In 2015 Damien Hirst made the bold move of inaugurating his new gallery space, Newport Street Gallery, not with an exhibition of Young British Artists (YBAs) as might have been expected, but with a solo retrospective of the Sheffield-born abstract painter John Hoyland. In the wake of Hirst’s show, Hoyland has enjoyed further attention across the UK art scene, with a ‘Spotlight’ display at Tate Britain in 2019, and now the retrospective John Hoyland: The Last Paintings at Millennium Gallery, accompanied by a new publication of the same title.
The exhibition John Hoyland: The Last Paintings marks the tenth anniversary of Hoyland’s death. Rather than programming a survey retrospective show, the show’s curators have wisely chosen to concentrate exclusively on the final decade of the painter’s life. They've created a small but sensitively curated, focused display that allows the visitor the time and space to appreciate this period of Hoyland’s work. These late paintings may read in the tradition of ‘late work’ in an artist’s oeuvre – that which critic Andrew Lambirth describes as ‘Old Age’ style. In the accompanying publication, the late Mel Gooding writes about Hoyland’s late paintings in relation to those of the English Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner. In keeping with the tradition of ‘late painting’, Hoyland’s last works display a similar sense of freedom and creative flowering. The application of paint is looser and more gestural; thickly applied impasto paint sits against areas of paint splattering, a marked contrast to the watery, semi-translucent staining technique that Hoyland employed in his more well-known works of the mid-1960s.
Unlike those flatter, semi-geometric 1960s works, the late paintings retain a sense of depth, with the repeated use of a central vortex-like ‘black hole’ motif pulling the eye in, much like the spiralling forms of Turner’s famous Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842). The black hole metaphor is apt, with cosmic allusions ever present in the works through their use of metallic ethereal colours, as in the dripping gold and silver paint in White Tiger 26.10.06 (2006). If Hoyland was looking outwards – towards space – he was also looking inwards and backwards, reflecting on early influences and friendships past and present. A number of works are dedicated to friends or artistic heroes. Night Sky 10.1.05 (2005) pays tribute to the work of Vincent Van Gogh, with white circular dots of paint recalling the glistening stars above the river in Van Gogh’s Starry Night over the Rhône (1888). Van Gogh was an early hero of Hoyland’s; he famously recalled evenings with fellow Sheffield School of Art student Brian Fielding ‘[walking] around the town, much of it still debris from the wartime bombing […] We talked of our heroes, Van Gogh, Chagall, Roualt etc, and as we walked we would see Van Gogh’s “starry night” […] at every corner…’