Each installment features a writer, artist, or curator discussing an underrated artist, artwork, movement, or museum.
Roger Hilton's "Oi Yoi Yoi" © estate of Roger Hilton. All rights reserved, DACS 2017. Photo credit: Tate
Today we're with artist Giovanni Garcia-Fenech in discussion of Roger Hilton, an artist who, you said, "is perhaps well-known in the UK but whose work doesn't get the attention he richly deserves in the US." In this series we've often come across artists who are lost in intercontinental translation, but usually they come from lands far more exotic to the US than the UK. Hilton pioneered abstraction in post-WWII Great Britain, and it's a shame he isn't as well-known on this side of the Atlantic. When did you first come upon his work?
I don't remember when I first saw Hilton's work, but I do remember which painting first made an impression on me: it was "Oi Yoi Yoi" (1963). It was not his abstractions but his representational paintings that caught my eye.
What about Hilton's work personally attracts you? What makes him so original?
What struck me about "Oi Yoi Yoi" and the very loose figurative art Hilton started making around that time was that it so gracefully incorporated three very separate strands: the gestural improvisation of Abstract Expressionism, the French tradition of belle peinteure, and the graphic simplicity of Pop Art. I can't think of any Americans who could pull that off. The Ab-Ex artists were too serious, and for the most part trying to distance themselves from Europe, while the Pop artists were too ironic and totally focused on mass culture.
Roger Hilton's "Painting" © estate of Roger Hilton. All rights reserved, DACS 2017. Photo credit: Government Art Collection
How was Hilton a product of his time—both in style and themes?
To be honest, I have only a tenuous grasp of British art of that era, but to someone who went to art school in America, Hilton's abstractions, along with those of artists like Patrick Heron and Peter Lanyon, seem a bit restrained in comparison to the bombast of New York art. But then Hilton brings back the figure, and boom!
Yes, De Kooning and Grace Hartigan, and even Pollock before he died, painted Ab-Ex figures, but they're very heavy in comparison to Hilton's. And I adore Philip Guston, but his representational works were very serious and existential, in a sense closer to Francis Bacon, despite the cartoony style. You really don't get such a sense of sheer delight in beauty in America until Jean-Michel Basquiat. In fact, I'm surprised that no one has organized a show combining Basquiat with Hilton's late drawings, the ones he did when he was bedridden and near the end of his life. They have a surprising amount in common. Not to mention that both artists died due to their addictions, though that's another topic entirely.
Roger Hilton's "Red Sea" © estate of Roger Hilton. All rights reserved, DACS 2017. Photo credit: The Pier Arts Centre
Why do you think he hasn't made as quite an indelible mark in the US?
Hilton's career coincided with a period in which America was positioning itself as the new center of the art world, and there was little interest and a lot of resistance to European art. It's funny to read some of the criticism from that period—New York critics would judge European painters by criteria that only took New York concerns into account, and therefore saw Europeans as falling short. Of course there were exceptions, but it really wasn't until the 1980s that Americans started taking new painting from other countries more seriously. Hilton died a few years before that happened, so he missed out. Too bad, because his late work would've enriched the language of Neo-Expressionism. And too bad also because in the past few years there's been a big resurgence of figurative painting among younger artists, one that incorporates an appreciation of European modernism, and Hilton would fit right in.