Preoccupations

John Hoyland 28.5.66 1966

“… it was more difficult for painters because we were still labouring under the enormous shadows of Newman, Rothko, Still and the rest of them. Marvellous as their paintings were they didn’t really give one any room to go into in painting: they opened up the door for minimal art and even conceptualism, but for painting they seemed to close the door. I think Rothko is a really good example of an artist who painted himself into a corner. So I felt – as a young painter – that one had to re-examine the basic things, in the way that the sculptors were doing. At that time most American artists were saying that these were old-type European preoccupations. Maybe so, but the reason Hofmann was so influential was that basically he was an old-type European artist, stuck with those values. He was the guy who really set about complicating the surface again, dealing with illusion again, with the plasticity of paint, using a full chromatic range, using all these things that had been eliminated from painting by the second generation of American artists.” John Hoyland in conversation with Adrian Searle, Artlog 1978.

We in the US know very little of Postmodern Era abstract painting in the UK. After the success of Damien Hirst’s Newport Gallery exhibition of John Hoyland’s color field abstractions the Pace Gallery on 57th Street brought some of those works here to New York. I think this was among the first shows of UK Late Modernist abstraction seen in the US for decades. Of course there are reasons for this – Post War hubris on our part, the waning importance of abstract painting in the US art world, and a long rivalry over the “ownership” of the Late Modern era. Interestingly, Clement Greenberg and Hans Hofmann were particularly influential in the development of this British Late Modern abstract painting. Their ideas of surface and flatness, color and field, size and scale and “push and pull” are immediately present in much of this Brit Abstraction. These artists created a long form Mannerism which developed quietly in the shadow of the better known UK celebrity figurative painters and Saatchi-branded YBAs.

“The Modern Art in the United States exhibition, organised by MoMA and shown at Tate in 1956, prompted some younger critics, such as Lawrence Alloway and David Sylvester, to espouse American Abstract Expressionism as the most vital trend of their day, and British abstract painters quickly followed suit. In 1956 Alloway could report to an American correspondent: ‘I have just come back from a visit to St Ives and there, too, American styles are clear to see in the young artists.’ In March 1956 [Patrick] Heron wrote of the American artists seen at Tate: ‘Their creative emptiness represented a radical discovery, I felt, as did their flatness, or rather their spatial shallowness.’ And he concluded his review: ‘We shall now watch New York as eagerly as Paris for new developments.’” Eric De Chassey on British abstract painting, May 27, 2014. 

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