When one is young and has experienced a good deal of rejection, you want to show everyone how tough you are. Later, you want to show how clever you are. Later still, you want to see how far you can push yourself. And finally, you don’t give a fuck about anything, you just want to howl at the moon.
(John Hoyland, 2006)
The John Hoyland Estate, in partnership with Sheffield Museums, is pleased to announce the exhibition John Hoyland: The Last Paintings at Millennium Gallery, Sheffield opening July 2021. This exhibition will focus on the series of paintings made in the last years of Hoyland’s life; an exuberant celebration of a life well-lived and a meditation on its approaching end.
One of Britain’s leading abstract painters, John Hoyland is renowned for his bold use of colour and inventive forms. His tireless innovation pushed the boundaries of abstract painting and cemented him as one of the most inventive British artists of the 20th century.
The Last Paintings will display works made in the last eight years of Hoyland’s life, showing previously unseen paintings, such as Moon In The Water, the last of Hoyland’s Mysteries series, for the first time. The paintings celebrate life in the face of death, as Hoyland reckoned with the deaths of his friends and faced down his own mortality. He uses semi-figurative language to confront this, centring images of the void and the cosmos, suns, moons, stars, and occasionally birds and figures.
This final series of paintings pays homage to some of his artistic heroes, such as Vincent Van Gogh in Night Sky, as well as commemorating artist-friends in Elegy (for Terry Frost), which uses colour to allude to Frost’s art, with its red, yellow, black and white roundel set against a deep emerald redolent of the sea near Frost’s home in St Ives. Restless Heart is a statement of Hoyland’s passionate commitment to life and love, and a defiant acknowledgement of his declining health. Leaving hospital in 2008 after major heart surgery, he felt ‘a distinct sharpening of the senses.’ Although illness shortened Hoyland’s life, it simultaneously produced a late burst of creative energy.
To commemorate the 10th anniversary of Hoyland’s passing, the exhibition will take place at the Millennium Gallery in his hometown of Sheffield, where his passion for art was first ignited. Born in 1934, Hoyland attended Sheffield School of Arts and Crafts, then went on to study Fine Art at Sheffield College of Art. Together with fellow pupil Brian Fielding, one of Hoyland’s closest friends and later a formidable artist in his own right, they rambled around post-war Sheffield discussing ‘art with a capital A’.
Leaving Sheffield in 1956 with little knowledge of contemporary abstract art, he quickly became swept up in a period of great artistic change. Hoyland’s knowledge of modern European art was joined to a love of American Abstract Expressionism, leading him to exhibit a series of abstract paintings for his diploma show in 1960. These works so shocked the then-president of the RA, Sir Charles Wheeler, that they were ordered down from the walls. By the mid-60s Hoyland had met many of the Abstract Expressionists, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Helen Frankenthaler; with Robert Motherwell becoming a life-long friend.
In 1960, Hoyland was included in the influential Situation group exhibitions and selected as one of Bryan Robertson's New Generation artists at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1964. His career went from strength to strength, opening his first institutional solo show in 1967 at the Whitechapel, where he presented a body of work critic Mel Gooding has referred to as 'an achievement in scale and energy, sharpness of definition and expressive power unmatched by any of his contemporaries, and unparalleled in modern British painting.’ Although Hoyland himself disliked the term abstraction, finding it smacked too much of geometry and rational thought, he was a life-long proponent of non-figurative imagery, in which he saw ‘the potential for the most advanced depth of feeling and meaning’. He believed that ‘…paintings are there to be experienced, they are events.’ His dramatic, colourful canvases are a testament to that belief, from the playful biomorphic forms of his early works to the expressive impasto acrylic of his later paintings.
In the last couple of decades his method involved laying down a dark ground with a paintbrush, on top of which he’d skate glazes of iridescent paint. Working on the floor, he’d spill, pour, squeeze and squirt liquid acrylic from an army of bottles. The critic Andrew Lambirth described this method rather aptly as ‘collaborating with chaos’: as Hoyland told him in a 2008 interview, ‘I like to try and make these pictures paint themselves. The less you impose, the fresher it is. Painting is a kind of alchemy.’
The defiant energy and joy of the works, with stormy indigo washes punctuated by vibrant red dashes, speak to Hoyland’s rebellious approach to life. Damien Hirst has said of Hoyland ‘…by far the greatest British abstract painter … John Hoyland was an artist who was never afraid to push the boundaries. His paintings always feel like a massive celebration of life to me.’
A new book published by Ridinghouse which surveys Hoyland’s final series of paintings will be released in Summer 2021.
John Hoyland born in 1934 in Sheffield, UK, was one of Britain’s most acclaimed abstract painters. After studying Fine Art at Sheffield College of Art, Hoyland left to study at the RA, joining the radical experimentation going on in London For his diploma show in 1960, Hoyland presented a fully abstract body of work that so shocked the RA’s president, Sir Charles Wheeler, that he ordered it down from the walls. Gaining early success, Hoyland exhibited with the influential Situation group in 1960-2 and the New Generation artists at Whitechapel Gallery in 1964. In 1967 he had his first solo museum show at Whitechapel and two years later represented Great Britain at the São Paulo Biennale, Brazil, with sculptor Anthony Caro.
His work has since been the subject of retrospectives at the Serpentine Gallery (1979-80), the Royal Academy of Arts, London (1999), Tate St Ives (2006) and was the centre-piece of The Independent Eye exhibition at Yale Center for British Art (2010-11). After Hoyland’s death in 2011, Damien Hirst selected John Hoyland to be the first exhibition in his new gallery, Newport Street Gallery, in 2015.