I’m watching a short episode of Arena on BBC iPlayer which was first screened in the year I was born. It features the Sheffield-born abstract painter John Hoyland. The film is titled Six Days in September. It was actually filmed in September 1978, exactly a year before I arrived. It follows six days during which Hoyland works on a large abstract painting.
I hate it. It’s a gloopy monstrosity. I hate the way his big cowboy boots clip clop across the studio floor as he paces around. I hate the mess. But I can relate precisely to everything he’s saying. I’m doing a bit of painting myself tonight. “You feel very feeble… very vulnerable” he says of the act of making a painting. It’s terrifying. Pointless. “You’re making something that nobody wants” (unless you’re lucky enough for people to take an interest and decide they do want it, but at the point of making an abstract painting you are gambling).
Up in a gallery at the end of the programme, which is only 30 minutes or so long, the paintings work a lot better. Away from the clutter. I still don’t like them very much. Hoyland speaks well, he’s a typically blunt Yorkshireman. Without knowing anything about him, not paying close attention to what he’s saying, I’d guess he’s far more confident than he actually reveals himself to be in what he says.
He talks of the exact same fears I have of painting. I think my paintings are miles better than his. Yet I have no belief in myself. And spend more time talking myself out of painting at all. Meanwhile John Hoyland, who died aged 76 in 2011, is recognised as one of Britain’s finest abstract artists.