s opening reception between Arne Glimcher, chairman of Pace, and Mel Gooding, the London art critic who has written widely on British abstraction, and whose monograph on Hoyland was published by Thames & Hudson in 2006.
The prime issue was the impact of Hoyland’s first visit to America, when he came to New York in 1964, at or near the tender age of 30. A graduate of the Royal Academy, he had already also absorbed the contributions of postwar School of Paris abstractionists like Nicolas de Staël, and those versions of Bauhaus design that had percolated through the English art-school system. .
He knew and admired the work of the British sculptor Anthony Caro, who had been teaching at St. Martin’s School of Art since the mid-‘50s, had been to the U.S. earlier in the ‘60s, learned there from David Smith the nuances of assembling steel sculpture, and begun painting his own sculptures with bright colors.
Hoyland had seen and been impressed by the paintings of Pollock, Rothko, Still, Motherwell, and other American abstract expressionists in exhibitions at the Tate Gallery in 1956 and 1959; Pollock and Rothko had also had solo retrospectives in London.
And Hoyland was already a success in London. He was one of the brightest stars in the galaxy of younger British talent that had appeared in several prestigious exhibitions of the ‘60s, most recently the “New Generation” show staged earlier in ’64 by the legendary Bryan Robertson at the Whitechapel Art Gallery.
But, though Hoyland had met Helen Frankenthaler through Robertson, and may have met Clement Greenberg in London, when he came to New York in ’64 he wasn’t familiar with American Color Field painting as it was being practiced by Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitski. Moreover, there was one first- generation abstract expressionist whose work Hoyland had never seen.
This was the German-born Hans Hofmann (1880 – 1966), who had apparently been excluded from both Tate Gallery shows. Evidently he was not considered “American” enough to be included, having settled in the U.S. only in 1932 at the age of 52. But he had been exhibiting abstract expressionist paintings in New York since the 1940s — and it was in a 1946 review of one of his shows that Robert Coates, art critic for the New Yorker, first applied the term “abstract expressionist” to the emerging movement. Greenberg revered Hofmann’s teaching and his paintings. Two of the very few solo exhibitions that he organized for a gallery were of 1958 Hofmann paintings, at the Kootz Gallery; Greenberg had also written a small book on Hofmann. So on one of those art-viewing strolls in Manhattan that he took with Hoyland and another visiting British artist in ‘64, he showed them some Nolands in a warehouse, and then exposed them to two Hofmanns at Kootz.
After Hoyland returned to London, he gradually entered into the period of creation celebrated at Pace. These paintings occupy large expanses of canvas, reminiscent the Wild West’s wide open spaces.
These paintings are dominated by blistering colors — fire engine red, acid green, electric blue, volcanic orangey-brown and corpulent purple — and by a few large, simple shapes. Some of these shapes are rectangles, but some are diagonals, implying (and then denying) perspective, and some are narrow little rows of blips. To the extent that these shapes are vertical rectangles, they’re vaguely reminiscent of Hofmann’s “slabs,” but Hoyland’s surfaces don’t resemble Hofmann’s brushy beds of oil paint. Rather, they employ thinned acrylics — stained into the canvas, not laid on top.
Hoyland suggested that he was most indebted in his staining to Rothko and other first-generation greats, but he is hardly the first artist to deny his immediate competition and celebrate hors de combat seniors instead. Stain painting was the modus operandi of Noland, Frankenthaler, and Olitski in the early ‘60s. It makes Hoyland their post-painterly contemporary, not a holdover from the gestural ‘50s – a true kissing cousin to color-field.
Nobody at the opening “conversation” said this, though. Gooding cited Caro as Hoyland’s prime inspiration, while Glimcher mentioned Donald Judd. Of the two, Caro is more likely, but in the early ‘60s, minimal art and modernism were still friends. Caro would be included in the Jewish Museum’s “Primary Structures” show of 1966, which introduced minimalism to a wider public, while Judd’s first solo exhibition, which had opened at the Green Gallery in December 1963, was favorably reviewed by Michael Fried, an intimate of Greenberg’s. But, in the end, what do such “influences” matter? What counts is the unique synthesis that Hoyland achieved: a bold and beautiful, lyrically beefy British presence.