Abstract Critical

Thoughts on John Golding: Working Space

Written by C Morey de Morand

A II 1971, acrylic on canvas, 213 x 305 cm. Image courtesy Annely Juda Fine Art, London.

John Golding:Working Space at Annely Juda shows a group of paintings first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford in 1971. Golding was born in 1929 and died earlier this year. The exhibition runs until 4th October.

Coming into the Annely Juda gallery to be surrounded by the monumental, wall sized paintings, with their huge empty spaces, I stopped. What was it I asked myself, that I felt? It was something I knew. It took some time then I recognised it. It was a charged hush, as if I had entered a national library, quiet, but full of hidden, immense knowledge. Shh it said to me. The paintings may look neutral, the space enclosed may look empty, but like the books in the library, or the desks of a university examination room, or indeed the pews of a cathedral, the space was charged, electrified by thoughts, brains and feelings working at top speed.

The works are not demanding our attention they simply have it, but quieting us, surrounding us as an installation like a draught of clean fresh water. Peaceful, restful, respectful, a balm to our senses; impressive substance for sure; American quotation most evident in their giant scale, giving space to wander, to wonder, the works gradually revealing themselves.

They are not at all shouty. No adolescent pulling down of pants, no shit shock screaming horror tantrum to grab attention. Shh, please be quiet we are thinking.

No, of course not, please go first, I have all eternity to encompass. Very clever. Truly distinguished, under the radar, rather than rock and roll celebrity. Golding’s paintings are like his persona, engendering respect, with calmness and lucidity, always courteous, decent but charged with untold knowledge.

B VI 1971, acrylic on canvas, 213 x 457 cm. Courtesy of Annely Juda Fine Art, London.

This exceptionally well connected, top Establishment, perfectly mannered, pleasant, privileged, gently humorous academic, art historian whiz, turns out to be an iceberg: seven-tenths invisible. Half Mexican, Golding was raised in Mexico before World War II, meeting the muralists Orozco, and Diego Rivera, as well as Surrealists living there such as Leonora Carrington. Golding then moved to Canada, studying at the University of Toronto, thus was often able to visit the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  After graduating he worked as a set designer before moving to London in 1951 for graduate study in art history at the Courtauld Institute, under Anthony Blunt and Douglas Cooper. While still a student at the Courtauld, on research visits to MoMA, Golding met and interviewed Marcel Duchamp, and decided to be a painter as well.

They work as a whole, these paintings at the Juda, an installation of monumental tranquility, stillness, serenity. His theatrical background in Toronto was perhaps the origin of his sense of the exhibition as an emotionally engaging, orchestrated event. He had agreed to the exhibition before his death in April, and perhaps spent many hours pushing photographs around on his kitchen table in west London to determine the most telling arrangement of how the ensemble should be presented. The setting and juxtapositions are key parts of the work.

John Golding, B VI 1971, acrylic on canvas, 213 x 457 cm

In his book, Paths to the Absolute (2000), Golding effectively wrote his credo: that abstract art was not simply decorative but, as he put it in the preface, was “heavily imbued with meaning… with content.” He was committed to pushing painting forward in the exploration of colour and light.  He used his colour – “colour at the side of your retina, colour present when you close your eyes” – in these mammoth works.

As one looks one realises that a bit of the lower rectangle has been covered by the larger one on top, but is still there, leaving its presence felt. One can almost see it. I say almost because at first one thinks it is a pale after image caused by so much smooth colour. But no it isn’t your eyes, there is an underneath lurking still. There is a ‘there there’ as Gertrude Stein might have said.  One can then discern this effect in all the works.

Wondering about comparable art installations, Rothko’s darkened room at Tate M comes to mind.  Yes, they act as an installation together and bring a great quietness. But no, there is such angst revealed there. It sits in gloom, whereas Golding’s art is clean, bright, modern; shooing away dark corners as it shushes. What a relief. Let there be light not angst.

In this exhibition there is also a small room of paper collaged works.  They are extremely fine and attractive, but for me, they lack the especial excitement of the scale of the large paintings.

Again in his ‘Paths to the Absolute’, Golding wrote: “Mondrian wrote extensively, about art, as also – at even greater length – did Malevich and Kandinsky.  At the same time each painter insisted that in practice he proceeded purely intuitively and was not primarily a theoretician.”  To this list we add Golding.

C. Moray de Morand is a painter living in London

  1. David Wiseman said…

    Really pleased to see this article about John Golding whose paintings are much underrated. I was lucky to have John as my tutor at Royal College of Art 1975 and he was a sympathetic and knowlegable teacher.Myself , Micahel Major, Graham Crowley and Richard Miller worked together in a studio largely ignored by the conservative teaching staff at the time and John was very supportive of our experiments. The only problem with his teaching was that he found it difficult to be nasty! His worse criticism for a really bad painting was “its not an uninteresting painting” Missed the show as didnt know it was on so thanks for this. David

  2. Nick Moore said…

    I am moved to make a response to the piece on the late John Golding’s 1971 paintings; I was not able to get up to London to see the show but did receive a copy of the catalogue. I was quite shocked on seeing the images, didn’t recognise them as Goldings – my knowledge of his work was of the late seventies and the eighties, painterly and energetic, such as the ones shown at the New Art Centre in 2003, and the rich one that was included in the Guardian Obituary, (F (BS) 11 from 1977) with its sensuous blends of reds, blues and yellows on the right hand side of a subtly painted yellow area on the left
    Investigating further I found some other images of earlier work from the mid/late sixties, all clearly defined flat areas of paint, dare I say it quite minimal or rather paired down, and vertical in format (eg Phaestos – Green, 1965-7 and Predella, Tow Blues, 1967) and like the ones in the exhibition from 71, seeming very cool and cerebral in contrast to the later ones – a part response to the climate of burgeoning Pop sensibilities for clean lines and less ‘mess’ I assume, and a reaction against the very people he later wrote so clearly about in Paths to the Absolute; Kandinsky, Rothko, Still, Pollock.
    But the interesting thing for me was that Golding became more painterly, with the work becoming visually energetic into the late seventies and eighties, in contrast to a lot of painters who continued in the ‘clean, hard edged, pattern-based’ mode and lost that overt painterliness, like Robyn Denny for example. And I don’t see these later paintings as “all shouty” with “adolescent pulling down of pants, (and) shit shock screaming horror tantrum to grab attention” …. I wonder if it is significant that he had begun to teach at the Royal College in 1971 and if this had an impact on his painting process…..
    The yellow and red ones, like D (CS) VI and D VII (SK) from 1977 had something of the late forties Rothkos in them, and certainly resonated with Goldings statement in ‘Paths to the Absolute’ that “at its best and most profound, abstract painting is heavily imbued with meaning, with content” and I feel that this is most palpable in his later paintings with their felt experience more overt, rather than the earlier ones that leave me rather cold.
    I would like to have experienced the group of paintings in the beautiful space at Annely Juda, as I am sure it would have been a moving experience if only because of their scale. However, I look forward to the time when a body of his work from the late seventies and eighties is shown; that would be something that I think would take my breath away.

  3. Filip Gudovic said…

    Great article, really enjoyed the references and the short history of Golding’s career.
    The work has a strong element of design and craftsmanship. Unlike Rothko, it has a much more calmer sensibility and feeling whilst it suggest much more spatial differences due to the color combinations. The color and plane effect is direct and solid while Rothko suggests depth through shades.
    Looking forward to read more on Golding.

  4. Ian David Baker said…

    Thank you for this article, I shamefully knew little of John Golding, but this made me visit the exhibition and enjoy these powerful works.