John Golding 1929-2012


Mayor Rowan Gallery

Contemporary Art Society 

Private Collection UK


1989, Hong Kong, Hongkong Land, Colour and Light: Bridget Riley and John Golding.
2017, London, The Arts Club and Piano Nobile, John Golding: Pure Colour Sensation with introduction by D. Anfam, cat. no. 25, col. ill. pp. 52-55.


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 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.

Painted in 1989, J. 10 (Phoebus) is John Golding at the peak of his large-scale expressionistic prowess. Golding’s first foray into abstract art began in the mid-1960s as a development from his figurative paintings of human torsos, which dominated his earliest painting of the 1950s and early 1960s. Hard-edged geometric paintings, a unique amalgamation of cutout Cubist technique with Abstract Expressionist scale were the result of this first phase of experimentation. These works from the 1960s were the subject of Piano Nobile’s 2015 exhibition, John Golding: Finding the Absolute at Piano Nobile Kings Place. Geometrical abstraction of the 1960s developed in the next decade into horizontally oriented canvases with loosely painted, irregular vertical bands of colour. These relatively controlled patterned paintings of the 1970s then in turn evolved in the early 1980s onwards into boldly gestural, expressionistic, colourful, large-scale abstract paintings like J.10 (Phoebus).

J.10 (Phoebus) is part of a group of works numbered after the letter ‘J’ from 1988 to 1991. Continuing Golding’s frequent custom of naming works after Biblical and mythological figures, J.10 (Phoebus) is named after Phoebus Apollo, the Roman name for the Greek god Apollo, god of music, prophesy, poetry, dance and of light, with ‘phoebus’ meaning radiant or beaming. As with the rest of the ‘J’ paintings, J.10 (Phoebus) is painted with an extraordinary dynamic explosion of vibrant hues, and the dominant shades of yellow, orange and red offset with a cooler blue powerfully evoke the mythological qualities of Apollo. Imbued with movement, loose white streaks stretch across the canvas in a multitude of directions, passing over and under the broad areas of bright paint. Layers of paint create depth within the work, aerating the canvas. The large scale of the canvas and swathes of striking colour belie the detail occasioned by interpenetrating strata. Speaking to Adrian Stokes in 1989 on the occasion of his solo exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Conneticut, Golding describes how:

“The incident in my own paint effects comes from the fact that I work the pictures over after very long periods, and the traces of earlier marks and conjunctions build up and coagulate into little pockets of interest that aren’t immediately apparent when seen from a distance…”

Light, colour, space, gesture and kinetic responsiveness have a symbiotic relationship – the colours of J.10 (Phoebus) suggest the light of the sun, but also its fiery heat and thus perhaps a perilous proximity. Continuing his conversation with Adrian Stokes, Golding explained this interdependence:

“Originally, after I have moved into abstraction, I divided the canvas into two or three simple geometric shapes which had for me the quality of presences. The flares or bands articulated the edges of the shapes; they helped to separate the shapes while the geometry of the compositions held the paintings together…By multiplying the bands, I think I was instinctively trying to pleat more light into the paintings. And of course when light shifts it makes one more aware of spare too, so that as there was more light in the paintings and more variety of light, I think the paintings got more spatial… in order to get more light into the paintings, I began folding it in more different directions or axes.”

In keeping with its titular association with Apollo, god of things pleasurable and celebratory, J.10 (Phoebus) is a painting redolent with joyfulness and vitality. In the 1989 interview, Golding expounded his quest to overcome distance between a painting and the viewer:

“I myself am obsessed by the properties of pure pigment, which is why I work so much in pastel. There is no binding medium, or virtually none, so that there is nothing getting between you and the pure colour sensation, and the moment you rub it on to a white support, colour seems to be lit up not only from behind but from within – the colour is very much there, but it is also in a sense insubstantial because there is hardly any matter to it. In my own work, I see colour and light as totally interdependent…colours initiate dialogues which produce light sensations which in turn echo or induce psychological experience. To this extent the paintings are about states of mind…”

The gestural handling of the paint, the warmth and vividness of the colours, and the sheer scale of the painting convey through material qualities alone the pure feeling of passion, energy and joie de vivre. The canvas does not seem to contain or restrict these feelings, as the paint appears to continue beyond the confines of the edges, but is a window into this colourful explosion of euphoria.