A Conversation

John Hoyland and Damien Hirst, 2009

‘Skull with Ashtray, Lemon and Cigarettes’ (2006). Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

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

Damien Hirst  Actually, since I stopped drinking, I wake up a lot earlier. I wake up about six sometimes.

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

DH  Really? I used to like sleeping much more when I was drinking, but then I’d stay up for days.

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

DH  No, I’m not – I’ve got my routine since I stopped drinking. But, you know, I didn’t used to paint – all my paintings were made by other people, weren’t they? (laughs)

JH  Well, not originally – not at the beginning?

DH  No, in the beginning I did little collages, you know, like Harry Thubron – I did collages like that. I loved arranging things and 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  Well, as a kid, I liked the Bacon screaming heads and all that – they’re kind of like album covers, aren’t they? And the nightmare spaces and the fucking violence I was always into that.

JH  I didn’t like them. I never went for them; they always made me laugh instead of feeling horrified. They were too shrill.

DH  I suppose that’s the problem with figurative paintings, isn’t it? I was looking at your paintings the other day and you’re obviously the greatest British abstract painter by far.

JH  Thank you. (laughs)

DH  Before you it was Peter Lanyon, and Ivon Hitchens, and Ben Nicholson, but they’re all a bit decorative – they never get the scale. It feels like they just twiddled about.

JH  They somehow didn’t have the intensity; Peter Lanyon is the exception, but he died in a glider crash, didn’t he?

DH  How old was he when he died?

JH  I think he was in his 40s. But Roger Hilton died when he was 60. I thought he was much older; he looked a lot older. I’m 14 years up on him, but he ended up doodling in bed, you know.

DH  Yes. (laughs) The British painters always worked on a small scale, really – too small for me. I was really surprised at the size of your stuff because whenever I’ve talked in interviews, I’ve always said that when I came on the scene, it was like with Saatchi – my work sort of expanded the scale: it got bigger. And before Saatchi, it was Cork Street, and then there were these small little paintings and even Richard Hamilton was doing small Pop Art. It was Warhol who did the huge fucking pictures. America’s most wanted and big pictures like that, and the big electric chairs. 

Whereas all the British guys were doing small stuff, and it all fitted in Cork Street quite nicely. Even Peter Blake was doing small paintings. And then the other day I realised there was a great painting of yours I used to look at in the Leeds City Art Gallery with a big purple rectangle at the bottom – 12 feet or something, with oranges in the background.

JH  They’re mainly all 12 feet wide, some are up to 20 feet.

DH  Yes, but you were knocking it out of the park, as the Americans would say.  For 20 years – home runs.

JH  I used to come home from teaching and have something to eat, fall asleep for half an hour, and go in the studio; it really pissed my wife off, you know? (laughs)

DH  What about the number of paintings – how many did you paint in those years?

JH  I don’t know.

DH  You were firing them off?

JH  My wife keeps saying, “Don’t tell people how many paintings you’ve done”. (laughs) I’ve done around 80 pictures this year.

DH  That’s not too bad. Warhol did 10,000 I think.

JH  Yes. You know, mine were the size of that (points at a painting), and some large ones maybe not so many.

DH  Don’t worry, I’ve done more than that this year. (laughs)

JH  Hey, I’m lucky; I’ve got nothing else to fucking do.

DH  When did you start to explore abstraction? You must have seen Mark Rothko’s paintings a few years after that painting of your father?

JH  I saw Rothko in ’56, at the Tate.

DH  So Rothko was painting those at the end of the 40s, wasn’t he? And it was ’56 when you started the kind of mad stuff?

JH  Yes, I actually went to quite a lot of dinner parties where Rothko was there, but I was always too scared to sit near him.

DH  Because he was a hero? I was like that with Bacon. I’d often see him in the Colony Room and I thought, “I’m not fucking speaking to him”. And I never spoke to him, even though I was in the same small room with him.

JH  I went to Rothko’s studio a couple of times. It’s an old story – I’ve told it before.  But he said, “I rush up here, I have breakfast with my wife”. He was married at the time. “I’m happy and I rush up here”, he said, “and I take a look at a painting. And I’ll lie on the couch and fall asleep”. (laughs) I know that feeling. 

