John Golding 1929-2012


The Artist's Estate 


1975, London, Rowan Gallery, John Golding.

2016, London, Piano Nobile, Aspects of Abstraction: 1952-2007, 17 May - 23 June 2016, cat. no. 13, col. ill. p. 43. 


J. Lundin Aral (ed.) with contributions by D. Ades, D. Anfam, E. Cowling and C. Green, John Golding (Ridinghouse, 2017), col. ill. pp 84-85.
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.

Raised in Mexico, it was the Mexican muralists, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco in particular, who were the formational 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, his encounter with the New York School of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s, which proved the catalyst for Golding 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 teacher 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.

Golding’s working process, like his contemporary John Hoyland, required several months of protracted evolution to produce a completed painting. He explained to Cowling that this extensive duration was required so that each work, despite superficial similarities, developed its own psychological character. By the 1970s, the hard-edged geometrical abstraction of the mid-to-late 1960s canvases had progressed into horizontally oriented canvases with two or three loosely painted, irregular vertical bands of colour. Golding applied layers of thin, fast-drying acrylic paint onto duck cotton canvases, on mainly a large scale, as with D (E.S.) VII, 1975, but also occasionally on smaller canvases, as with the jewel-like Untitled, 1974. Working in layers and bands, Golding sought to interweave light and space in the paintings of the 1970s. Although abstract, these works were not pursuing flatness but, conversely, establishing depth – formal, emotional, intellectual - through blocks of luminous striated colour.

Despite the monumental size of D (E.S.) VII, the painting demands close and extended scrutiny of the surface. Areas of incidence slowly reveal themselves at the juncture of bands or the emergence of under layers of gentle duck-egg blue and startlingly artificial red. The meeting of the middle band of royal blue with the adjacent broad swathe of canary yellow and strip of egg-yolk orange is an area of extraordinary detail. Originally defined with masking tape, Golding disrupts the transition from band to band, smudging, overlaying, and scrapping back, a tightly controlled complexity. Golding works across the canvas but also into the canvas as material and as illusion. It is internal relations, tonal and spatial, which Golding develops over time and that are subsequently revealed through sustained observation.

The vibrant, rich, shimmering colour of D (E.S.) VII, characteristic of Golding’s D series which were exhibited at the Rowan Gallery and at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge in 1975, produces an aura around the painting. It projects its presence outwards but simultaneously induces the viewer to draw intimately near. Introducing the D series in the catalogue for the Kettle’s Yard exhibition, Marina Vaizey wrote “Here are succulent, sumptuous and stupendously joyful paintings, emotional and evocative. They have the relaxed air of genuine authority, a judicious grandeur which is curiously and touchingly intimate.”