Six Days in September Arena


Six Days in September

First transmitted in 1979, Arena profiles John Hoyland, seen by many as England's finest abstract painter.


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Specially chosen programmes from the BBC archive.

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I love paint, you know, I love paint, and I love canvas.

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And I just find that paint, it never behaves in the same way twice.

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It's always surprising. It's just an incredible...medium.

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You know, paint behaves like it's an organic material.

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It's just like... water pouring down a wall

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or a waterfall or rain or...

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natural elements.

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I mean, it just has that flexibility that other mediums don't have.

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And yet it turns into things all the time, always has done.

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Well, you know, if John Hoyland hadn't existed,

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it would have been necessary to have invented him.

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The British art world needed an answer to abstract expressionism.

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The British art world and the British art museums needed

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a quasi-abstract expressionist painter at that point

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to put into the modern art galleries.

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And Hoyland fitted the bill.

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He's a virtuoso,

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he has enormous dexterity in the slickest imaginable sense.

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It's certainly abstract painting.

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And to me, it's abstract in the most limited sense of all.

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It's painting which is confined to a particular area of experience,

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the area of painting itself.

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I mean, you could say it's painting about painting.

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NARRATOR: 'At a time when his own painting

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'and abstract painting in general, has been under heavy attack,

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'John Hoyland prepares for a major exhibition

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'at a key point in his career.

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'At 44, many people consider him

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'to be the best abstract artist in this country.

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'But success has brought criticism.

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'There are artists and critics who despise his work

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'and what it stands for.

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'The power to communicate, he believes,

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'still belongs to the traditional means of paint and canvas.

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'He started to paint in Sheffield, the city where he was born.

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'In London, he developed a style of his own

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'and rapidly became a '60s success.

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'Since then, his work has continued to develop and change,

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'but the climate in which he works has changed too.

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'During the last decade, painting, especially abstract painting,

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'has been challenged by a riot of alternatives.'

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There have been pressures all through the '60s.

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All kinds of pressures, from this-ism, that-ism, you know,

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whether it's pop art...

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..um, optical art.

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I mean, all these things are the messiah of the moment.

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You know, found art, kinetic art.

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Happenings.

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Land art.

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You know, all these things have been going on, going on.

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Conceptual art.

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Think-about-it art.

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Think-about-it art?

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HE LAUGHS

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NARRATOR: 'In the studio, the artist becomes

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'his own public and his own critic.

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'During six days in September,

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'we filmed John Hoyland at work on one painting.'

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MUSIC PLAYS ON RADIO

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I very often have the radio on

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because just that sort of constant junk that you hear,

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I find that it sort of empties my mind out.

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It sort of acts as a filter.

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So that I don't get too conscious of what I'm doing.

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I think that's very useful.

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Plus, it stops you feeling so lonely.

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Just making a painting, I mean, it's such a...

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It seems such a ridiculous...

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a ridiculous activity, in a way.

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I mean...I mean, nobody wants it particularly.

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And, er, you don't know if you can do it,

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you don't know if you're strong enough to do it.

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It's just you... on your own in a room.

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I don't know, you just sort of have some...

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..some barmy idea that you could,

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you know how to...you have a glimpse of how you might be able to...

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..go ahead and make a painting.

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I always start by staining it.

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But as far as the colour and the placing of the colour and so on...

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You know, I don't have a clue what I'm going to be doing

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by the time I get to that side... of the picture.

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Just anything that looks nice.

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Somebody once said that painting on a blank white canvas

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was a bit like shadow boxing.

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There's nothing really to have a dialogue with at this point.

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Just the colour and getting it on.

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It'll give me something to work against later.

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I mean, you have to sort of, er...

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I mean, it's so fragile an activity, I think, making a painting,

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trying to bring a painting sort of into the world, as it were,

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that you have to sort of give yourself all sorts of barmy...

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..kid yourself along, you know.

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Kid the painting along and try to kind of keep your confidence up.

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I mean, you're painting these things that nobody wants,

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and the whole activity is sort of a bit unreal, in a way,

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at least while you're doing it.

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Everybody keeps coming out and saying it's rubbish,

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it's unreal.

