PRINT December 1978

Four British Painters

FACED WITH THE TASK of surveying the broad field of current British painting, I have decided to confine myself to the work of only four painters—John Hoyland, John Walker, Stephen Buckley and Howard Hodgkin—in the hope that a part will more clearly reveal the whole than if attention were more scattered.1 The choice has certainly been made easier by circumstances. Hoyland and Walker are the two English painters who have most rigorously and successfully addressed themselves to the challenge of New York painting. Hoyland has worked and taught in America, and his paintings have been regularly exhibited there since 1967. Walker’s involvement is even more pronounced. Since gaining a Harkness Fellowship in 1969 he has been only intermittently resident in England. Earlier this year he was accorded the singular honor of a solo exhibition at the Phillips Collection, which had already bought two of his paintings in 1976. Stephen Buckley and Howard Hodgkin have recently made highly acclaimed debuts at the Elkon and Emmerich galleries respectively—Hodgkin, incidentally, having spent three years of his boyhood in America. Yet, astonishingly, not one of the four has been the subject of an article in an American art magazine.

There are also more cogent reasons for their selection. The work of these four artists, who have all been painting long enough to demonstrate a sustained development, does not easily lend itself to any interpretations of Englishness—a fact that has relevance in relation to the international art of their time as well as to English painting in general. Despite the razzle-dazzle that has surrounded art over the past 20 years, the relentless promotion of new styles at the expense of old has perhaps favored painterly abstraction least of all, especially in the narrower field of British art. Hardly had New York abstraction made its first impact when its new disciples were bypassed by Pop, and as a fashion in England painterly abstraction has never found favor since. This has not meant that the artists discussed here have been rejected by the English art establishment, at least not specifically. On the contrary, their isolation has probably been helpful, but they have borne more than their fair share of the cant of the time. The type of painting they, broadly, have practiced has been declared dated, self-indulgent, elitist, bourgeois and obsolete—according to the way the winds of fashion were blowing—much more than it has been praised, and even that praise has too often been defensive.

In their various ways, these painters also disprove certain received notions about British art that are still too commonly entertained: the idea, for instance, that the English can’t handle big pictures, which is a particularly odd opinion when one considers the size of so many Reynoldses, Gainsboroughs, Stubbses, Constables, Turners, Wards and so on. Or the idea, concomitant to this, that large scale is an American prerogative—an idea, needless to say, that is probably held more tenaciously in England than anywhere. Or the idea that the visual nature of the English is linear and graphic (as in Pevsner’s “Englishness” theory). Or the idea that the English are unemotional and sexually inhibited, too gentlemanly for their own good—a fact less true than perhaps it once was, now that fear of the pox2 has been put to rest and dilettantism is the exception rather than the rule.

Unity-in-division3 has been John Hoyland’s longstanding preoccupation, the diversity of his effects increasing over the years as he edged toward a definitive solution in which totality of form is inseparable from maximal incident. As a post-graduate student he arrived in London at the time of the first American shows in the late ’50s. Rothko and Newman led to Louis and Hoyland’s first stained canvases, in which the color was also intended to act as the structure, but by 1963 the technique had become a convention. The Orphist circle motif, cleverly reworked by Noland as the coefficient of the Albers square, had materialized into lines of color, not color as form. It was this realization of color as form that made Caro’s London show of that year so important to Hoyland, though it was not till Hoyland discovered Hofmann that he resolved the problem of how to deal with form in his own work. How well he succeeded was demonstrated by a reshowing of some of his 1966–68 paintings at the Waddington Gallery in 1977: their floating rectangles, increasingly bodied out or edged with handled paint in contrast to their saturated grounds, relocated the center with economy and precision in an intelligent play on, and synthesis of, the colors and configurations of Louis, Newman and Hofmann. But this was not a position with which Hoyland remained satisfied for long. The pictures were too dependent on the one-shot and unwieldy disadvantages of staining and lacked surface incident that might carry the eye all over. Then the handling increased with the color mixed and sweetened and a central rectangle of diminishing size unassertively holding the center. The turn of the decade found Hoyland back in America, and his pictures of the period represent his most intense dialogue with New York painting.

