First transmitted in 1979, Arena profiles John Hoyland, seen by many as England's finest abstract painter.
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I love paint, you know, I love paint, and I love canvas.
And I just find that paint, it never behaves in the same way twice.
It's always surprising. It's just an incredible...medium.
You know, paint behaves like it's an organic material.
It's just like... water pouring down a wall
or a waterfall or rain or...
I mean, it just has that flexibility that other mediums don't have.
And yet it turns into things all the time, always has done.
Well, you know, if John Hoyland hadn't existed,
it would have been necessary to have invented him.
The British art world needed an answer to abstract expressionism.
The British art world and the British art museums needed
a quasi-abstract expressionist painter at that point
to put into the modern art galleries.
And Hoyland fitted the bill.
He's a virtuoso,
he has enormous dexterity in the slickest imaginable sense.
It's certainly abstract painting.
And to me, it's abstract in the most limited sense of all.
It's painting which is confined to a particular area of experience,
the area of painting itself.
I mean, you could say it's painting about painting.
NARRATOR: 'At a time when his own painting
'and abstract painting in general, has been under heavy attack,
'John Hoyland prepares for a major exhibition
'at a key point in his career.
'At 44, many people consider him
'to be the best abstract artist in this country.
'But success has brought criticism.
'There are artists and critics who despise his work
'and what it stands for.
'The power to communicate, he believes,
'still belongs to the traditional means of paint and canvas.
'He started to paint in Sheffield, the city where he was born.
'In London, he developed a style of his own
'and rapidly became a '60s success.
'Since then, his work has continued to develop and change,
'but the climate in which he works has changed too.
'During the last decade, painting, especially abstract painting,
'has been challenged by a riot of alternatives.'
There have been pressures all through the '60s.
All kinds of pressures, from this-ism, that-ism, you know,
whether it's pop art...
..um, optical art.
I mean, all these things are the messiah of the moment.
You know, found art, kinetic art.
You know, all these things have been going on, going on.
NARRATOR: 'In the studio, the artist becomes
'his own public and his own critic.
'During six days in September,
'we filmed John Hoyland at work on one painting.'
MUSIC PLAYS ON RADIO
I very often have the radio on
because just that sort of constant junk that you hear,
I find that it sort of empties my mind out.
It sort of acts as a filter.
So that I don't get too conscious of what I'm doing.
I think that's very useful.
Plus, it stops you feeling so lonely.
Just making a painting, I mean, it's such a...
It seems such a ridiculous...
a ridiculous activity, in a way.
I mean...I mean, nobody wants it particularly.
And, er, you don't know if you can do it,
you don't know if you're strong enough to do it.
It's just you... on your own in a room.
I don't know, you just sort of have some...
..some barmy idea that you could,
you know how to...you have a glimpse of how you might be able to...
..go ahead and make a painting.
I always start by staining it.
But as far as the colour and the placing of the colour and so on...
You know, I don't have a clue what I'm going to be doing
by the time I get to that side... of the picture.
Just anything that looks nice.
Somebody once said that painting on a blank white canvas
was a bit like shadow boxing.
There's nothing really to have a dialogue with at this point.
Just the colour and getting it on.
It'll give me something to work against later.
I mean, you have to sort of, er...
I mean, it's so fragile an activity, I think, making a painting,
trying to bring a painting sort of into the world, as it were,
that you have to sort of give yourself all sorts of barmy...
..kid yourself along, you know.
Kid the painting along and try to kind of keep your confidence up.
I mean, you're painting these things that nobody wants,
and the whole activity is sort of a bit unreal, in a way,
at least while you're doing it.
Everybody keeps coming out and saying it's rubbish,
You know, then a lot of people,
they're going to succumb to that, aren't they?
They're going to think, "Christ, it is pretty unreal," you know.
During the three-day week, for instance,
the whole country's grinding to a halt,
and then here you are in a corner of the room
with a feather duster in your hand
kind of flicking away like some chambermaid or something.
I mean, that's pretty unreal. You think, "What the hell am I doing?"
