John Golding 1929-2012


The Artist's Estate


2015, Norwich, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Abstraction and the Art of John Golding.
2017, London, The Arts Club and Piano Nobile, John Golding: Pure Colour Sensation with introduction by D. Anfam, cat. no. 5, col. ill. p. 24.


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, 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 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 developed its own psychological character. In the case of the present work this period stretched of such a length of time Golding was unable to date the work precisely – it is the coalescence of a period of time and a collection of sensations bound together with great effort by the artist. 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, the present working being a mid-range canvas from the period, but also occasionally on smaller jewel-like canvases. 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.

As it typical of his large paintings, the present work 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 earthy golden tones from beneath the predominant area of pale peach. Throughout the seventies Golding’s previously hard-edged two or three colour canvases became more complex, and their structural borders more diffuse and liable to permeation. The present work is an example of the artist’s developing style in full flow: now numerous distinct bands appear and break through into one another, as if multiplying in reaction to their neighbouring colours. Originally defined with masking tape, this period sees Golding beginning to work in a looser, freer manner, disrupting the transition from band to band with newfound aplomb, smudging, overlaying, and scrapping back a tightly controlled composition. Golding works across the canvas but also into the canvas as material and as illusion. Colours’ supposedly inherent characteristics (red = hot, blue = cold) are challenged. It is internal relations, tonal and spatial, which Golding develops over time and that are subsequently revealed through sustained observation.

The vibrant, rich, depth of colour in the present work, achieving ever-greater nuance during this transitional phase in Golding’s abstract method, produces an aura around the painting. It projects its presence outwards but simultaneously induces the viewer to draw intimately near. Introducing similar work by Golding when it was exhibited at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, 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.”

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.