From Pollock to Rothko, the mega stars of American Abstract Expression are longstanding household names. The story of British art, on the other hand, and its own relationship with abstraction in the decades immediately following the war has only recently been told, though it is a tale no less densely populated with interesting characters, skill, and innovation.
Indeed ‘innovation’ is perhaps the crucial descriptive word when analysing this period. Though their American counterparts were a natural and perhaps unavoidable influence, Britain produced many great artists working in new and distinct visual languages, two of the most critically regarded we are pleased to feature in this sale: Sir Terry Frost and John Hoyland.
Frost, the older of the two artists, is categorised as a member of the St Ives School, a major group of British artists who made their name in the late 1950s and early 1960s, responsible for creating a unique variety of home-grown abstraction. His paintings evolved to exude colour and light and to communicate the sheer pleasure of existence; what he himself described as "a state of delight in front of nature". It was hardly surprising that this should have been so. Frost was simply happy to be alive. Taken prisoner on Crete during World War he discovered his ability to paint while in a German POW camp, encouraged by fellow prisoner, the painter Adrian Heath. After the war he enrolled at Camberwell but, uninspired by the hard-line regime of William Coldstream, dropped out on the suggestion of Victor Pasmore and moved to St Ives in Cornwall where a colony of artists was forming around Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, for whom he worked for a short time as an assistant.
Although he began as a figurative painter, Frost gradually moved towards abstraction, inspired in particular by the Tate’s seminal 1956 exhibition of post war American Abstract Expressionism.
During the 1950s, alongside Patrick Heron, Bryan Wynter and Roger Hilton, Frost established himself in Cornwall, displaying the influence of such artists as Robert Motherwell with his use of truncated geometric abstract forms. He also began to develop a language of symbols: using chevrons, crescents, lozenges, triangles and in particular spirals, to great effect. By the early 1970s Frost had created his signature style, experimenting with complimentary colours, and powerful abstract forms. Frost built a highly personal and unmistakeable style of abstraction which was at once hugely exuberant and celebratory. The painting on offer here, Sun Ride, created between 1986 and 1990 is a classic example of his mature work, and the culmination of a lifetime’s understanding of the visual and psychological impact of pure abstraction.
John Hoyland is another of Britain’s leading abstract painters, and was dedicated to a non-figurative approach over a career spanning six decades. American Abstract Expression was a key influence in the 1950s and 60s, and by the close of his art-school training in 1960 he was converted enough to hang an entire show of abstract paintings. They were removed by order of the President of the Royal Academy, and he had to be awarded his diploma on the basis of his previous, figurative work instead. But Hoyland had found his approach, feeling that non-figurative imagery had ‘the potential for the most advanced depth of feeling and meaning.’
Hoyland had his first museum exhibition at the Whitechapel in 1967, and the Serpentine staged a key retrospective in 1979-80. He was elected a Royal Academician in 1991, and following his death, Damien Hirst opened his Newport Gallery with an exhibition of his work, citing him as a key influence and artistic hero.
Unlike Frost, Hoyland’s work was not inspired by the natural world as such, rather by an eclectic interest in everything from the mundane to the esoteric, and a sensory approach to colour:
“Paintings are there to be experienced, they are events. They are also to be meditated on and to be enjoyed by the senses; to be felt through the eye.”
Despite a long-standing commitment to non-figurative painting, Hoyland’s approach did develop and change over the course of his career, moving away from the ‘hard-edge’ that typified British abstract art of the early 1960s, towards a more spontaneous, free-form approach. In the offered work, 49 Springs, he has focused on a composition of simple shapes; circles within circles and a straightforward triangle, but there is a vitality to the application and almost a tension to the composition. The shapes are only just fitting together in harmony, and he has begun to paint with more richness and freedom. Colour is always a powerful force in his work, and his paintings maintain a powerful energy, the intensity only increased by their large-scale.
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