And then he said he had these Houston chapel pictures that he was working on. And he kept altering the size of the stretcher, or somebody did. And he said, “What do you think about that?”, I said, “It looks like blood; like dark, dried blood, to me”. And he said, “Yes”, like that. But the marvellous thing was – the guy who was designing the Chapel, what was his name, famous architect?

DH  de Menil? 

JH  Philip Johnson.

DH  Oh yeah, the de Menils were the people who commissioned the pictures, weren’t they? Yes, Johnson, right. 

JH  Anyway, Rothko had this mock-up of the chapel, and he said, “This curtain wall here – that has to go …”. And I thought that was marvellous, because architects usually say, “We’ve got a wall, you’re going to love it”. And, because Rothko’s an artist, he’s telling them they’ve got to dismantle the fucking building, not just the wall. I though that was really good.  

DH  That’s the battle, isn’t it, between art and architecture?

JH  Yes, and then he said that in those days there was this kind of big division between figurative and abstract painting in England; it was a silly nonsense, which I never took any notice of, or subscribed to. And there was a Willem de Kooning show on of drawings, on 57th Street. And he’d got thick oil paint and painted on white paper.  And it just looked like flesh, and they were all nudes.

DH  Yes, they had a line scraped in, or drawn or something, and he used wet-on-wet paint.

JH  Ah, they were terrific, you know, and he said to me, “Did you see the de Kooning show””. I said yes, and of course in England it was all this abstraction versus figures – you had to be in one or the other camp. So he said, “What do you think of to?”  I said I thought it was terrific.  He said, “Wasn’t it just”.

DH  Oh, he liked it as well? Because they were at odds really, weren’t they – Rothko and de Kooning? Because, with the figure, I always felt that… I mean, I love Rothko, but I also felt that the spiritual thing was a dead end.

That power, that colour-field thing – it seemed like a red herring in some ways. It’s like you arrive there, but then it kills you because there’s nowhere to go next – like painting romantic skies forever.

JH  That’s what we inherited – a cul-de-sac (laughs); 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  I was off and on there for about five years. That would have been between ’64 and ’69. 

DH  So you were there, when Jasper Johns and Warhol and everybody were sort of pulling in the other direction with Pop?

JH  Oh, yes.

DH  But getting from fucking Sheffield to New York in those days – that’s pretty impressive for a working lad.

JH  Well I didn’t go knocking on doors.

DH  No, but to actually do that in them days… people didn’t travel globally.

JH  No way.

DH  Did you just jump on a plane?

JH  No, no, I was absolutely skint; I had no money at all. I got a Stuyvesant scholarship from Whitechapel. 

DH  Oh, you were doing that big show at the Whitechapel – that was a smash wasn’t’ it?

JH  Yes, that was ’67.  In 1964, there was the 'New Generation', and I got a scholarship to go for – I don’t know – two weeks, or something like that. But it happened that Clement Greenberg was making a big fuss about English sculpture at the time. 

DH  What, Henry Moore and all that?

JH  No, no – all the new ones.

DH  Oh, Anthony Caro and Tim Scott.

JH … and Bill Tucker and all that. And he said, “Your painting’s rubbish but you’ve got it in sculpture”. And they were all excited.

DH  Who said your paintings were rubbish, Greenberg? 

JH  Yes, Clement Greenberg. Not just mine – everybody’s; every English painter was rubbish, and everything in Europe was rubbish. (laughs) So that was us, you know, dismissed. I read Greenberg’s biography about the “czar of painting”. He was always rather different with me, but I was a very cheeky bugger, you know. Then I read the book and I realised that he was like that with everybody.

He happened to be passing through London, and he saw the Whitechapel show; do you know what he said about it? He said, “I can’t wholly dismiss it.” (laughs)

DH  He’s a nice guy isn’t it? (laughs) 

JH  He used to invite me to his house, and he’d had drinks around five thirty with a bit of salami and a few little crackers or something. And he’d say things like, “Hey, please sit down, be comfortable”. And as I’d sit down, he’d say, “You’re in my chair John.” I didn’t know it was his fucking chair (laughs). Little put downs – you know what I mean, already trying to get an advantage over you.  But what I liked best about Greenberg – was that he’d put paintings up in his flat: work that was either lent to him or given.  And – whether you were somebody he knew, or somebody he didn’t know – he’d say, “What do you think of that?” When you say, “Well, it’s all right”, he’d say, “That’s a great painting”. You say, “Well, I don’t think so”. He’d say “Look again”; I said I would look again, but I’m an artist, I reminded him, so I don’t have to look twice. It was good he did that.

