Damien Hirst in conversation with John Hoyland RA

From the archive

Published 28 August 2015

The late John Hoyland RA told Damien Hirst about meeting Francis Bacon, and what it is to be a painter.

  • From the Autumn 2009 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    This October, Damien Hirst opens Newport Street Gallery in Vauxhall with Power Stations, a show of paintings by Hoyland dating from 1964 to 1982, the first major exhibition of the artist’s work since 2006.

    Both Hoyland and Hirst have been controversial figures in the art world and both associated with new artistic directions. John Hoyland (1934 – 2011) was one of Britain’s leading artists. His career took off with the ‘Situation’ shows and his inclusion in the ‘New Generation’ exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1964. Hirst is the central figure of the YBAs (Young British Artists) who came to fame in the 1990s. In 2009, at the time of speaking to Hoyland, Hirst was making a “return to painting”. With portraits by Jillian Edelstein, this is an edited extract from their conversation.



    JH I don’t know why I’m asking you this, but are you a good sleeper?

    DH Actually, since I stopped drinking, I wake up a lot earlier. I wake up about 6am sometimes.

    JH I think people who drink wake up early because they’re dehydrated – like Francis Bacon, I believe. He was a morning painter.

    DH Really? I used to like sleeping a lot better when I was drinking but then I’d stay up for days.

    JH You’re not a night painter, though, are you?

    DH No, although I’ve got my routine since I stopped drinking. But then I never used to paint … all my paintings were made by other people, weren’t they!

    JH Well not originally, not at the beginning?

    DH No… in the beginning I did little collages, like Harry Thubron’s. I loved arranging things. Then when I saw Bacon’s paintings. I thought, fuck it; I gave up, really, because I just thought that was what I wanted to do.

    JH What, you thought they were too good?

    DH As a kid, the Bacon screaming heads… you like all that. The nightmare spaces and the violence. I was always into that.

    JH I never went for them; instead of getting the horror, they made me laugh. They were too shrill and melodramatic.

    DH I suppose that’s the problem with figurative paintings. I was looking at your paintings the other day and, I mean, you’re obviously, easily the greatest British abstract painter.

    JH Thank you [laughs].

  • Damien Hirst and John Hoyland RA

    Damien Hirst and John Hoyland RA

    Photo: Jillian Edelstein © The Royal Academy of Arts

  • DH Before you, it was like Peter Lanyon, wasn’t it? And Ivon Hitchens and Ben Nicholson, but they’re all a bit decorative. The British painters always worked on a small scale, really. Too small for me… Did you meet Rothko?

    JH Yes. I never painted small because when I tried in those days they always looked like maquettes, they didn’t look like proper paintings. It was only when I started to use more paint, more impasto, that I could make them work. [Points to painting on wall] That one was painted in 1971 in New York. It was for sale; it’s ended up here, so it’s sort of mine now. It’s the same for everything here, all these things have been for sale; nobody wanted the bloody things. I live like a kind of student.

    DH A fairly affluent student!

    JH Well, I have got a cottage in Wiltshire and a chapel. I bought the whole lot in 1968 for £4,500. I thought, now I’ve got this, nobody can stop me painting. I can always go there and I can always work. Because I have lived through some dire economic times, personally.

    DH When did you start to explore abstraction? You must have seen Rothko’s paintings, when?

    JH In ’56, at the Tate. Later on, I went to quite a lot of dinner parties in New York where Rothko was, but I was always too scared to sit near him.

    DH Because he was a hero? I was like that with Francis Bacon. I’d often see him in the Colony Room and I thought, I’m not speaking to him.

    JH Well, I went to Rothko’s studio a couple of times. He would describe his day. He said, “I rush up here, I have breakfast with my wife – he was married at the time – take a look at a painting, lie on the couch and fall asleep.” Well, I know that feeling now. I remember he asked if I had seen the de Kooning show of drawings on 57th Street. In those days in England there was this big division between figurative and abstract; it was a silly nonsense, which I never subscribed to. But there was de Kooning and he had drawn into the paintings. He’d got thick oil paint and painted on white paper. And it just looked like flesh, and they were all nudes. I said I thought the show was terrific. Rothko agreed: “Wasn’t it just!”

