Here in September 1961 it is the ox-blood red-brown, thinly painted to reveal the ground underneath, that harmonises with the deep black lozenge below and gives the composition an essential warmth. Hilton’s abstraction is never intellectual or ethereal; it is always steeped in the world and, in particular, the body. To this end, colour allies with form. The rough, uneven shapes have an inevitable sense of the corporeal about them, a physicality and a weight. The forms within his paintings are always placed with a care that belies their seemingly spontaneous nature, always aware of the painting’s boundary; they press against each other and – importantly – the edges of the canvas. By the late 50s, Hilton’s surfaces, too, have become more complex, full of differing weights of mark-making, from heavy impasto to the lightly scratched. Drawing becomes an essential element to painting, charcoal lines interweaving the blocks of colour, so there is a play on the relative values within the work. This combination, of pure painting with unconscious drawing, is perhaps Hilton’s greatest innovation in these years and all of this can be seen perfectly in September 1961.
The present work was painted in the months following Hilton’s successful exhibition at Galerie Charles Lienhard in Zurich, at the time a very important conduit for British abstract painters in reaching an appreciative European audience. The introduction to the Lienhard catalogue was written by the art historian and curator Alan Bowness, a key supporter of Hilton, Heron, Lanyon and Wynter. With a characteristic generosity, Bowness, having made it clear how highly he rated Hilton’s work, in an international context, kept his essay relatively short, instead giving the floor to the artist’s own statements. Hilton was never a prolific painter, with many hours spent in the studio staring at his canvasses, working out the next move, and this can be seen in his writing, in which his natural wit and humour is constantly shot-through with a deadly seriousness.
Under a heading ‘Art as an Instrument of Truth’, Hilton writes: ‘at heart everyone knows that beneath the everyday appearance of things are hidden truths which intuition alone can grasp. Today, when everything is put in question, man is trying again to orientate himself, to give himself a direction, to re-establish laws based on absolute truths. In crucial moments in the history of man such as we are living through there is no excuse for fooling around. I see art as an instrument of truth or nothing’ (Roger Hilton quoted in Andrew Lambirth, Roger Hilton, Thames & Hudson, 2004, p.160).
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