So now you don't... Now you know why I got to any jogging!
I think it's much too easy to paint beautiful pictures.
Especially today, with these acrylic paints,
the way they work like watercolour
and they have all the qualities of watercolour.
But I usually have to sacrifice them for something more durable
and more permanent.
It's like sacrificing the qualities of a watercolour
to get the permanence of an oil painting.
I always wish I could use some of this,
but most of it will probably have to go.
In the end, it's probably too...
..I don't know...
flashy or slick or something.
INTERVIEWER: Do you like it, John,
- at this stage? - Oh, I don't know,
I just like... it looks good when it's wet,
but when it dries, it'll probably look terrible.
You know what I mean?
With me, it's very funny with painting, if I'm on top,
if I'm dominating the painting, as I am at the moment,
then I'm enjoying it,
but...it's not really...
..all that satisfying.
On the other hand, if a painting is going all wrong,
and I'm sort of struggling with it,
that's usually equally bad.
It's only when it's a sort of touch-and-go situation when...
I'm not quite sure who's winning,
but I hope I am, you know, and I keep...
..sort of feinting and blocking and playing
and not committing myself and so on,
and then I'll throw in something...
..to try and surprise myself or the painting or whatever.
And that's when it gets exciting, I think, when you are not sure.
When it's the sort of painting where you keep going out of the room
and coming back in and having another look at it, you know, to see
if it's...maybe it's all right.
Maybe it's terrible, maybe it's stupid, maybe it's obvious.
It's just the ones where you come back in
and you know exactly what it's going to look like
and it looks like that, it just sits there and looks back at you.
And you know you've got to go on with it then
and try to make it something else, something a bit more surprising.
I mean, you can't really think about colour. You can just...
you respond to colour.
I mean, I think there must be something that makes you...
choose one colour and not choose another colour.
And that probably springs from some...
source or other that we, um...
you know, don't necessarily know too much about.
I mean, I can use certain colours at certain times, and other times...
there's just no way that I could use that colour.
It would, you know, probably repulse me or something.
It very often does.
..colour's not an intellectual choice.
It's more something that one...
that kind of comes over one, that one responds to in a way that...
perhaps one responds to, you know, other emotions, maybe fears.
In a way that one might be frightened
when one walks past a dog or something.
It's just, um...
It's not a conscious choice.
I mean, at certain times when I get into trouble in a painting,
I sometimes try and think my way out of it,
but I don't know if that's the best answer, really,
or been the best thing to do.
Sometimes one has to try to...
unlearn what one's learnt about
colour analysis and so on, to try to get back to a more...
..you know, a more kind of childlike use of colour.
I sometimes think I know too much about colour
and I don't know enough, but I just know too many other things,
too many things I've learned, you know.
INTERVIEWER: Does that mean it's random?
No, I don't think it...
I think it may start out random but I think it doesn't end up random.
I think in the end, even the choice of the size of the stretcher
when you order it over the phone, not even that is random in the end.
You know, everything has to relate in a total kind of way.
And if the stretcher is the wrong size, then...
..the whole thing won't gel, you know.
So I don't think anything is random at all in the end.
It's a question of trying to...
reach into something, and the kind of absurdity of...
..talking about it, you know, it's something you really can't...
and shouldn't talk about.
INTERVIEWER: That makes it sound very indulgent.
- Very what? - Indulgent.
- Very? - Indulgent.
Well, what's all this about indulgence?
I mean, what's it's supposed to be?
What's wrong with expressing yourself?
I mean, is it indulgent to, you know, blow a trumpet or something,
is that indulgent?
Is it indulgent to play a cymbal, or play a musical instrument,
is that indulgent?
INTERVIEWER: You talked about pushing painting to places you hadn't been.
Again, you know, you don't know...
You know, it's something you really can't talk about.
That's the reason you paint, you see.
The reason you paint is because that is the way you find out how to do it.
You can't think it, think it through, and then just do it.
You've got to think while you're doing it.
I mean, critics sometimes say that you can't blame it
all on the eye, that you've got a brain as well.