    DH Oh, he liked it as well? Because they were at odds really, weren’t they, Rothko and de Kooning. I love Rothko, but I always felt that kind of spiritual thing was a dead end. That power, that colour-field thing. You arrive there but there’s nowhere to go next – like painting romantic skies forever.

    JH That’s what we inherited. A cul-de-sac. Rothko closed the bloody door. We had to start reinventing art; that’s why I came back to Europe, one of the reasons.

    DH How long were you in New York?

    JH Off and on for about five years.

    DH So that was when Johns and Warhol and everybody were pulling in the other direction with Pop. Rothko was kind of old fashioned.

    JH But I must finish my story about Rothko. He said to me, I’m all right in the morning and I’m all right in the evening – we go out and have dinner, we go to a concert or we have friends over or whatever. But what do you do in the afternoon? I thought, what’s he on about? I was about your age. “I get to thinking a lot about female flesh in the afternoon,” he says. Now, of course, I know what he means!

    DH As I say, I just was really surprised at the size of your work in that period. In interviews I’ve always said that it was when I came on the scene, with Saatchi, that the scale got bigger. Before Saatchi, it was Cork Street, and there were these little paintings. Even Peter Blake was doing small paintings. But you were knocking it out of the park, as the Americans would say. You know, for twenty years – home runs. How many paintings did you paint in those years?

    JH Around 80 pictures a year.

    DH Yes, that’s not too bad. Warhol did 10,000, I think. Don’t worry, I’ve done way more than 80 this year! So what were you about when you were painting in those days? Were you into that kind of transcendental thing, like Rothko?

    JH Well, I sort of had a vague interest in Zen Buddhism, but I’ve never been religious. But then I think all great paintings have a kind of a metaphysical dimension in some way.

    DH Because there seemed to be a point in the 1980s where it was as if your work moved away from that. I can’t work it out, but later on in his career Picasso did a similar thing to what you did… it’s almost like rejecting something. You were creating a lot of big paintings with unarguable power, paintings that give you a slap, a physical, gut reaction to some sort of spiritual, or if not spiritual, a huge emotive transcendental thing. But then in the 80s you just seem to sort of dump it. There’s like a great meeting of geometry and organic forms and then it’s lost.

  • Damien Hirst and John Hoyland RA

    Damien Hirst and John Hoyland RA

    Photo: Jillian Edelstein © The Royal Academy of Arts

  • JH I think what happened was that I felt that I’d become trapped by something that eventually became known as Formalism. And I wanted to get out of the box, but I didn’t know how to do it without becoming an illustrator, like the Germans were doing – illustrational painting with a good deal of vitality and coarseness. Then Bob Motherwell gave me a book on Miró – he was always talking about this surrealist genius.

    DH Yes, I love Miró; Miró’s sculpture is just brilliant.

    JH Well me too… terrific invention and so on. And then I realised, if you read his book, there’s something else. Miró was a little guy and he had a punch bag in his studio. He used to hit this bloody bag, long before it became fashionable to exercise. He used to go running to get rid of his intensity, in that heat in Majorca, long before anybody did healthy stuff. He used to go on the beach and pick up bits and pieces every day. A bit of stone, a bit of wood, a bit of string, whatever… I thought, who am I to think that I can keep inventing out of my head without any reference to nature? So, I got more and more drawn into going to the Caribbean, where everything seems more vital and more dangerous and more dramatic. And the light! If you see a leaf there, you say what the fuck is that?

    DH Yeah the sun makes everything look Day-Glo.

    JH You don’t get a leaf like that here; you get bluebells here! Which are beautiful too.

    DH It’s sunlight, the sun on things, which can make things look mental.

    JH Sunsets, the sunrises, the sea, the danger, the life of the people. So I kind of got hooked and my Gauguin syndrome came out more and more. But to be honest, I can’t answer your question because I don’t know where I’m going. I didn’t then and I never will.

    DH When I started painting again I just kind of went figurative because I thought… Well, I don’t know why! But looking at your paintings, figures are creeping in here and there. But you worked with figures back in Sheffield when you started. Do you think you’ve gone back to figurative paintings in some way?