DH  Yes, not many people do that today; they’re afraid. 

JH  But the point is that he would put things up. Nowadays they only hang you next to people according to the value of the work. It hasn’t got anything to do with what’s on the canvas.

DH  There are a lot of decisions made in the art world today based on money.

JH You see what I mean, but in those days, you know, you’d see the work of somebody you’d never heard of, and it might a good painting. Greenberg would float people, as it were, see if anybody took off.

DH  When you were painting, in those days, were to into that kind of transcendental thing, like Rothko?

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

DH  Because I think in some way there seems to be a point – like in the 80s – where it’s almost like you got away from that. I can’t work it out because, you know, Picasso did a similar thing later on in his career to what you did, but with you 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 not spiritual but hugely emotive – transcendental, thing. You know, a big thing, and grand, but then in the 80s, you just seem to sort of dump it. And there’s a great meeting of geometry and organic forms and it’s lost.

And then the geometry went out of it, and it became almost like the line you make when you draw with a tube of paint. That’s very down to earth, and it all became really, really down to earth. And I just wondered by you did that?

JH  I think what happened was that I felt 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 who were doing illustrational painting with a good deal of vitality and coarseness. That was a healthy thing for English artists to not forget, you know. But I think that I sort of started to accept the idea that I couldn’t just do it all out of my head. Bob Motherwell gave me a book on Miro, and he was always talking about, you know, this great surrealist genius.

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

JH  Me too – you know, terrific invention and so on. And then I realised that if you read his book – talk about expletives you found out that he 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. He used to go running to get rid of his intensity, in that heat, in Majorca, you know, long before anybody did healthy stuff. He used to come and hit the bloody bag all the time. And 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?”, although I never wanted to copy 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 lighting! If you see a leaf there, you say, “What the fuck is that?” You don’t leaves like that here; you get bluebells (laughs), which are beautiful. 

DH  Yes, they’re pale as well. It’s the sunlight, isn’t it? I mean, sun on things can make things look mental.

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

DH  No, I mean you can see that; it’s like every painting leads to another painting leads to another painting. It’s like when you look at a photograph of the moon, and you see the little crosses; the experts put a grid on it to try and convince you that they know what they are taking about. But it’s an unknowable fucking landscape. 

JH   Absolutely

DH  It’s just mental, but they put a grid on it and then you go, “Oh yes, they know what they’re doing”. It’s like, there’s a lot of fucking debris in A6 and there’s less in B12, but it actually means fuck all. And you go, “All right”, and you can work it out. And I felt that a lot of your paintings – I mean even that one on the wall with the square down at the bottom (points to painting) – that has the grid feeling. But then it seems like you just fucking threw the grid out one day.

JH  Well, with the circle paintings I did, as you say. They’re, like, a form of cannibalism.

DH  When was that – about 1980?

JH  Yes. And then I cannibalised everything.

DH  Well, you were always throwing the grid off; you were always going against the grid. And then it came unstuck, became a circle?

JH  I don’t like symmetry. 

DH  Yes, but the square, the triangle as well – I mean, that was what was brilliant. It was like a diamond shape off-centre, pulling the square apart. What I kept thinking about was Henri Matisse’s ‘The Snail’.

JH  Oh well, I’ve written a piece about that.

DH  Really? I’d love to read it because that’s one of my favourite paintings; I got my idea for spot paintings from that. The fucking square – well that’s a spiral made with squares in a fucking rectangle. Mad!

JH  Yes, it was some silly thing, and I actually made some rather unpleasant comments about the idea of asking an artist about his favourite work. It was ‘The Guardian’ – the bloody Guardian about 20 years ago. And I said that I have to write about something, I’ll write about ‘The Snail”.

DH  Yes, I love that painting. For me, with the dot paintings. I was trying to let the formal thing fuck-up the decision-making process, or obscure it.

JH  It’s also I like using black and white as colour, which I do a lot now. And it took me a long time to be able to use white and black, you know, as colour in a chromatic range. 