The experience stimulated his interest in the modern masters—in Picasso, Matisse and Miró—an interest fortified by the last work of Hoffman and sustained by the friendship, in particular, of Robert Motherwell. Hoyland’s desire for a grander synthesis enlarged the central rectangle to the brink of the canvas, its central mass of uniformly loaded color suspended by a richness of incident in the surrounding margins, with its geometry broken in order to negate any architectonic suggestion. The color is torrid, the paint sometimes thickened with polyfilla. In recent paintings the smooth impasto of such a central form is first raked to expose glimmers of underpainting, and then broken up, usually from the left-hand bottom corner. A new painting like Arras demonstrates that Hoyland has lost none of his expressionist fervor in spite of the deliberation and comparative slowness of his current method. There a stained green ground supports both a medley of local incident and an overall orchestration. The balance of the division is checked by a close attention to detail, notably along the edges of a red area and within the blocks of color aligned against it. Color is also opposed in terms of its own activity: green is very variable in its possibilities, red contrastingly inert, and identical volumes of color will differ in effect depending on whether they are applied in verticals or horizontals. Arras also balances between polarities of freedom and control, predetermination and natural process, as though an American legacy of painting as a witness to physical activity were tempered by a European consciousness of tradition.

John Walker is five years younger than Hoyland, but he too arrived in London in time to catch the first mixed exhibition of postwar American painting at the Tate in 1959. He still remembers the moment when, on entering the show, he found himself confronting Pollock’s Number 12. But Walker has a darker and more figurative side to him than Hoyland, despite the almost inevitable similarities of their experience. At art school Walker devoted a whole year to copying Goya, an interest that grew out of a preoccupation with his father’s memories of World War I. Walker himself was born in Birmingham, one of the most blitzed English towns of World War II (a conflict in which both his brothers saw active service).

Walker remained a figurative artist until 1965, the year in which he saw an exhibition of Noland’s diamond paintings at the Kasmin Gallery in London. It convinced him that there was no emotional division between so-called figurative and abstract painting, and that for the particular angst he wished to express a nonmimetic image offered richer potential. But he was also dissatisfied with the formlessness of the fashionable color painting of that time. All shape was considered “illusionistic,” the then current dirty word. Walker’s shapes were, and are, not intended to allude to specific objects. Yet they give the illusion of space and air, of continuing the ancient painterly illusions of the wall and the window. In 1965 Walker won a third prize at the biennial John Moore’s exhibition in Liverpool with an acrylic painting of two semiboxed shapes floating in front of a variegated grid. It looked surprising at the time, both its spatial illusionism and its grid being markedly different from the hard-edge paintings surrounding it. But it was not long before Walker was experimenting with trapezoid canvases—the external shape echoed internally—and even, privately, introducing sculptural features erected on the floor in front of the painting. This tendency soon proved a red herring, and he returned to renew his efforts in terms of the single picture.

The long rectangular paintings that resulted incorporate some of the features of this foray into three dimensions. The trapezoid of his shaped canvases became formalized into a curling-stone shape, its suggestion of weight emphasized by its position at the foot of the canvas and by the hanging of the picture itself within a few inches of the floor. The picture surface is overlaid with a fine mesh of wire netting that can have the effect of suspending the paint beyond the canvas surface, while also acting as a kind of irritant, a crust. These paintings were very much above tactile sensation, and at the time Walker described aspects of the process of their making in lush and sensual terms.4 Some ethereal chalk-on-blackboard drawings followed, acting as a catalyst for that much more architectural series, the “Juggernaut” paintings. The stress is now on the vertical, with physical delectation subdued by a severe structure of collaged shapes opposed to areas lit by a dusting of powdered white pigment.

It was the architectural feeling in two early Matisses in the Hermitage that first convinced Walker of the need for a greater degree of structure in his own work and led him into a closer examination of Cubism, but his familiarity with the situation in New York following his Harkness Fellowship in 1969 must have played its part. There he was confronted with the work of several established American painters who had never exhibited in England, notably Ray Parker, Jack Youngerman and, perhaps most influentially, Al Held. But there was the native example of Caro too, who, Walker was pleased to discover, himself preferred to be called a collagist rather than a sculptor. Walker was strengthened in his purpose not only by a Greenberg comment that “Matisse felt Cubism,” but also by a passage in a letter of Cézanne where the artist refers to the importance of a painting looking as if it has been built.5

Walker’s recent paintings have indeed been built. Sometimes certain motifs of earlier work are reassembled to vie with new, more explicit configurations, as in Untitled, Oxford 1978; sometimes the entire surface is clogged with collaged canvas, as in Numinous 4, although always with a view to powerful dramatic effect. And color too makes an occasional fitful return to enliven the extended tonality. In Untitled, Oxford 1978 side panels not only record the scale but also belong to the variations that Walker has recently been playing on the configuration of Manet’s Balcony. In some of this series the trelliswork of the balcony on his own house fronts the lower half of the canvas with a Matisse-like arabesque. This is the nearest Walker has yet come to a return to the figurative art that he has never abandoned in his drawing. The suggestion of hidden internal space hints at the presence of an attendant, the ancient spatial device of the detached observer, the “third person,” as Rilke wrote, “who pervades all life and literature.”6

