Abstract Colour: Agnes Martin, Cy Twombly and John Hoyland – part II


Caruso St John seem to be the architects of choice for contemporary galleries at the moment.  Gagosian have worked with the architects before – on their London Britannia Street, Rome and Paris galleries; Damian Hirst has clearly been impressed by the success of these spaces and chose to work with them on his enormous Newport Street Gallery.  The new Gagosian (above and below) is on Grosvenor Hill, a quiet paved mews in the heart of Mayfair.  The design is slick but unobtrusive, simple rectilinear forms, slim pale bricks and large squares of plate glass – the ultimate ‘white cube’ approach.


Gagosian have inaugurated this space with an exhibition of Cy Twombly, following a tradition which has seen the artist inaugurate galleries in London Britannia Street (2004), Rome (2007-8), Athens (2009) and Paris (2010).  The first room displays sixteen works on paper from the 1969 Bolsena series – the classic Twombly accumulation of scratchy mark-making, numbers and scribbled shapes in crayon and pencil that flow from the bottom corner of the sheet like an eruption from the mind of a frenzied mathematician or scientist.


The second room contains more recent work – two enormous, ‘as yet unseen’, Bacchus paintings (2006-8, above) which take up a wall each.  Red acrylic is swirled over the canvas with joyous abandon and allowed to drip, the solid, purposeful, gestural strokes in tension with the thin, passive drips that coalesce into layers of pigment, an orgy of blood or wine.  On the two walls between hang another pair – Untitled (2007, below) – of a similar scale, each a diptych, one thinner vertical panel painted with jagged blue lines reminiscent of a hospital monitor, the other almost square and scrawled with purple amoeba-like forms.  The latter, like the Bacchus paintings are energetic and dripping with paint, full of life.


In between are placed a number of sculptures, which are so much more diminutive than the paintings – or even the works on paper – that they make less impact than they should.  One (Untitled c.2004) has the appearance of malleable clay with thumbprints indented, and yet is cast in bronze; it is the size of a battery or engine yet without the sharp edges or the practical purpose – it sits somewhere between the biomorphic shapes of the paintings and the mechanical formulae that the drawings suggest.  Another (Untitled 2001-2) appears to be a cloth tied with string around a slim wooden totem, covered – almost dripping with – white paint; yet this too is cast in bronze.


188_N166_lore_570It is fortunate that the Newport Street Gallery (above) is named after its address; I was able to navigate my way by iPhone to a back street tucked behind the train line running into Vauxhall station.  The gallery encompasses three converted 1913 scenery-painting studios together with two new buildings, spanning almost the entire length of the street.  Treading in the footsteps of Saatchi, Damian Hirst has created this cavernous gallery space to show works from his own private art collection.  With one double-height gallery and part of the upper floor lit by the sky-lights of the jagged roof, clean wood and stone spiral staircases at either end and industrial concrete floors, this is cutting edge art world minimalism in design.


He has begun with ‘Power Stations: Paintings 1964-1082’, a retrospective of John Hoyland, a British abstract artist who wholly deserves a reappraisal.  There is nothing ‘Sensation’ or Brit Art about it; Hoyland is a serious painterly painter.  He was influenced, like Agnes Martin, by the American Abstract Expressionists, whose work was exhibited at the Tate shortly after Hoyland moved to London from Sheffield in 1956.  The earliest works on show here (such as 17.5.64, above) are bright patches of colour – from black to orange and a luminous acidic green – that resonate with almost visceral force against deep saturated red backgrounds.  In fact all the paintings in the first room use stained red grounds with more solid blocks of colour superimposed; these are discrete forms, but with soft edges, some appearing to seep or melt into the background colour.


In the next space are green stained grounds (12.6.66, above).  Much like Martin, Hoyland quickly stopped using circles to focus exclusively on rectilinear forms; unlike Martin, he uses these to create a sense of depth and space within his paintings.  In some of the green paintings the contrast between the relative opacity of the paint, and between the geometric forms plays with our perception of depth – like Escher drawings, one cannot quite tell where all the parts exist in space.


The harsher grey on red of 29.12.66 (above) in the following room creates a more architectural space and a solidity that echoes the concrete floor, its one diagonal sufficient to create a strong perspective.  But this effect is undermined as the clean lines delimiting the areas of colour dissolve into one another at the top of the canvas.  After this, in the late sixties, Hoyland added more colours to his compositions which start to detract from the overall effect.  Upstairs the paint becomes thicker, more sharply defining the overlaid forms; it is more gestural, more textural, less controlled – but the dirtier, messier colour lacks vibrancy and it loses its power.


A series from 1971, associated with the period Hoyland spent at his Wiltshire studio in Market Lavington, is a complete departure (23.2.71, above).  Hoyland suddenly turns away from his strong saturated palette towards pale neutrals and flesh tones, using very impasto paint on lightly stained, almost bare, canvas.  The approach appears far more spontaneous here, an explosion of marks burst out from the relics of rectinlinear forms at the centre of the canvas.


In the 1980s Hoyland returns to his glorious colour fields – and for the first time begins to give his paintings titles alongside their completion dates. Many paintings of this period, such as Scando 2.10.80 (below) or Advance Town 29.3.80 (above), are formed around strong central diagonals.  The use of paint is more varied, with staining, drips, the palette knife and finger painting all employed with a freedom that recalls Twombly’s late paintings. The colours are layered so that some forms are only glimpsed at the edges of a superimposed plane of colour.  Memory 8.3.80, especially, builds up a sort of palimpsest of colour, like a billboard constantly stripped back, revealing little bits of the past: the painter revisiting his lifetime in paint.


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