DH  When I started painting again, I just kind of went figurative because I thought – I don’t know why – but I just felt it was right. And looking at your paintings as well, I see figures creeping in here and there: I mean faces and falling figures and all that - you started with figures back in Sheffield. The other day, I found myself looking at the whole thing, and looking through your books, and looking at the figurative paintings, particularly the painting of your dad.

The landscapes of Sheffield, and the way they became kind of abstract, and through to those massive dramatic paintings, and then out of the other side – it seems like it’s going back, you know? Because the big thing about your paintings is the change and the movement. It’s almost like every last painting leads to the next painting. Do you think you’ve gone back to figurative paintings in some way?

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

I remember, a girl came here to do a thesis on me. And she got on my nerves; she was a nice girl (laughs) but she just got on my bloody nerves. She kept coming out of the blue, from Scotland or somewhere, all the time. And she kindly gave me the thesis when she’d done it, but I didn’t read it. And then about four years later I was looking for something in the chaos and I found this thing, and I read it. And in it I’d said that, ideally, I’d like to be able to paint anything.  Well I’m not there yet. And that’s where I’m trying to get: where I can paint anything without any kind of borders or restrictions.

It just so happens that a lot of my friends have been dying, and I found myself painting these kind of elegies.

DH  I’ve been doing these paintings where I’ve been putting a lot of lines in on the top, which sort of works like a grid. But I always find that when you get a balance between the lines, it gets much darker somehow, or it pulls you in as a human being, or the space of something. It pulls you in and keeps you out equally. But you’ve used gravity a lot – you know, the pouring; you get lines through pouring, don’t you, straightaway?

JH  Yes.  Well, actually, it’s like trying two – two dynamics.

DH  I felt there was an element of being cynical when you got rid of the grid, you know. Like the lines you were getting from – I don’t know – using a triangle or something, or because they seemed to define space somehow. And then it seemed like you threw it out; I thought it might have been you getting cynical about the market, or space, or the art world.  I don’t know – maybe I’m reading too much into it.

JH  No, I have never had a market. (laughs) Well, I’m pretty cynical, but not about painting – I’m not, you know, I’m cynical about everything else. (laughs)

DH  Yes, maybe I’m missing something then.

JH  No, I mean painting is – you know – acting purely; you can’t hide anything.  You can’t pretend to be a tough guy if you’re not a tough guy; and you can’t pretend to be sensitive if you’re not sensitive. Everything shows in a painting; it’s a seismograph, isn’t it, of the mind and the body?

DH  Some paintings are like that. I always fucking avoided it. I mean, I’ve always thought that being a painter was better than being an artist or a sculptor. I always thought painting was the best thing to do. 

JH  It’s the end game.

DH  I always had so many fucking ideas, and now I’m painting more directly. I thought all the paintings I’ve done were about a sort of imaginary mechanical painter – like the spin paintings: like a machine that paints. And they were always ways for me to avoid actual painting: I think maybe I was scared of it.

I think about Max Beckmann, because Beckmann always painted his canvases black before he worked on them.  And he said, “That’s the void”. Everything I paint, and it’s a bit wanky, but everything I paint is something! place between myself and the void – you know what Germans are like. But it’s like the horror of being in a studio with a blank canvas; I used to run out of ideas because there were so many possibilities, and I would just think, “Well, what the fuck am I going to do now?” (laughs) So then, with a spin machine, you just get something moving between yourself and Beckmanns’ void. And you don’t have to deal with that shit; you just constantly get beautiful paintings.

JH  Well, yes.

DH  I’ve done that with spot paintings as well. It’s like ways of creating machine-made paintings to try to avoid that thing of being an artist in some way – the responsibility maybe.

JH  Yes, well it’s a terrifying thing; it doesn’t matter how much money anybody has, like Bob Motherwell, or anybody else. 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. And it’s not easy. (laughs)

DH  Especially if you’ve made a great painting the day before, and then the next one is just total shit.

JH  Well, that’s what happens; you say, “Why can’t I do it again?”

I once went up to see Robert Motherwell; I used to spend weekends there quite often.  And he came out of his study, and he was fuming with rage. I said, “What’s up?” He said, “These fucking people, critics…” and on and on. “All they want to do is talk about my work from the 50s”. This was in the 70s and he was still doing good work. And I get this from people about the bloody 60s all the time.