With Stephen Buckley the mood changes. Buckley arrived as a student at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1962, where Richard Hamilton was his principal teacher. He was therefore immediately in the vanguard of Dada inquiry and the resurrection of Duchamp, who was then, of course, still alive. During Buckley’s years at the university Hamilton instigated the renovation and removal to Newcastle of Schwitters’ long-forgotten studio at Ambleside and was also largely responsible for the 1964 Duchamp retrospective at the Tate. It was a very artful time. Not surprisingly, Buckley matured as an artist much earlier than the other painters here. A work like Dos, of 1968, done when he was 24, already declares his basic intention: a play on the physical nature of the picture, similar in appearance to the ’50s work of Sal Scarpitta, but more youthfully sceptical in its subversive reversal of the norm. And youthful too in the overloading of its puns: “dos,” the Latin for “back,” but also the name Dos Passos, whose book about World War I Buckley was reading at the time. Hence the visual pun of the stretcher as Red Cross stretcher, canvas as military puttees, red paint daubed on stumps duplicating blood, and so on. This is literally a painting, or painting in general, turned on its back. There is in addition a hint of the taste for impoverished materials that was the politico-artistic gesture of that stormy hour. But Buckley was also adept at making the most of the least through knocking together stage-sets, at school and after, with a resourcefulness he has always put to good use in the making of his paintings. In his early work, the fact that he could not afford the most expensive ingredients—such as oil paint—goaded him into making a virtue of necessity through emphasizing the ugliness of his materials. These deliberately makeshift constructions, often repulsively drenched in resin, debunk fine art conventions with anger as well as jovial relish. Cut, Burnt and Tied is exactly that, but the three-dimensional cubism of its falling alignment is not as haphazard as the title suggests, and this has remained a constant motif.

In 1972 Buckley was made artist in residence at King’s College, Cambridge. The two-year appointment gave him a modicum of financial security for the first time, enabling him to buy what materials he liked. The anger, even some of the humor, of the work of his lean days was replaced by a more studied exploration of sunnier themes: the intellectual pleasure of being part of a tradition, as well as the physical satisfaction derived from the craft itself. The multiple canvases of La Manche are an exuberant display of knowledge and structure, their turbulent activity successfully locked by a striped, centrally inserted “sleeve.” “La Manche” is not only a sleeve but also the French for the English Channel, over which so many of the aeronautical “dogfights” of the Battle of Britain were fought. Thus the blue sleeve can be read as the glimpsed sea, and the spinning whites, crosses and pointillist overlaps as clouds, flak and fields. But the dogfight can also be understood as a gently humorous metaphor of the referential give-and-take, as here, of so much current art.

La Manche is still one of Buckley’s largest paintings. Currently the smallness of his working space and a desire to limit external reference, stylistic or otherwise, in order to make the painting as much of a self-contained object as possible, has led to a stark reduction in scale. On the whole, the color and use of oil paint are sumptuous, if more experimental, with the structures simplified in favor of a subtler proliferation of materials and techniques. Something of Buckley’s former aggression continues in works like Shingles II, a tripartite negative/positive image in which alternate black and white surfaces have been “shingled” to expose white and black undercoats, but Shingles II still reveals a new succulence in the spread of its fingered paint. This celebration of the actual making of art is a Duchampian legacy. He, too, it must be remembered, prided himself on being handy.7

At 46 Howard Hodgkin is the oldest of the four painters under discussion and, despite his early resolve to be an artist and his precocious talent, it is no surprise to find that he has also taken the longest to steer his way through the shoals and shallows of postwar painting to a personal style that gives his stored experience full reign. Through the more parochial days of the late 1940s and ’50s and the rampant eclecticism of the 1960s, he studiously worked on his figurative fragmentations at one or more removes from the parade of artistic tendencies that preoccupied succeeding generations of the art world.

Little remains of his very sober early work, but with the advent of American-influenced Pop his color became brighter, his figures increasingly formalized. A slow worker, Hodgkin waited until 1962 before having his first solo exhibition, and even now has only completed about a hundred extant canvases. His method, as this suggests, hardly changes, and, appropriately, neither does his subject matter. Constantly reworking his paintings, he seeks to recapture the nuance of moments that were usually shared with, and expressive of, specific people. These paintings

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John McEwen