New exhibition at Millennium Gallery presents last paintings made by John Hoyland

New exhibition at Millennium Gallery presents last paintings made by John Hoyland

16 June 2021

A new exhibition at the Millennium Gallery set to present some of the last paintings made by one of Britain’s leading abstract artists, Sheffield-born John Hoyland.

The exhibition, opening in July, marks the 10th anniversary of Hoyland’s passing in 2011 and will display several works that have never been shown publically before.

Born in Sheffield, John Hoyland (1934-2011) is regarded as one of Britain’s leading abstract painters. This summer, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of his passing, Sheffield Museums, in partnership with The John Hoyland Estate, will present a new exhibition showcasing some of the final works he created, several of which will be publicly displayed for the first time.  John Hoyland: The Last Paintings opens at the Millennium Gallery on Saturday 3 July.

John Hoyland is renowned for his bold use of colour and inventive forms. In a career spanning over 50 years, his tireless innovation pushed the boundaries of abstract painting and cemented him as one of the most inventive British artists of the 20th century.

Born in 1934, Hoyland attended Sheffield School of Arts and Crafts (1946-1951), then went on to study Fine Art at Sheffield College of Art (1951-1956). Together with fellow pupil Brian Fielding, one of Hoyland’s closest friends and later a formidable artist in his own right, they rambled around post-war Sheffield discussing ‘art with a capital A’.

Leaving Sheffield in 1956 to study at The Royal Academy of Art (1956-1960), he became exposed to contemporary abstract art and was quickly swept up in a period of great artistic change. Hoyland’s knowledge of modern European art was joined to a love of American Abstract Expressionism, leading him to exhibit a series of abstract paintings for his diploma show in 1960.

The non-representative nature of these works so shocked the then-president of the RA, Sir Charles Wheeler, that they were ordered down from the walls. By the mid-60s Hoyland had met many of the Abstract Expressionists, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Helen Frankenthaler; with Robert Motherwell becoming a life-long friend.

In 1960, Hoyland was included in the influential Situation group exhibitions and selected as one of Bryan Robertson's New Generation artists at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1964. His career went from strength to strength, opening his first institutional solo show in 1967 at the Whitechapel Gallery, where he presented a body of work critic Mel Gooding has referred to as 'an achievement in scale and energy, sharpness of definition and expressive power unmatched by any of his contemporaries, and unparalleled in modern British painting.

The Last Paintings will display nine large scale works works made in the last eight years of Hoyland’s life, showing previously unseen paintings, such as Moon in the Water, the last of Hoyland’s Mysteries series, for the first time. The paintings celebrate life in the face of death, as Hoyland reckoned with the deaths of his friends and faced down his own mortality. To confront these personal subjects, he used symbolism and adopted a semi-representative language centred around images of the cosmos, moons, suns, stars, and birds.

‘When one is young and has experienced a good deal of rejection, you want to show everyone how tough you are. Later, you want to show how clever you are. Later still, you want to see how far you can push yourself. And finally, you don’t give a fuck about anything, you just want to howl at the moon.’ John Hoyland, 2006

This final series of paintings pays homage to some of his artistic heroes, such as Vincent Van Gogh in Night Sky, as well as commemorating artist-friends in Elegy (for Terry Frost), which uses colour to allude to Frost’s art, with its red, yellow, black and white roundel set against a deep emerald redolent of the sea near Frost’s home in Newlyn. Restless Heart is a statement of Hoyland’s passionate commitment to life and love, and a defiant acknowledgement of his declining health. Leaving hospital in 2008 after major heart surgery, he felt ‘a distinct sharpening of the senses.’ Although illness shortened Hoyland’s life, it simultaneously produced a late burst of creative energy. 

Although Hoyland himself disliked the term abstraction, finding it smacked too much of geometry and rational thought, he was a life-long proponent of non-figurative imagery, in which he saw ‘the potential for the most advanced depth of feeling and meaning’He believed that ‘…paintings are there to be experienced, they are events. His dramatic, colourful canvases are a testament to that belief, from the playful biomorphic forms of his early works to the expressive impasto acrylic of his later paintings.

In the last couple of decades his method involved laying down a dark ground with a paintbrush, on top of which he’d skate glazes of iridescent paint. Working on the floor, he’d spill, pour, squeeze and squirt liquid acrylic from an army of bottles. The critic Andrew Lambirth described this method rather aptly as ‘collaborating with chaos’: as Hoyland told him in a 2008 interview, ‘I like to try and make these pictures paint themselves. The less you impose, the fresher it is. Painting is a kind of alchemy.

The defiant energy and joy of the works, with stormy indigo washes punctuated by vibrant red dashes, speak to Hoyland’s rebellious approach to life. Damien Hirst has said of Hoyland ‘…by far the greatest British abstract painter … John Hoyland was an artist who was never afraid to push the boundaries. His paintings always feel like a massive celebration of life to me.’ 

Kirstie Hamilton, Director of Programmes at Sheffield Museums said: ‘John Hoyland is rightfully known as one of Britain’s most important abstract painters. These works, created in his final years, saw his creativity and desire to push, to challenge and to break new ground resolutely undiminished. We’re delighted to work with The John Hoyland Estate show these, some of his last paintings, here in Sheffield, the city of his birth.’

A new book published by Ridinghouse which surveys Hoyland’s final series of paintings will be released in Summer 2021.

John Hoyland: The Last Paintings opens at Millennium Gallery on Saturday 3 July and continues until Sunday 10 October – entry to the exhibition is free. For more info visit: www.museums-sheffield.org.uk