DH  I love that; people say to me, “I love your early work, have you got any left?” (laughs)

JH  Yes – you know – “Oh, have you got any 60s paintings?” I just say no. Of course I do have some, but I won’t admit it. Some of them are not in great nick; some of them are all right; some of them are perfect – you know how it is.

DH  So, you have kept a bit back?

JH  (laughs) I’ve got a bloody Aladdin’s cave down there in bloody Wiltshire.

DH  I like what Clyfford Still said. Did you hear about his fucking deal? I mean, Clyfford Still’s works are not cheap and you hardly see any around; he had fucking hundreds of them, or his wife had. He wrote in his will that when he died, all his paintings could go any major American city for free – as long as they built a museum to house them all. But it had to be a Clyfford Still museum, with no other fucking artist in there (laughs); nice work if you can get it. 

JH  That happens in France of course; the only person who has a whole museum here is Henry Moore because he had a lot of money. But nobody else has one.  Graham Sutherland doesn’t have one – you know what I mean?

DH  Most artists live in the now. 

JH  I remember Barnett Newman. I was there and he said that somebody rang him up and said “Oh, you know, I’m Mr Schiltz, or something. From Chicago”.  “I’ve come to New York to buy a Barnett Newman”. And Barnett said, “How long are you here for?” and he said, “I’m here for a week”. Newman replied, “That’s not long enough to buy a Barnett Newman”. He wanted the paintings to go to important positions – you know, places where they could work for him.

DH  When you grew up in Sheffield, what kind of background did you have?

JH   Working class. I’m half my dad and half my mother. My mother is kind to the point where it’s ridiculous; its’ almost a sickness - she can’t accept, she can only give. My dad was like my reckless side; gambling, drinking, laying about, totally unreliable - you know (laughs), a northern bloke. So I’m a bit of a mixture between my mum and my dad.

DH  And did you ever have anything to do with David Hockney, because he was from up there?

JH  No.  Do you know, I don’t really know Hockney. I mean, someone like Rowland Hilden – do you remember who Rowland Hildren was? He used to paint landscapes, snowscapes and things. And Hockney’s painting is like Hilden’s … And when he tried to take on Modernism: it has to be digested, and then kind of regurgitated. But Hockney took sampling – I hate sampling in music, and I hate it in painting. When people just kind of take a nice riff from something … 

DH  That’s a collage isn’t it.

JH … and stick it on, yes. And when he was doing Picasso's blue period and Picasso’s guitar player, I just thought they were completely mank paintings (laughs); you know, they had no force or reality or passion or anything to them.  He did these nice paintings or boys in the swimming pools, though, that had a slightly Ed Ruscha-ish take on Los Angeles.

DH   Do you like Ruscha?

JH  He’s all right; he doesn’t thrill me. I like the man.

DH  Who thrills you?

JH  I want paintings that terrify me, so I think, “Aren’t they fucking good; this is fucking unbelievable”. 

DH  Yes, who do you like – Soutine? Do you like Chaim Soutine?

JH   Soutine, yes – absolutely. 

DH  And Goya?

JH  Oh, yes. Of course, always. But I’ve always been rather cruel on Auerbach and Kossoff. 

DH  I know you don’t like them, but what about Freud?

JH  It’s rubbish I think. But I met him at a party once, I said to him, “You know the difference between you and me?” He said he’d seen a painting of mine that he liked, and I said, “The difference between you and me is that I can paint like you, but you but you can’t paint like me”. (laughs). And he said, “I know”. He’s a very nice guy, actually – a very amusing, very sharp guy.

DH  Do you never feel like sitting down and doing a self-portrait, like in the early days?

JH  I did some etchings of my mum and dad just before my dad died, which was 20 years ago. 

DH  Really – what with proper likenesses and all that? (laughs)

JH  Dry point, yes. My mother didn’t like them. She said, “You can’t put all my lines in”.

But Frank Auerbach, you see, is a very earnest artist, a very serious artist. But, you know, you can take yourself too seriously; I think that when you look at an Auerbach, it looks like the old non-dimensional-drawing, four-figured composition - perspectival, but with thick paint. Now, you see, de Kooning was brave. 