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You know, then a lot of people,

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they're going to succumb to that, aren't they?

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They're going to think, "Christ, it is pretty unreal," you know.

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During the three-day week, for instance,

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the whole country's grinding to a halt,

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and then here you are in a corner of the room

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with a feather duster in your hand

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kind of flicking away like some chambermaid or something.

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I mean, that's pretty unreal. You think, "What the hell am I doing?"

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So now you don't... Now you know why I got to any jogging!

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HE LAUGHS

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I think it's much too easy to paint beautiful pictures.

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Especially today, with these acrylic paints,

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the way they work like watercolour

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and they have all the qualities of watercolour.

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But I usually have to sacrifice them for something more durable

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and more permanent.

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It's like sacrificing the qualities of a watercolour

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to get the permanence of an oil painting.

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I always wish I could use some of this,

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but most of it will probably have to go.

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In the end, it's probably too...

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..I don't know...

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flashy or slick or something.

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INTERVIEWER: Do you like it, John,

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- at this stage? - Oh, I don't know,

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I just like... it looks good when it's wet,

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but when it dries, it'll probably look terrible.

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You know what I mean?

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With me, it's very funny with painting, if I'm on top,

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if I'm dominating the painting, as I am at the moment,

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then I'm enjoying it,

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but...it's not really...

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..all that satisfying.

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On the other hand, if a painting is going all wrong,

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and I'm sort of struggling with it,

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that's usually equally bad.

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It's only when it's a sort of touch-and-go situation when...

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I'm not quite sure who's winning,

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but I hope I am, you know, and I keep...

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..sort of feinting and blocking and playing

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and not committing myself and so on,

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and then I'll throw in something...

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..to try and surprise myself or the painting or whatever.

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And that's when it gets exciting, I think, when you are not sure.

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When it's the sort of painting where you keep going out of the room

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and coming back in and having another look at it, you know, to see

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if it's...maybe it's all right.

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Maybe it's terrible, maybe it's stupid, maybe it's obvious.

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It's just the ones where you come back in

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and you know exactly what it's going to look like

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and it looks like that, it just sits there and looks back at you.

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And you know you've got to go on with it then

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and try to make it something else, something a bit more surprising.

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I mean, you can't really think about colour. You can just...

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you respond to colour.

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I mean, I think there must be something that makes you...

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choose one colour and not choose another colour.

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And that probably springs from some...

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source or other that we, um...

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you know, don't necessarily know too much about.

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I mean, I can use certain colours at certain times, and other times...

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there's just no way that I could use that colour.

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It would, you know, probably repulse me or something.

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It very often does.

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But, er...

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..colour's not an intellectual choice.

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It's more something that one...

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that kind of comes over one, that one responds to in a way that...

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perhaps one responds to, you know, other emotions, maybe fears.

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In a way that one might be frightened

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when one walks past a dog or something.

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It's just, um...

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It's not a conscious choice.

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I mean, at certain times when I get into trouble in a painting,

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I sometimes try and think my way out of it,

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but I don't know if that's the best answer, really,

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or been the best thing to do.

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Sometimes one has to try to...

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unlearn what one's learnt about

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colour analysis and so on, to try to get back to a more...

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..simple state...

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..you know, a more kind of childlike use of colour.

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I sometimes think I know too much about colour

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and I don't know enough, but I just know too many other things,

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too many things I've learned, you know.

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INTERVIEWER: Does that mean it's random?

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No, I don't think it...

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I think it may start out random but I think it doesn't end up random.

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I think in the end, even the choice of the size of the stretcher

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when you order it over the phone, not even that is random in the end.

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You know, everything has to relate in a total kind of way.

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And if the stretcher is the wrong size, then...

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..the whole thing won't gel, you know.

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So I don't think anything is random at all in the end.

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It's a question of trying to...

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reach into something, and the kind of absurdity of...

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..talking about it, you know, it's something you really can't...

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and shouldn't talk about.

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INTERVIEWER: That makes it sound very indulgent.

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- Very what? - Indulgent.

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- Very? - Indulgent.

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Well, what's all this about indulgence?

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I mean, what's it's supposed to be?

