Roger Hilton: swinging out into the void

Roger Hilton’s reputation as the ‘wild man’ of British art has obscured his importance as an experimental painter, and the new show at Kettle’s Yard of his best work (1953 – 1964) should go some way towards reminding us of the restless vitality and technical virtuosity of a man who, as Patrick Heron once said, ‘begins and ends with paint’.

Hilton July 1960

July 1960, executed with the punch of a boxer’s glove against a swinging ball, or of excrement contaminating white skin, maybe minimal in its execution, but its mood is, as Hilton said himself, ‘fleshly, lecherous and lurid’. It is reminiscent of the ‘anti-art’ surfaces, the scribbly elegance and smeared matter, of Cy Twombly’s 1961 Ferragosto canvases. 

Twombly Ferragosto 1 1961

Twombly is currently being honoured with a retrospective at Tate Modern and it is interesting to speculate whether, had Hilton lived longer, he might have been similarly celebrated in old age. As it was, he died in 1975, trapped to a degree by what he feared, the bracketing of his work within the St.Ives school, confined to a movement that over time appeared insulated and marginalised from wider international currents.

Hilton’s radical individualism has always made him harder for painters to emulate than to admire.  This makes it difficult to trace his stylistic imprint on the current scene; perhaps all one can do is selectively identify his presence in the practice of certain contemporary painters.  The tensile structure and emotive colour that recalls De Stael and Motherwell, his two contemporaries in Europe and America, finds certain echoes in the work of Sean Scully; while the intensive use of charcoal in his later work, as well as the awkward placing of muscular forms on an open canvas ground, is visually reminiscent of Tony Bevan’s practice.
Aside from the masculine heritage implicit in such formal affinities, there is what could be characterised as Hilton’s self-confessional mode, one that might well have, if he had lived longer, drawn the attention of the YBA generation.  The sexual frankness which disturbed his own time is, thirty years on, fully alive in the work of Sarah Lucas and Tracy Emin, the latter’s scratchily urgent and scatological drawings in particular recalling Hilton’s own graphic impulses; likewise his refulgent colours and carnal gestures, which appear to be in tune with the work of some younger British painters, perhaps most noticeably in that of Cecily Brown.

Cecily Brown 2000

More generally however, Hilton’s expressive and self revelatory approach seems at odds with the prevailing desire of artists and curators for a kind of painting that is more knowing and distanced, more conceptually austere (or ‘tidy’ in Hilton’s phrase). 

European painting today is much more inclined to treat the medium as a vehicle for irony or as a useful tool for referencing the abstract vernacular; the ‘cryptic abstract fragments of Raoul de Keyser’ cited by Merlin James in connection with Hilton, seem more obviously aligned to this tendency, as do the elegant but bloodless exercises of Tomma Abts, the Tate’s Turner Prize winner in 2006.  Had he witnessed it, Hilton would have hated what he perceived (even then) as the curse of theory-burdened commentary, the industry of the ‘Courtauld ninny’ over the passion of ‘a Dostoevsky. Or a Hilton.’