John Golding 1929-2012


The Artist's Estate


2017, London, The Arts Club and Piano Nobile, John Golding: Pure Colour Sensation with introduction by D. Anfam, cat. no. 21, col. ill. p. 47.


Growing up in Mexico, it was the Mexican muralists, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and in particular José Clemente Orozco, who were the formative influences upon John Golding. It was not just the sheer scale of the murals, but that the intention of the murals was borne out through painting technique – grit and sand rooting the paint in the very earth of Mexico, agitated brushstrokes and sombre colours reflecting the political, social and personal anguish the artists felt – which left their impression upon Golding. It was, however, Golding’s encounter with the New York School of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s, which proved the catalyst for him to move into pure abstraction and abandon the human figures that had populated his earlier work. Speaking to friend and co-curator of two Picasso exhibitions at the Tate in 1994 and 2002, Elizabeth Cowling, in an interview for Artists’ Lives, Golding recollected that his turn to abstraction was in “recognition of what was happening in America in the 1950s…the most important thing going on in painting [of the day] but it took me a long time to find a way into abstraction”.

A renowned art historian, curator, and tutor at the Courtauld Institute of Art, Golding’s academic specialisation was, from the outset of his career, abstraction. Golding was in a unique situation as an art historian of the earliest European abstraction of Mondrian, Malevich, and Kandinsky, a teacher at the Royal College of Art, an active critic of and co-exhibitor with British contemporaries particularly Anthony Caro and Bridget Riley, and an artistic colleague of American counterparts including Pollock, Rothko, Still and Newman.

Naturally, colour was extremely important to Golding in his pursuit of abstraction and its power to reflect the experience of being in possession of a physical body and able to feel the surrounding world, emotionally and haptically. His well-known term for this particular relationship with colour, and a feature of his art criticism, was the rare attainment of what he called “pure colour sensation”. The increasingly ambitious use of pastel in Golding’s art of the 1970s and 80s reflects his notion of “pure colour sensation”. Pastel became, for Golding, a way of applying pure pigment. Unlike oil or acrylic, pastel did not rely upon processes of mixing or complex application with brushes or rollers. And unlike some of his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, this became a process whereby all trace of the artist, all gestural painterly marks, could disappear to allow colour and colour alone to effect the viewer. Golding may also have been thinking back to the time spent in his youth admiring the Mexican Muralists. Pastel is similar to the process used in prehistoric cave painting where simple pigment would be daubed directly onto the cave wall. The Mexican Muralists were inspired by examples of cave painting found across the Americas and Europe as a pathway to a socially ingrained spirituality, and the influence is carried through into Golding’s pastels. Viewed in low light they appear to glow and flicker as colours shift and structural lines of light coalesce and disintegrate before the eye.

Golding had long been struggling to break away from the hard-edged geometric abstraction he had initially adopted in the mid sixties. By the late eighties, as the present work in pastel demonstrates, he had achieved the looser structure of line and freer association of colour that would characterise his later work. As is typical, from his work in the seventies and eighties, one side of the composition take precedence, in this case the left. Agitated constellations of short lines are built in layers against shimmering sheets of pale pigment – duck egg blue, rose and lemon – that rise into rich vermillion and a base note of brown. As these line creep to the right, this pastel of modest size finds its place within an important period of Golding’s development. He approaches the style of his later work which sees an all-over intermingling of colour and line with seemingly little particular emphasis of either on a specific area of the canvas or sheet. An integrated field of colour and line is ultimately what Golding achieved in his last years painting and what is clear anticipated in in the present work .

A revealing comment in Golding’s criticism when writing on Frank Stella’s painting helps to clarify what he hoped to achieve in pastel and how it provided him with a toolkit to achieve the unexpected and utterly original results of his larger canvas painting: “I believe there is an alternative to the baroque, swinging, muscular space that Stella proposes, a space that works on us more slowly but which can be just as all-enveloping. This is the space created by light – light that binds and separates objects, planes and shapes, that illuminates and spreads, and that can act upon our perceptions and our senses as powerfully if not physically as the visceral space in which Stella delights.” [Golding, Visions of the Modern p.332-3] A light illuminates and spreads, not visceral but all-enveloping; this is the sensation which originates in Golding’s pastels, whether small or large, and is felt powerfully his larger acrylic canvases.

John Golding was born in Kent, England in 1929, but raised in Mexico. He attended the University of Toronto before returning to London to study for a Masters in History of Art and then a PhD at the Courtauld Institute of Art. His resulting thesis, written under Douglas Cooper and Anthony Blunt, formed the basis of his seminal book, Cubism: A History and an Analysis, 1907-1914 (1959). Subsequently Golding became a much-loved teacher and academic at the Courtauld Institute, whilst simultaneously embarking upon a highly successful career as an artist. In 1981 Golding accepted the position of Senior Tutor in the painting department at the Royal College of Art, but he also held the Slade Professorship at Cambridge in 1978. He curated several landmark exhibitions including Léger and Purist Paris (1970) with Christopher Green, Picasso: Painter/Sculptor (1994) at the Tate and Matisse/Picasso (2002), which toured to the Tate, the Grand Palais in Paris and MoMA in New York.

As an artist, Golding had numerous one-man shows in prominent international galleries and museums, with his first solo show in London at Gallery One in 1962, and he also participated in many group exhibitions, including several international shows with his close friend, Op artist Bridget Riley. Golding was appointed a CBE in 1992 and elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1994. His work is held in numerous prominent private and public collections including the Tate, the National Gallery of Scotland and MoMA. In 1997 his critical masterpiece on abstract art, Paths to the Absolute, was published, as a result of the A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts series that he gave at Princeton. Spanning abstraction across continents and decades, this overtly formalistic account of the prominence of abstraction in modern art remains a hugely influential account of artists' search for the 'absolute' through abstraction. He died in April 2012.