I always thought that Frank should have gone away from David Bomberg, who is never going to be a great artist. He is a good artist and a very worthwhile artist, but he’s never going to be great; however often they keep resurrecting him, he isn’t going to be a great artist. He didn’t have a great idea – he was born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

DH  A bit like Sutherland, who is great when he does great work, but Bacon fucked him up didn’t he? He took all his ideas and formulated them … used them himself.

JH  I think they should have jumped on to Soutine, Frank and Lucian.

DH   It’s about bravery isn’t it? Being brave and bold. 

JH  Well, this is what I’m saying. Then they should have jumped on to de Kooning.

DH  De Kooning was constantly fucking brave.

JH  But de Kooning was prepared to lose the image to win it back through another route. 

DH  That’s a great way of saying it.

JH  And they can’t let go; do you see what I’m saying?

DH  Looking back at de Kooning, I can’t believe that he did those fucking black paintings. He made like – what – ten black paintings in the very beginning?

JH  Oh, beautiful.

DH  And then stopped. I mean amazing… and doing figurative painting when nobody was doing it.

JH  Oh, I was telling you a story and I forgot, or did I remember, did I say that?  Oh, I did - no, I finished it: I said I wanted to be able to paint anything.

DH  You mean like from life?

JH  From memory, from life, from dream, from anywhere. I don’t want to be confined to a style.

DH  Yes, but you’re definitely painting John Hoylands, whatever you fucking do. (laughs) Try to not paint a John Hoyland; you can’t fucking do that! (laughs)

JH  I don’t know.

DH  It’s funny, you know; I did a drawing of a friend of mine. And when I did it, he said, “You made me look fucking old”. And then, about ten years later, he saw it in my house and he said, “I look quite good in that painting, don’t I?” (laughs) And that’s what happens, isn’t it - as you get older, you overtake the painting. Dorian Gray.

JH  Well, Picasso did about 98 sittings on Gertrude Stein. And she said at the end of the them, “It’s a fabulous painting, actually, but it doesn’t look like me”.  He said, “It will”. (laughs) And it did.

DH  That’s brilliant, I love that. (laughs) Just wait, yes.

JH  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 know, I just started that way. I did the spot paintings because I always used to solve formal problems with colour. My abstract paintings, when I used to do them at school like fucking everyone – the tutor said to me that they would may great curtains. Because 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 because then I just chose a rigid formal structure, which is like the grid. And then I could do that colour stuff – let’s put a blue here and a green here, you know. Browns and purples if you’re feeling down or whatever – all that.  It was meaningless in the end, but it always looked good. I also did that, so then I started painting again, and I mean, I’ve finished the blue paintings now. I was just wanting to do – like – black and white, so I just did the blue and white. I always loved those early Bacon paintings that use Prussian blue. Blues and whites…so I just started with that. I’m bringing colour in now, but I’m just bringing it in slowly.

JH   Do you paint more viscerally?

DH  Yes. I like that. I was looking at a fucking Rembrandt painting the other day, and it’s almost three dimensional – there’s a sculptural element to painting.

JH  Oh, absolutely.

DH  And I have one rule: whatever I’m painting, I always imagine that if I die in the middle of it or something, it’s got to look good. It’s not something I’m embarrassed about. You now 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”. A “don’t-look-at-it-yet” kind of thing. I thought, “I’m just not into that; this painting's got to look great at every stage somehow”.

So then, with that, you’ve got to have a certain amount of belief and freedom, and you’ve got to be able to throw the paint around without fear.

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

DH  Yes, you’ve got to touch it, and bring it back and… I don’t know. But I’m enjoying doing it. I’m using oil paint, and I love the drying time of paint. Because it’s all about the layers and, in fact, your tracks in fucking paint isn’t it?

But I know that it’s taking a week to dry, so whenever I go for it with the white, I’ve got a problem – a wait problem. (laughs) Does my bum look big in this?

JH … let your paint dry.

DH  I like it, but I do have to work on, like 25 paintings at a time.

JH  Yes.  You see, if I were doing painting in oil, I’d need a bloody aircraft hangar.

DH  I’ve just absolutely crammed them in; I’m working in a really small space and I like it. 

JH  Yes, yes, yes; well, I don’t need a big space to work in or live in, for that matter. But I would need space if I were working on a lot of pictures.

