New York

John Hoyland

Elkon Gallery

The five paintings John Hoyland showed in his recent exhibition had a frankness of beauty, and a sensuousness to them, which made it immediately apparent that he had gone beyond his consistently accomplished level of achievement to something more profound. I don’t know Hoyland’s earlier work well, but of the relatively small number of paintings I have seen, I found myself impressed but also troubled by a certain dryness, and an awkward edge of constraint. I felt of his previous exhibition at the Elkon Gallery, for instance, that the paintings were enervated by a too calculated, intellectually manipulated channeling of what are obviously very urgent and deep coloristic impulses. The fact that Hoyland has looked closely at the work of painters as disparate as Rothko, Hofmann, and more recently I think, Olitski, partly accounts for this. That is, although it is to his clear advantage that he permits himself to learn from the work of painters with whom he feels an affinity, there is the obvious danger that in order to avoid the “look” of another man’s art, a painter will force a kind of stylism which is superficial, and comes across that way. In general I would say that Hoyland’s work has suffered from this; his paintings show a tendency to an almost self-conscious anonymity of image, and a cramping restraint in his simple appositions of brilliant saturated colors and dark muted ones.

Color in Hoyland’s recent paintings is declared, o.r released, in an altogether franker way, to the point where to see them as a group is to experience an extraordinarily heated, lustrous glow that initially does not promise the kind of subtly nuanced density which each individual painting possesses. This is in fact their revelation—that such a robust, and, in a sense, extroverted celebration of brilliant color and the physicality of paint could be so finely expressive. Hoyland’s actual handling of paint in three of the most recent paintings in the show recalls that of Hofmann’s in certain of the “rectangle” series of paintings, inasmuch as Hoyland lays down sharp-edged rectangular blocks of high-keyed color, predominantly reds, against a differently dense and suffused color ground. Here the comparison stops because it is as though by allowing himself to come perilously close to aspects of Hofmann’s paint handling, Hoyland found most fully what is uniquely his, a superb ability to extract from areas and densities of color an almost physical vitality and impact which he is able to fuse with the illusory and spatial properties of color. This in turn enables him to use scale as an expressive force in ways which simply were not part of Hofmann’s concern. With the largest painting in the show, for instance, which stood seven feet high and spanned twenty, Hoyland laid two rectangular stretches of a dense brilliant red across a stained color-field which fades from a pale dull red across to an even paler, acidulous yellow-green. The effect of the sharp-edged spreads of red is that of making one feel the physical scale of the painting by means of an extraordinary sensation of the nearness, almost heaviness of radiant color. What could amount to an almost unpleasantly molten color intensity is countered, crucially, by the expanse above and below the two wall-like shapes, of a cooler hued, thinned and indefinitely spacious color glow which in effect drains off and absorbs the almost palpable density and the “heat” of the red expanse. Hoyland’s exploitation of incidental and induced effects—like the few blurs and runs at places along the edges of the red rectangles, and the introduction of splashes and streaks of the same red—also helps to temper the radiance of the red and ties it tonally into the stained color ground. One is held, therefore, by an extraordinarily beautiful declaration of red, the very brilliance and density of which makes imperative the illusory, absorbing stained color ground which contains it. Two smaller vertically oriented paintings succeed as well as this painting, although they are somewhat slighter in their expressiveness, their easy beauty making it clear how close to gratuitous and facile effects Hoyland must allow himself to explore in order to go beyond them.

Jane Harrison Cone