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What's wrong with expressing yourself?

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I mean, is it indulgent to, you know, blow a trumpet or something,

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is that indulgent?

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Is it indulgent to play a cymbal, or play a musical instrument,

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is that indulgent?

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Is it?

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Is it?

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INTERVIEWER: You talked about pushing painting to places you hadn't been.

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Again, you know, you don't know...

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You know, it's something you really can't talk about.

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That's the reason you paint, you see.

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The reason you paint is because that is the way you find out how to do it.

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You can't think it, think it through, and then just do it.

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You've got to think while you're doing it.

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I mean, critics sometimes say that you can't blame it

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all on the eye, that you've got a brain as well.

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Well, of course you've got a brain as well, but you've also got an eye.

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And I think that the two things have got to work together.

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HE SIGHS

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Think I'd better do something different.

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I think I'm beginning to go through that horrible time

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when you...you don't know what you're doing, you know.

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Cos that's sort of so kind of phoney dramatic, the way it is there.

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Got to get rid of it.

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If you're a figurative painter, the more precisely you work,

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the more controlled your painting is, the better it seems to be.

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But with abstract painting,

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the more controlled it is, the more superficial it seems to be.

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It has to be kind of more...raw.

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And I think that a lot of English artists, including myself,

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tend to be not raw enough, you know.

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Of course then you get the other ones who try to go to the other

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extreme, because they're aware of that,

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and they end up being like a lot of thaggy cavemen or something.

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You know...

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I'm picking up all kinds of rubbish now from the bottom

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of the can which is sort of good.

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Sort of fragments, things happening.

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Turn it over.

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I've not much colour left.

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Let me think what I've got.

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BELL RINGS

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That's what I mean about panicking!

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HE LAUGHS

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INTERVIEWER: What things are you hoping to pick up on at this stage?

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HE LAUGHS

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I don't know, really.

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I mean, it's all...panic, panic at this point.

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I mean, I'm trying to coax the painting along,

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but I'm not trying to... impose on it, you know.

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I'm not trying to force a... a rigid idea on it.

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So things are just happening.

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I'm letting the paint...

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trying to let the paint work for me, you know,

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trying to let the paint do things for me.

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It always amuses me when they...

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People say they've been having problems,

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nervous problems or suicidal problems,

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and they get them into painting as a form of therapy.

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HE CHUCKLES

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And that always amuses me because I think

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if you want to drive somebody crazy,

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the thing to do is to get them painting.

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I mean, it's such a nerve-racking business,

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I don't see how anybody could relax with it.

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I think when you look at a painting, and you look at what's there,

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I think very often in my case...

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..the charge I get back from it is I get after-images back.

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So I often tend to paint the after-images in.

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I mean, somebody pointed that out to me.

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I didn't really notice it, but...

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So that if I...

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You know, I'll tend to put something that's a kind of...

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an opposite colour,

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or a colour that is perhaps...

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discordant with the one that's on there.

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The reason I like to sometimes put colour on this way,

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although it's terribly wasteful,

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is that it's a way of backing into...form,

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but at the same time not having to be inhibited by the hand

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and the sort of skills of the wrist.

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I mean, it allows for an element of control,

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but an element of chance at the same time.

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I've been knifing paintings for quite a long time now,

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I don't know why.

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Somehow I think that it's the density of the loading you get on it

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you don't get with a brush.

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The marks record the energy of the stroke,

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but it's no use just having energy in the stroke,

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because otherwise you've just got the record of energy.

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The image itself has got to build that energy that it can sustain.

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I feel like Nancy Kominsky!

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Did you ever see that?

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HE CHUCKLES

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She teaches painting on television.

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SCRAPING

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Rougher the better.

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Because they get tidy too quick.

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It's easy to tidy them up, you know,

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if you get some kind of vigour into it at this point.

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You've got nothing to lose.

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You've got absolutely nothing to lose.

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You might...you know, you might even gain something.

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BANGING

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I'm doing it because I'm encouraging the paint to...to run...

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a little,

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but I'm arresting it because... I feel that it's part of the...

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It gives a directional pull to the movement of that area of the painting

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which I suspect, or hopefully, will help the picture.