    JH Well, I think all painting is sort of autobiographical.

    DH Autobiographical?

    JH Yes, but I remember a student came here, doing a thesis on me. I had said that I’d like to be able to paint anything. Well I’m not there yet, but that’s where I’m trying to get: where I can paint anything without any borders or restrictions.

    DH I’ve been doing these paintings where I’ve been adding lines, putting a lot of lines in on the top, which sort of works like a grid. I find when you get a balance between the lines, the painting gets much darker somehow. It pulls you in, or the space pulls you in – and keeps you out equally… So I wondered if there was an element of being cynical when you got rid of the grid. Cynical about the market or space or the art world? Maybe I’m reading too much into it.

    JH No, I have never had a market! Well, I’m pretty cynical but not about painting. Painting is acting purely; you can’t hide anything. You can’t pretend to be a tough guy if you’re not. Everything shows; it’s a seismograph of the mind and the body.

    DH Some paintings are like that.

    JH And that’s why when you were having your work made by other people, I always wondered how you would react when you get to see it.

    DH Well I always avoided it… But the idea of being a painter, I’ve always thought, is better than being an artist or a sculptor.

  • Painting is acting purely; you can’t hide anything. You can’t pretend to be a tough guy if you’re not. Everything shows; it’s a seismograph of the mind and the body.

    John Hoyland RA

  • JH It’s the endgame.

    DH I always had so many ideas. Now that I am painting more directly I wonder if all the paintings that I’ve done, like the spin paintings, are about a sort of imaginary mechanical painter, like a machine that paints. And that they were ways for me to avoid actual painting; I think maybe I was scared of it.

    JH Yes.

    DH I think about Max Beckmann, you know, because Beckmann always painted his canvases black first. And he said, that’s the void and everything I paint is something I place between myself and the void. It’s like the horror of being in a studio with a blank canvas. But with a spin machine, you get something moving between yourself and Beckmann’s void. And you don’t have to deal with that shit; you just get beautiful paintings.

    JH Yes, well it’s a terrifying thing. It doesn’t matter how much money anybody has. You get up in the morning and you’ve had too many Martinis, and you go downstairs to your studio and there’s a canvas there, you’ve got to deal with it…. So, what about you? You’re going to keep on painting away. What about your colour range; it seems to be kind of restricted?

    DH I just started that way. I did the spot paintings to solve formal problems with colour. When I did abstract paintings at school the tutor said these would make great curtains. I would always neglect the formal stuff that was going on by using colour, because colour kind of came naturally to me. So then I did the spot paintings and chose a rigid formal structure. Then I could do all that colour stuff – let’s put a blue here and a green here… Browns and purples if you’re feeling down or whatever! It was all meaningless in the end but it always looked good. When I started painting again I wanted to do just black and white, but instead I went for blue and white. I always loved those early Bacon paintings that used Prussian blue.

    JH Right.

    DH I’ve started bringing colour in now, but slowly. I’ve one rule. Whatever I’m painting, I always imagine that if I die in the middle of it, it’s got to look good, that it’s not something I’m embarrassed with. You know, when you sort of draw a pencil line and you go, oh, don’t worry I’ll get the paint covering it quickly and then it’ll be all right?

    JH Yes.

    DH I thought, I’m just not into that. I thought it’s like this painting’s got to look great at every stage somehow. With that you’ve got to have a certain amount of belief.

    JH You’ve got to be prepared to lose the painting too.

    DH But what I never thought would happen is that I’m enjoying doing it.

    JH In painting you have to confront your own history and all your naked ambition; there’s no escape. And you have to confront the whole history of art. Picasso said when he saw the paintings at the Lascaux Caves, there is nothing more to be done.

    DH But all great paintings make you feel like that, don’t they? And you can’t believe there are so many but you forget everything when you’re in front of a great painting.

  • Damien Hirst talks to Tim Marlow

    RA Artistic Director Tim Marlow talked to Damien Hirst about Newport Street Gallery and its inaugural exhibition of works by John Hoyland RA.


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