Roger Hilton: Swinging Out Into The Void, Kettle's Yard, Cambridge

Praise at last for an abstract hero
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The Independent Culture

"Who is this Roger Hilton?" asked NY Arts magazine in 1953. Today you could be forgiven for asking the same question. If Roger Hilton (1911-1975) had been born on the other side of the Atlantic and been active there during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, he would enjoy the same renown as Pollock, De Kooning, Rothko and co. But in post-war Britain, when US artists were influencing most of his peers, the non-conformist Hilton looked no further than the European tradition.

This he was able to convert into what he termed "a new sort of figuration; one which is more true". Lesser known than other members of the St Ives clan, including Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Patrick Heron, Hilton is the unsung hero of the abstract art to emerge from Cornwall in the 1950s and 1960s.

After a disappointing retrospective at the Hayward in 1993, Kettle's Yard redresses the balance with a potent display of more than 40 oils and a dozen drawings produced at the zenith of Hilton's career – from his first contact with Mondrian in 1953 to his move to Cornwall in 1965.

Hilton's discovery of the Dutchman's grid-based abstractions led to his realisation that pictorial space was the stuff in front of the canvas, not behind it. So, in his quest for "pictures which turn their faces outwards", he referred to himself as "a man swinging out into the void: his only props his colours, his shapes and their space-creating powers".

But Hilton's (apparent) imprecision, the asymmetrical, dog-eared shapes and the absence of die-straight lines make you wonder if the influence of Mondrian hasn't been over-egged. In a letter penned in 1972, Hilton confessed: "I always found him [Mondrian] exceedingly boring."

Hilton's creations are anything but boring; the likes of April 1955 and October 1956 bristle with vitality. The paint is rich, raw and textured, thickly smothered like icing on a cake or scrawled in a way that recalls Cy Twombly. There are no concessions to neat finishes or the concealment of process as painting and drawing merge and charcoal acquires the same value as oil paint. It was as though the inhumanity of the Second World War had rendered the pursuit of order obsolete. Only by making a mess, making a mark, could one try to make sense of the world's complexity.

In this context, Hilton ran the gamut of human emotions: the almost angry urgency of April 1955 gives way to the sensuality of Grey Figure, Shell.

While many of the St Ives group were influenced by landscape, it was the human figure, particularly the female nude, that was never far from Hilton's painting. Poised between the abstract and figurative, he neither falls foul of saying too little nor explaining too much. While most references to the human figure are traces, the most overt nod to the female nude occurs in Hilton's best-known work: the Tate's Oi Yoi Yoi. Its exuberant, leaping lady is repeated in Dancing Woman, in which Hilton substituted the original red-brown background for blue and yellow. Minus the large left breast, Hilton's dancing ladies bear an uncanny resemblance to the Beijing Olympic logo, supposedly based on the ideogram for "peace". It seems that the irascible Hilton, however, derived his inspiration from a less pacific source: "My wife was dancing on a veranda, we were having a quarrel. She was nude and angry and she was dancing up and down shouting 'oi yoi yoi'."

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