Well, of course you've got a brain as well, but you've also got an eye.
And I think that the two things have got to work together.
Think I'd better do something different.
I think I'm beginning to go through that horrible time
when you...you don't know what you're doing, you know.
Cos that's sort of so kind of phoney dramatic, the way it is there.
Got to get rid of it.
If you're a figurative painter, the more precisely you work,
the more controlled your painting is, the better it seems to be.
But with abstract painting,
the more controlled it is, the more superficial it seems to be.
It has to be kind of more...raw.
And I think that a lot of English artists, including myself,
tend to be not raw enough, you know.
Of course then you get the other ones who try to go to the other
extreme, because they're aware of that,
and they end up being like a lot of thaggy cavemen or something.
I'm picking up all kinds of rubbish now from the bottom
of the can which is sort of good.
Sort of fragments, things happening.
Turn it over.
I've not much colour left.
Let me think what I've got.
That's what I mean about panicking!
INTERVIEWER: What things are you hoping to pick up on at this stage?
I don't know, really.
I mean, it's all...panic, panic at this point.
I mean, I'm trying to coax the painting along,
but I'm not trying to... impose on it, you know.
I'm not trying to force a... a rigid idea on it.
So things are just happening.
I'm letting the paint...
trying to let the paint work for me, you know,
trying to let the paint do things for me.
It always amuses me when they...
People say they've been having problems,
nervous problems or suicidal problems,
and they get them into painting as a form of therapy.
And that always amuses me because I think
if you want to drive somebody crazy,
the thing to do is to get them painting.
I mean, it's such a nerve-racking business,
I don't see how anybody could relax with it.
I think when you look at a painting, and you look at what's there,
I think very often in my case...
..the charge I get back from it is I get after-images back.
So I often tend to paint the after-images in.
I mean, somebody pointed that out to me.
I didn't really notice it, but...
So that if I...
You know, I'll tend to put something that's a kind of...
an opposite colour,
or a colour that is perhaps...
discordant with the one that's on there.
The reason I like to sometimes put colour on this way,
although it's terribly wasteful,
is that it's a way of backing into...form,
but at the same time not having to be inhibited by the hand
and the sort of skills of the wrist.
I mean, it allows for an element of control,
but an element of chance at the same time.
I've been knifing paintings for quite a long time now,
I don't know why.
Somehow I think that it's the density of the loading you get on it
you don't get with a brush.
The marks record the energy of the stroke,
but it's no use just having energy in the stroke,
because otherwise you've just got the record of energy.
The image itself has got to build that energy that it can sustain.
I feel like Nancy Kominsky!
Did you ever see that?
She teaches painting on television.
Rougher the better.
Because they get tidy too quick.
It's easy to tidy them up, you know,
if you get some kind of vigour into it at this point.
You've got nothing to lose.
You've got absolutely nothing to lose.
You might...you know, you might even gain something.
I'm doing it because I'm encouraging the paint to...to run...
but I'm arresting it because... I feel that it's part of the...
It gives a directional pull to the movement of that area of the painting
which I suspect, or hopefully, will help the picture.
Also helps to overlap those colours so that they...
..tie into each other.
Trying to...decide what to do with it.
That's what you can't show, you know, the hours
that you spend just looking.
- Terrible, isn't it?! - Give it a chance, bloody hell!
How many days have you been working on it?
It's a real mess.
You're using a hell of a lot of colour, aren't you? Bloody hell.
Well, most of it will get obliterated, I suppose, in the end.
It's such a wasteful way, but I can't...
see any other way of doing it.
I hate to see all that paint getting wasted.
Yes, I know that feeling!
- Are you going to put blocks in? - I don't know.
Don't know yet. I'm not sure.
You don't often use black, do you?
No, I shall have a good think when everybody's gone home.
I don't know if I should do this, but I'm going to just do it anyway,
cos I'm not satisfied with what's there.
So, see what happens.
Everything... everything's a danger, you know,
I mean, getting too fiddly, um...