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Also helps to overlap those colours so that they...

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you know...

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..tie into each other.

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HE SIGHS

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Trying to...decide what to do with it.

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That's what you can't show, you know, the hours

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that you spend just looking.

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BELL RINGS

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- Terrible, isn't it?! - Give it a chance, bloody hell!

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How many days have you been working on it?

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Two...two days.

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It's a real mess.

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You're using a hell of a lot of colour, aren't you? Bloody hell.

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Well, most of it will get obliterated, I suppose, in the end.

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It's such a wasteful way, but I can't...

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see any other way of doing it.

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I hate to see all that paint getting wasted.

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Yes, I know that feeling!

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Expensive.

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- Are you going to put blocks in? - I don't know.

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Don't know yet. I'm not sure.

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You don't often use black, do you?

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No, I shall have a good think when everybody's gone home.

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THEY CHUCKLE

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HE SIGHS

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I don't know if I should do this, but I'm going to just do it anyway,

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cos I'm not satisfied with what's there.

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So, see what happens.

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HARSH SCRAPING

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HE SIGHS

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Everything... everything's a danger, you know,

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I mean, getting too fiddly, um...

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Sort of nagging at a painting, and not, you know...

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instead of just leaving it, you know.

0:28:000:28:03

Then at the same time...

0:28:030:28:05

..you've always to have to walk that tightrope between,

0:28:070:28:10

on the one hand...fussing with a painting, on the other hand,

0:28:100:28:13

just leaving it so that's it not really...you know,

0:28:130:28:17

it's not really come together.

0:28:170:28:19

So you're trying to make the painting come together,

0:28:190:28:21

you're trying to almost trick the painting into happening.

0:28:210:28:24

And, um...

0:28:240:28:26

as though...I mean, you've almost got to like not care about it.

0:28:260:28:30

On the other hand, you've got to exercise some control,

0:28:300:28:33

but if you have too much control, then nothing's going to happen.

0:28:330:28:36

You know, so...

0:28:360:28:38

I don't quite know what to do next.

0:28:380:28:40

At this point,

0:28:400:28:41

I mean, I don't generally spend a whole day on a painting at this point

0:28:410:28:45

unless the painting is really hopeless.

0:28:450:28:48

At the moment, I think there are lots of things about the painting

0:28:480:28:51

that I like and maybe that's a bad thing, I don't know.

0:28:510:28:54

Because maybe they'll have to go in the end.

0:28:540:28:56

But at the moment, they...

0:28:560:28:59

There are certain things I like about it but I really can't see it,

0:28:590:29:02

I'm too close to it, and it's all wet

0:29:020:29:05

and I just have to look at it in a more reflective way later,

0:29:050:29:08

when it's dried and when everybody's gone home, and so on.

0:29:080:29:13

I don't know, it's just...

0:29:170:29:19

I think I can probably even do it... When the painting's dry...

0:29:190:29:22

Maybe it's not even the form there.

0:29:220:29:24

Maybe it's not even the shape.

0:29:240:29:26

Maybe it's just...that tone.

0:29:260:29:29

Maybe it wants one... You know, you can change a whole painting

0:29:290:29:32

just by putting one...changing one tone of the same colour.

0:29:320:29:36

Just a fraction.

0:29:360:29:38

And maybe I can just sort of sneak that in,

0:29:380:29:41

and make that more solid, because there it's just floating away

0:29:410:29:45

into something I don't want.

0:29:450:29:48

But the general kind of build up...

0:29:490:29:53

across the painting, you know, from top to bottom

0:29:530:29:57

and these related forms and things,

0:29:570:30:01

and this thing, and, you know,

0:30:010:30:04

this to that.

0:30:040:30:06

I mean, something's coming. I don't know if it's any good or not,

0:30:060:30:09

but I mean...something's... something's coming.

0:30:090:30:12

I want to make simple paintings

0:30:180:30:20

but I don't want to make simple paintings that are simple-minded,

0:30:200:30:23

I want to make paintings that become simple

0:30:230:30:25

through a synthesis, and maybe I'm not there yet.

