In a special edition of InSight, Sam Cornish considers the ‘pillars of space’ in John Hoyland’s work from the 1960s. Cornish is a leading specialist on Hoyland and is co-editor of the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Hoyland’s paintings.
John Hoyland’s 16.9.66 presents us with an image of an ideal, unworldly architecture, remote yet vividly present. Its horizontals and verticals could be seen as purely abstract elements – perhaps resembling a hugely expanded and partially disassembled Mondrian painting. Yet they also suggest the beams and columns of some impossible edifice, whose substance appears at once solid and almost as immaterial as the large red expanse it is set against. This evocation of architectural structures was a central part of Hoyland’s paintings in the second half of the 1960s, the years in which he first fully established a powerful and personal style.
An idealized architectural imagery became central to Hoyland’s paintings in the three years leading up to the Whitechapel exhibition. Invariably positioned within shallow-infinite fields of red or green, architectural structures appear in various guises, and at different degrees of directness. In some paintings, the columns of 16.9.66 expand into glowing walls or open doorways of colour, while others contain abbreviated hints of perspectival recession, forming arrangements suggestive of colonnades, opened thresholds or pathways – devices which were largely anathema to the abstract painters Hoyland measured himself against. The basic combination of beam and column in 16.9.66 occurs in around ten paintings made from April 1966 until July 1967, including in works now held by the Arts Council Collection, the Art Gallery of South Australia, the Yale Center for British Art, and Damien Hirst’s Murderme collection. 16.9.66 is the smallest of this group, one of only a few of reasonably domestic size, with most of the others spanning ten or twelve feet.
At that moment, Hoyland was a profoundly transatlantic artist. His central focus was recent large-scale, emotionally driven American painting – both abstract expressionism and its cooler, less angst-ridden successor in post-painterly abstraction. He first visited New York in 1964 and subsequently lived and worked in the USA for extended periods until the early 1970s. The enveloping scale and architectural intimations of paintings by Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko are important precursors, as is what Hoyland called the ‘dream space’ of Morris Louis’s images.