John Hoyland 1934-2011


The Artist's Estate


2016, London, Piano Nobile, Aspects of Abstraction: 1952-2007, 17 May - 23 June 2016, cat. no. 14, col. ill. p. 45. 


During a talk at the Tate gallery in 1994, John Hoyland argued that in his painting, “There is no place for cynicism, only joy, passion and wonderment, clarity and eagerness.” Painted in 1976, three years after Hoyland’s extended stay in New York and three years before his landmark second retrospective at the Whitechapel gallery, 15.3.76 is a testament to Hoyland’s immersion in the project of abstraction. It is a painting about the process of painting. The canvas is dominated by an extraordinary fuchsia pink rectangle, laid over near-neon yellow, and stepped at the base. Behind the pink rectangle is layer upon layer of poured, smeared, scrapped, dripped paint in a veritable rainbow of colour. The construction of this painting is tangibly present – the viewer cannot but visualise the painter at work, energetically pacing around a canvas laid on the floor of the studio, spontaneously applying paint with any instrument to hand.

15.3.76, however, does not just make the artistic process visible, it explores the fundamental tenets of abstraction. The rectangle was the cornerstone of the modernism of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism as theorised by critic Clement Greenberg. It is the rectangle of the picture plane that defines the possibilities and limitations of Greenberg’s abstraction. The rectangle within abstraction is a window into the painting or a visual block, a beginning, as with the geometrical abstraction of Mondrian, or the finite conclusion of Malevich’s black square. In the same Tate talk, Hoyland explained, “I approach my work in a vaguely dialectical way through a form of criticism, trying to investigate a mixture of logic, imagination and empirical accident, trying to break the logical mould.” Synthesising complex problematics and yet effortlessly instinctual, 15.3.76 is both theoretical investigation and exploration of materiality, structurally anchored by the rectangle but threatening to dissolve into formless chaos, self-consciously referential and yet entirely idiomatic of Hoyland.

Despite striking up friendships with Greenberg, and painters Helen Frankantheler, Robert Motherwell, and Mark Rothko on his first visit to New York in 1965, Hoyland found the reductionism of Greenberg’s modernism leading his painting into an artistic dead-end. It was the sculpture of Anthony Caro, with whom Hoyland exhibited at the 1969 Saõ Paulo biennial, which opened a route beyond Greenbergian formalism, inspiring Hoyland to re-introduce the illusion of space into his paintings. Hoyland’s painting underwent a further transformation during his prolonged stay in New York from 1969 until 1973 with peachy pink rectangles appearing as focal forms. It was only upon his return to the UK that Hoyland turned to the luscious, visceral, brashly artificial palette evidenced in 15.3.76 and working the construction of the painting into its final state. A profound exploration of the essential premise of abstract painting, 15.3.76 reveals Hoyland at his most joyful, passionate and philosophical.