John Hoyland (b.1934 Sheffield, UK – d.2011 London, UK) was one of the most inventive and dynamic abstract painters of the post-war period. Over the span of more than a half-century his art and attitudes constantly evolved. A distinctive artistic personality emerged, concerned with colour, painterly drama, with both excess and control, with grandeur and above all, with the vehement communication of feeling.
Hoyland was born in Sheffield in 1934 to a working class family. He had an early interest in art and enrolled in the local art school at the age of eleven, before studying at the Royal Academy in London from 1956 to 1960. While at the Royal Academy he first encountered the art of French painter Nicholas de Staël and saw the influential display of American Abstract Expressionism in The New American Painting show at Tate Gallery in 1959. Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, slightly later Morris Louis and Hans Hofmann, joined his early loves of Matisse, Van Gogh, Rouault and Chaïm Soutine. Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell would become an important friend and mentor. In the 1960s and 1970s Hoyland’s art developed in dialogue with American artists including Kenneth Noland and Larry Poons, with British modernist sculpture another important exemplar – sculptor Anthony Caro became a life-long friend.
After leaving the Royal Academy in 1960, Hoyland was included in the influential Situation exhibitions and was later selected as a New Generation artist at the Whitechapel Gallery. In 1964, Hoyland first visited New York City, where he would go on to live and work for extended periods in the late 1960s and early 1970s. On returning to London after this first influential trip to America, Hoyland started work on a group of paintings that mark his artistic maturity. Mel Gooding describes the 1960s works as ‘an astonishing series of huge acrylic canvases of high-key deep greens, reds, violets and oranges deployed in radiant fields, stark blocks and shimmering columns of ultra-vibrant colour. It was an achievement in scale and energy, sharpness of definition, originality and expressive power unmatched by any of his contemporaries, and unparalleled in modern British art’ (Gooding, 2011). An early career retrospective curated by Bryan Robertson was held at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1967; in 1969, alongside Anthony Caro, Hoyland represented Great Britain at the Sāo Paulo Biennale in Brazil.
In the 1960s Hoyland titled his paintings solely with the date of their completion. In the early 1970s, at the suggestion of his New York dealer André Emmerich, he started to add words to his titles. At first these were not directly descriptive but instead, as he put it, offered ‘an oblique resonance’ which could be ‘open to interpretation’. In this period, the works are characterised by a sensitivity to the nuances of shape, staining, bleeding and texture. He began to use a palette knife and pollyfilla along with paint, building layers to form robust structures. The constructive process was still intuitive, creating a tangible presence within a dream-like space. By the end of the 1970s, London was again established as Hoyland’s principal home, although for the rest of his life he travelled widely, in particular becoming a frequent visitor to the Caribbean and the Tropics in general. In 1979 Hoyland was the subject of a second retrospective, at the Serpentine Gallery.
In the 1980s the orientation of his art shifted away from the transatlantic High Modernism that had developed in the wake Abstract Expressionism. He increasingly looked to earlier Modernisms, with the example of Joan Miró of especial importance. The move away from America heralded a more distinctly European set of concerns; but it also saw Hoyland find inspiration in cultures much more widely spread in time and space. The changes in his art in the 1980s brought with them a greater willingness to allow his paintings to allude to the wider world. Effects of chance were now embraced – pouring, splashing and employing gravity and resistance, allowing paintings to take their own form. The sensuous paintings of the early 1980s, alluding to the forms of fruits, bodies and faces, would morph into a cosmic, calligraphic language towards the end of the decade. Some of Hoyland’s influences and subjects, the objects, places and experiences which lie behind his visual language: shields, masks, tools, Avebury Circle, swimming underwater, views from planes, volcanoes, mountains, waterfalls, graffiti, the cosmos inside the human body, food, drink, music, dancing, relenting rhythm, the Caribbean, the tropical light, the northern light, the oceanic light. Borges the metaphysical, dawn, sunsets, fish eyes, flowers, seas, atolls. The Book of Imaginary Beings, the Dictionary of Angels, heraldry, Rio de Janeiro, Montego Bay. (Hoyland, 1980s)
In 1991, Hoyland was elected a Royal Academician and in 1999, he was appointed Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy Schools. In the mid-1990s Hoyland made abstract-figurative paintings based on his travels, principally to Bali and Jamaica. He began to see his art as concerned with the creation of cross-cultural ‘new hybrids’. The real world is clearly present in these paintings, full of images of birds, trees, human figures and Balinese pennants. In the early 2000s a figurative impulse became less insistent, although figuration never disappeared entirely. A solo exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1999 was followed in 2006 with a retrospective at Tate St Ives, and in 2015 a major survey inaugurated Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery.
Hoyland’s last years were marked by ill-health and the death of many close friends, although he continued to paint until a few months before his own death. These final works are the consolidation of five decades of experimentation, and the belief in the possibilities of paint to communicate depth of feeling and emotion. Contemplating his own mortality, there is a sense of the otherworldly and a connection to the void in these works. Hoyland’s use of a dark ground is formal, structural and emotive, and layered pools of paint evoke chance, freedom and vitality. In the darkness there are defiant and expressive strokes of swirling bright colour and floating orbs, implying hope and optimism even at the end of his life.
In 2021, Museums Sheffield hosted John Hoyland: The Last Paintings, a solo exhibition celebrating the final era of the artist’s oeuvre. Alongside this retrospective, Hales presented Hoyland’s late work at Frieze London in 2021, and held solo exhibition, Flames Like Rainbows, at Hales London in 2022.
Hoyland’s work is in many collections, including the Royal Academy of Arts, UK; Tate, UK; National Galleries of Scotland, UK; National Museum of Wales, UK; National Museums of Northern Ireland, UK; The British Museum, UK; Victoria and Albert Museum, UK; The Hepworth, Wakefield, UK; Arts Council Collection, UK; Government Art Collection, UK; British Council, UK; Museum of Modern Art, NY, USA; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, USA; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, VA, USA; Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA; Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven, CT, USA; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, NY, USA;Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, Canada; Museum of Modern Art, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Museum Liaunig, Neuhaus, Austria; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; and Art Gallery of Western Australia.