DH  Something happened to me when I started; I’ve only been painting like this for about three years now. And I thought I’d been that line with curating fucking sculpture and everything. I thought, “Right now, I’m in a position where I can do this”. And I tried, and I was back were I was when I fucking left it when I was 16 or something. I couldn’t do it: it felt like I hadn't learnt anything.

And my painting was shit and I had to go through a really horrible period of about two years where I just couldn’t get what I wanted, and then it came to me. But now, as I say, I imagine things, and I can paint them the way I imagine them. So it’s almost like I get an idea first and then I can actually get that idea on a canvas.  Whereas I never used to; I’d get distracted, and it would end up nothing like what I imagined. But now I sort of see something quite formal, and then I can do it.

JH  Yes, well Patrick Caulfield used to get very upset about ideas, you know.  He’d ring me up; he had this posh voice – it was all acquired, it amused him.

DH  Yes, you two were a funny mix.

JH  I know, we were such opposites. Anyway one day, he rang me up, and said, “I’m absolutely desperate”. He talked like Prince Charles. (laughs) “I don’t have an idea.” So I said, “Don’t worry about it, you’ll get one”. He said, “No, I’m finished – I don’t think I can do any painting ever. I’m completely finished”. I said, “Oh go on; we all have these black spots – writer’s cramp or whatever you call it.” And about two weeks later he rang me up to say, “I just thought I’d let you know I’ve got an idea”. (laughs) I said, “Good, great, I knew you would; what is it?” He said, “I’m going to repeat myself”.

DH  (laughs) I’ve always done that.

JH  Well, of course – you can’t help it.  In painting, you have to confront your own history and all your naked ambition; there’s no escape. You have to confront the whole history of art. Picasso said when he saw the paintings at Lascaux Caves, “There is nothing more to be done”.  (laughs). Did you know he said that?

DH  No, it’s fucking great though; I love it. But all great paintings make you feel like that, don’t they? And you can’t believe there are so many but, you know, you forget everything in front of a great painting.

JH  Looking back on your creations – the animals in formaldehyde now, for me, seem to have a kind of melancholic poignancy, but they still shock me. 

DH  Funny that, isn’t it? I always use the boxes with the animals. I always felt that Minimalism was a bit of a dead end. And it needed to be about something, so I put dead animals in the boxes.

JH  Well, Minimalism was another dead end.

DH  But kind of seductive. I always tried to make fucking dead animals in Sol Le Within sculptures. I mean, I don’t like conceptual art in the end, but I think it’s something you have to go through. 

JH  Yes, for your generation.

DH  And I’m thinking as well, you know – it’s all to do with fucking TV, advertising, Hollywood, all that stuff. But I think Minimalism was a fucking really interesting idea, but again, like you say, another dead end. 

JH  Well, when I came back from New York in ’73, they’d announced the death of painting.

DH  Yes, fuck that!

JH  So I could not sell a picture for five or six years or something. (laughs) And it was all over the place, you know, and it was all political and, um, Richard Cork.  You know, he’ll write about Hockney’s fucking daffodils lyrically now, but then they were talking about the Gang of Four – they thought that artists shouldn’t do one painting and sell it for £100; they should do a hundred paintings and sell them for £1 each.They were all Maoists.

And where are they now? They’re fucking sleeping in Hampstead, putting their feet up! 


'A Conversation' originally published in Damien Hirst 'No Love Lost' (Other Criteria/Wallace Collection, 2009). Copyright © Damien Hirst/John Hoyland, 2009.

John Hoyland — A Biography

John Hoyland (1934-2011) is considered by many to be the greatest abstract painter of his generation. He was born in Sheffield and studied at the Royal Academy Schools, London. In 1960 he was one of the sensations of the pioneering Situation show at the RBA Galleries, London, the first to exhibit large abstract paintings by British artists; and in 1967 he was the youngest artist to be honoured with a retrospective at the internationally-renowned Whitechapel Art Gallery. From the late 1960s through the 1970s he consolidated his international reputation, spending long periods in New York. A major mid-career retrospective opened at the Serpentine Gallery in 1979/80. He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1991, where he also held the honorary position of Professor of Painting. His final years were marked with retrospectives at the Royal Academy, 1999; the Graves Art Gallery in his hometown of Sheffield, 2001 and Tate St Ives, 2006. In 2010 50 of his works formed the centrepiece of Love and Art at the Yale Centre for British Art as part of the Lurie Gift to the Centre.