John Hoyland

Serpentine Gallery

John Hoyland’s paintings are as much physical confrontations as they are images. Given that he has said he wants to “blow people’s minds” with his paintings, and that they attest, through their often jarring dissonances to an affection for art which “overwhelms and mystifies,” his retrospective runs the risk of canceling itself out in a kind of theatrical overkill. It is a danger worth courting, even though the viewer might end up feeling like a Wagner fan who has sat through one too many Bayreuth Festivals.

The show charts Hoyland’s course from 1967 to the present. It is a largely unwavering progression, a steady process of complication of the rectilinear forms and dramatically contrasting surface effects which first entered his work around 1964. If his progress is, as he has said, “Mainstream” (the architecture of forms ultimately derived from Hofmann, De Stael and Poliakoff) then at last he might now be seen to be entering the river’s delta with the newer work.

The dominance of a single, impastoed slab of color has slowly been usurped by a more multiform image, a break-up of the dominant element into smaller, more eccentric units. The single slab was too often beginning to read like a wall—impenetrable curtains of red, shields of molten blue, and so on—and the only way into the paintings was that narrow gap at the margin where solid paint gave way to liquid staining: you’d have to claw at the gap with your fingernails to gain a purchase, to wrench the thing open. This solidity was perhaps itself a reaction to some paintings he did between 1970 and ’72, in which a dwarf version of the major, squared-off form floated in a Poons-like atmosphere of poured paint. But if the Poons looked like landslides these were rainstorms of Dayville’s ice cream: mountain blueberry, pistachio and mint. They were a real nadir.

From 1976 onward Hoyland’s paintings have become considerably less like exercises in the management of painted, sculptural forms, and more concerned with the creation of an almost-natural world. But if this is nature, then it is undoubtedly alien. The forms might be less emphatic or graven but they have much more character, and are like containers of fizzing energy, screens displaying electrostatic interference or blown-up details of meteorological or geological fragments, body-scanner print-outs from unknown organisms. It seems that Hoyland will do almost anything to overcome the inertia of his building-block shapes. It’s as though he uses them for that very reason, something to fight against—dumb drawing demands drastic painting.

Adrian Searle