EXHIBITIONS / The years of living dangerously: Roger Hilton went to extremes, both of art and behaviour. A new show at the Hayward charts his progress. Plus, Julian Opie

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The Independent Culture
ROGER HILTON treated art as an adventure, an attitude that helped to make him such a splendid exception among English painters. He set off with little baggage, taking nothing from his intermittent studies at the Slade. Then, in the Thirties, he spent time in Paris. By the time of his maturity Hilton's paintings were more reckless and radical than anything this country had seen before. This was in the early Fifties, when abstraction had few followers and many enemies. His best pictures still appear defiant of convention, though the Hayward Gallery's retrospective puts them in context and shows how they were influenced.

Perhaps I should explain that although Hilton had a son called Tim (born 1939) I am not he. Roger Hilton was the son of a German doctor practising in Middlesex named Hildesheim who changed his name during the First World War. Young Roger showed little academic aptitude and was never going to have a medical career so he was allowed to take up art at the end of the 1920s. In 1931 he was studying in Paris, probably to get away from his parents as well as to leave the Slade behind him. At the Academie Ranson he was impressed by Roger Bissiere, then an obscure artist but who later had an influence on the tachiste painters who came to prominence after the Liberation.

Hilton's beginnings under Bissiere are not fully explained at the Hayward. No doubt many paintings have been lost. I once saw a beautiful early work that reminded me of Braque. Obviously Hilton was likely to feel the overpowering vehemence of Picasso, who is copied in two paintings at the beginning of the exhibition. They are from 1947-49 when Hilton was, apparently, painting only sporadically. The Picasso-based pictures were surrealist and figurative. Then the show jumps forward and we find an artist who is more a master of his own means. In the canvases of 1951-52 there's an abstract scaffolding. This sort of composition wasn't original, but Hilton's brush had found its own personality.

He liked to say that an artist was 'a man swinging out into the void', as though each painting was an exploration of the unknown, but certainly Hilton was given some comradely pushes as his swings were launched. A valuable guide was the Dutch painter Constant, who directed Hilton towards the vehement colour and expressive treatment of the Cobra artists and also made him think hard about Mondrian. This was an unusual conjunction. Cobra painters were wild and romantic, Mondrian was precise and classical. Somehow Hilton clamped them together.

Economy was essential. The whites, red areas and black of Hilton's Fifties paintings may suggest that he was simply following Mondrian's restricted palette; but the real point is that he had sensed from the remote Dutchman that a full pictorial effect could be gained from only a few pictorial elements. Unlike Mondrian, Hilton was not in search of perfection. But one of the most perfect canvases from his hand is that entitled October 1953, in which two black lines of different thicknesses cross the off-white surface from side to side while at the bottom of the picture is a truncated brown oval. That is all, yet one more mark would have ruined the effect.

This picture is not the sort of abstraction in which you realise that the impulse of the painting was initially figurative. Hilton must therefore be set apart from such contemporaries as William Scott. Yet he was not, I think, an abstract artist by instinct. Perhaps his vivid personality led him to human situations that could only be interpreted by a fierce attitude to the figure. Hilton was not a contemplative man and went to extremes, both of art and behaviour. Hence that outrageous picture February 1954, surely the craziest of tributes to Mondrian because it insists that sublimely purist squares can be battered about, then given hands, a head or two, dancing legs and a companion crow.

Hilton was not really a painter of shapes. Only occasionally are they completed, as a circle, or a rectangle, or as the familiar contours of a body. He leaves them open and scuffs their perimeters as though anxious to get on with another part of the picture. So the architecture of his paintings is always informal - chaotic, it was sometimes said. The Hayward show, which reunites many paintings that have not been seen in public for years, poses the problem anew. Was Hilton, swinging into the void, negligent? A little lazy when it came to making a full and unadjustable statement? Or incapable by nature of such a statement?

Certainly he could get into a mess, but he was a creative improviser who could paint himself out of trouble, often with terrific aplomb. This usually happened in his bigger pictures. October 1956 (Brown, Black & White) shows that he was open to all sorts of dangers on a larger scale. But he turned indecision into lofty gesturalism and finally you feel that all his evasions are justified. The painting may not have been satisfactory to its artist, however, for in another picture, also called October 1956, he seems consciously to have attempted a denser, more magisterial work.

The catalogue prints some hitherto unknown correspondence with Terry Frost to whom Hilton wrote at the time of these two paintings: 'It is disconcerting not knowing whether my next show will be of chaste abstracts or violent figuration . . . If abstracts they will be chaste, spiritual, calm. If figurative they will be fulgurant, demonic, tragic, expressionistic, violent, wanton and destructive . . .' Evidently Hilton thought there were two poles of his art and that one side was bound to come uppermost. As we know, the demonic/figurative mode was to prevail. But his 'chaste' paintings (wrong word) make a moving interlude in this show. First there is the Grey Figure, February 1957, produced on a Cornish visit and painted with uncharacteristic reticence, then a sequence of landscape-based pictures, beginning with Blue Newlyn and Once Upon a Time, both of 1959, notable for their relaxed use of thin paint and charcoal drawing. The best of these pictures is July 1960. Again, it seems to indicate that the optimum size for his art was not very large.

Increasingly, Hilton's demonic side became compressed. It was to culminate in the small gouaches of the early Seventies that he produced when confined to his bed. The Hayward exhibition raises the question of decline in Hilton's later art. He had never been one to linger over drinks, so the faltering course of his later career is easily attributed to alcoholism. The catalogue's chronology gives distressing details of his hospitalisation and even imprisonment that have not been made public before, though talked about often enough by painters who knew him. I never knew Hilton, but have never met a painter who did who didn't think that he was wonderful. So why was that?

Because he and his paintings were so completely committed, you can't tell what his beliefs were, and I suspect that he didn't really have any. But every one of his works is filled with belief in its own validity. Even when he was old, palsied, drunk and broken his drawings had the fire of life. Other artists recognised this quality. I also think they feel protective of a man who risked so much, and they see how sadness often underlies his egocentricity. Lots of painters will come to the Hayward, mourning and celebrating one of their own.

I'M SORRY the Hayward catalogue doesn't say that the Hilton show was set in motion by the gallery's previous director, Joanna Drew. The new administration announces its style with a big exhibition of Julian Opie. Opie is a young (born 1958) artist who was at Goldsmiths' College, shows at the Lisson Gallery and is associated with the iconoclastic, knowing sculpture of the 1980s. Good for the Hayward to give a big show to a young sculptor.

But Opie is not ready for a retrospective and he fills the Hayward by repetition. His first works, from 1983, are jokey imitations of Old Master paintings done on steel stretchers and strewn about the floor. Other works similarly mimic books. We gather that Opie has only an ironic respect for culture and learning - an attitude often found in art schools today, but not one that can sustain a life in art. Opie is still rather like a student. He imitates Michael Craig-Martin, Don Judd, Frank Stella, Robert Morris and others without having found a manner of his own. The most interesting part of his exhibition is about the nullity of motorways. He asks you to wonder whether he likes them or not. I don't like them, but when they work they do their job. Opie should say what he conceives an artist's job to be. At the moment he has no positive answer.

Both exhibitions continue at the Hayward Gallery (071-928 3144) until 6 Feb.

(Photographs omitted)

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