Sort of nagging at a painting, and not, you know...
instead of just leaving it, you know.
Then at the same time...
..you've always to have to walk that tightrope between,
on the one hand...fussing with a painting, on the other hand,
just leaving it so that's it not really...you know,
it's not really come together.
So you're trying to make the painting come together,
you're trying to almost trick the painting into happening.
as though...I mean, you've almost got to like not care about it.
On the other hand, you've got to exercise some control,
but if you have too much control, then nothing's going to happen.
You know, so...
I don't quite know what to do next.
At this point,
I mean, I don't generally spend a whole day on a painting at this point
unless the painting is really hopeless.
At the moment, I think there are lots of things about the painting
that I like and maybe that's a bad thing, I don't know.
Because maybe they'll have to go in the end.
But at the moment, they...
There are certain things I like about it but I really can't see it,
I'm too close to it, and it's all wet
and I just have to look at it in a more reflective way later,
when it's dried and when everybody's gone home, and so on.
I don't know, it's just...
I think I can probably even do it... When the painting's dry...
Maybe it's not even the form there.
Maybe it's not even the shape.
Maybe it's just...that tone.
Maybe it wants one... You know, you can change a whole painting
just by putting one...changing one tone of the same colour.
Just a fraction.
And maybe I can just sort of sneak that in,
and make that more solid, because there it's just floating away
into something I don't want.
But the general kind of build up...
across the painting, you know, from top to bottom
and these related forms and things,
and this thing, and, you know,
this to that.
I mean, something's coming. I don't know if it's any good or not,
but I mean...something's... something's coming.
I want to make simple paintings
but I don't want to make simple paintings that are simple-minded,
I want to make paintings that become simple
through a synthesis, and maybe I'm not there yet.
Maybe I can't make a simple painting at the moment.
Maybe I have to go through this complexity.
And if I have to go through it, then, you know, I have to go through it.
When you see a great painting,
it's kind of effortless.
And I'm not making effortless paintings.
But then I think you have to make... go through all that complexity
and struggle before you can make an effortless painting.
I mean, when you see a really great Miro, it's just...
like that, you know.
Or a great Japanese drawing or something, it's just like that.
I can't do that yet.
It's a life or death thing, you know.
I mean, I'd hate to lose this painting.
Maybe we won't lose it, maybe we'll
manage to do something with it, turn it around or something.
There are good things in it.
It's just that I don't quite know how to do it.
But I may hit on it, I may come in here one morning,
unfortunately I may come in here one morning when you're not here.
And just suddenly think, "Oh, well, you know,
"maybe I'll just do something."
That's very often how it happens, actually.
You think, "Well, I'm not painting today, forget this painting,
"I'm not going to do it."
Then you go in and you say,
"Well, I'll just, maybe I'll just put this on here," you know.
And then maybe in five minutes, ten minutes, you've just found the key
to lock in the whole idea.
But it's finding the key and just hitting the right spot, you know.
And I can't guarantee it, I can't guarantee I can do it on the camera.
It's just... It's the way it is.
Of course, you feel very feeble at times, you know,
you feel very vulnerable.
I don't know what you want me to say
I mean, you feel very vulnerable.
But then you just have to keep going.
You just have to look at the people
that you respect, that you admire, and...
You know, most of the critics I've ever met in my life
are pretty damn feeble against the people I respect,
so that's a pretty firm, you know, backup.
I'm not interested in the English idiosyncratic tradition
of, say, Rowlandson, Hogarth, Hockney, etc.
I don't know why that is.
I'm much more attracted to the idea of paintings that mystify me,
that overwhelm me.
I'm more interested in, you know, jungle, desert, mountains.
I'm not interested in painting pictures that resemble,
you know, neat English gardens with gnomes.
I like my paintings to overwhelm somebody.
I mean, the sort of painting I like would overwhelm them,
would make them think about it afterwards.
It would, you know, blow their minds.
That's what I'm interested in.
- All right? - Yes.
- Are you on? - Yes, I'm on.
How's that look, John?
It looks fine.
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 '.