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.