0:30:250:30:28

Maybe I can't make a simple painting at the moment.

0:30:280:30:31

Maybe I have to go through this complexity.

0:30:310:30:34

And if I have to go through it, then, you know, I have to go through it.

0:30:340:30:37

When you see a great painting,

0:30:410:30:43

it's kind of effortless.

0:30:430:30:46

And I'm not making effortless paintings.

0:30:460:30:48

But then I think you have to make... go through all that complexity

0:30:480:30:52

and struggle before you can make an effortless painting.

0:30:520:30:55

I mean, when you see a really great Miro, it's just...

0:30:550:30:59

like that, you know.

0:30:590:31:01

Or a great Japanese drawing or something, it's just like that.

0:31:010:31:04

I can't do that yet.

0:31:040:31:06

It's a life or death thing, you know.

0:31:080:31:10

I mean, I'd hate to lose this painting.

0:31:100:31:12

Maybe we won't lose it, maybe we'll

0:31:120:31:15

manage to do something with it, turn it around or something.

0:31:150:31:18

There are good things in it.

0:31:180:31:20

It's just that I don't quite know how to do it.

0:31:200:31:23

But I may hit on it, I may come in here one morning,

0:31:230:31:27

unfortunately I may come in here one morning when you're not here.

0:31:270:31:31

And just suddenly think, "Oh, well, you know,

0:31:310:31:34

"maybe I'll just do something."

0:31:340:31:36

That's very often how it happens, actually.

0:31:360:31:38

You think, "Well, I'm not painting today, forget this painting,

0:31:380:31:42

"I'm not going to do it."

0:31:420:31:43

Then you go in and you say,

0:31:430:31:45

"Well, I'll just, maybe I'll just put this on here," you know.

0:31:450:31:47

And then maybe in five minutes, ten minutes, you've just found the key

0:31:470:31:51

to lock in the whole idea.

0:31:510:31:53

But it's finding the key and just hitting the right spot, you know.

0:31:530:31:57

And I can't guarantee it, I can't guarantee I can do it on the camera.

0:31:570:32:02

It's just... It's the way it is.

0:32:020:32:05

Of course, you feel very feeble at times, you know,

0:32:120:32:15

you feel very vulnerable.

0:32:150:32:16

I don't know what you want me to say

0:32:220:32:23

I mean, you feel very vulnerable.

0:32:230:32:26

But then you just have to keep going.

0:32:260:32:28

You just have to look at the people

0:32:310:32:33

that you respect, that you admire, and...

0:32:330:32:36

You know, most of the critics I've ever met in my life

0:32:370:32:40

are pretty damn feeble against the people I respect,

0:32:400:32:44

so that's a pretty firm, you know, backup.

0:32:440:32:48

I'm not interested in the English idiosyncratic tradition

0:32:530:32:58

of, say, Rowlandson, Hogarth, Hockney, etc.

0:32:580:33:03

I don't know why that is.

0:33:030:33:05

I'm much more attracted to the idea of paintings that mystify me,

0:33:050:33:11

that overwhelm me.

0:33:110:33:13

Um...

0:33:130:33:14

I'm more interested in, you know, jungle, desert, mountains.

0:33:200:33:25

I'm not interested in painting pictures that resemble,

0:33:250:33:29

you know, neat English gardens with gnomes.

0:33:290:33:32

I like my paintings to overwhelm somebody.

0:33:330:33:36

I mean, the sort of painting I like would overwhelm them,

0:33:360:33:38

would make them think about it afterwards.

0:33:380:33:41

It would, you know, blow their minds.

0:33:410:33:43

That's what I'm interested in.

0:33:430:33:44

- All right? - Yes.

0:34:030:34:05

- Are you on? - Yes, I'm on.

0:34:110:34:13

How's that look, John?

0:34:140:34:16

It looks fine.

0:34:160:34:18

First transmitted in 1979, Arena profiles John Hoyland, seen by many as England's finest abstract painter.

As a major retrospective of his work opens in London, Hoyland faces hostile criticism, starts a new painting and explains why, in his bleaker moments, painting can seem little more than ' flicking away in a corner with a feather duster '.


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