John Golding: Paintings & Drawings

John Golding is a polymath of the visual arts: art historian, lecturer, exhibition organiser, and brilliant, lucid writer on the fine arts as both critic and historian. His former students are working in museums, galleries, universities, colleges and in art administration; one might almost remark that there is in fact what amounts to a Golding School of young art historians and administrators. Now he is teaching painting at the Royal College, and the history of art at the Courtauld Institute; and perhaps even more importantly he is coming into his own as a painter.

I have seen his own work evolve for over a decade. An accomplished draughtsman, his early prints had a playfully delicate air. Then there came a period when it seemed to some observers, including myself, that his paintings were a trifle too constrained, that he had placed upon himself an inhibition which owed much to his respectful and profound appreciation of some of the fundamental changes in the act and art of painting that we might call, in the shorthand of jargon, modernism. It was an appreciation linked to a careful, almost too careful, intellectual comprehension of the structure of painting, of its formal qualities which have dominated certain manifestations of the 20th century vocabulary of painting.

Several years ago his work underwent a sea change. An exquisite refinement, paradoxically bold and overtly sensual, replaced the constraints that had verged on inhibition which had dominated his earlier work – work which while always interesting, illuminating, and serious, had been in a very real sense too restrained. And yet this earlier work, seen with the benefit of hindsight, has been crucial to the new (1972 on) developments, developments which are proceeding with a rapid and exciting inevitability. Some of the new paintings were seen last winter (February-March 1974) at the Rowan Gallery in London.

The present exhibition consists of a number of paintings none of which have been exhibited in England before, although several have been seen in Australia. Together, these wonderfully optimistic, heartening, and strongly beautiful paintings, and the drawings which also reflect the same preoccupations show, among other things, that it is still possible to expand the vocabulary of “abstract” painting.

They are highly wrought, and the compositions retain the sense of structure that has always informed Golding’s work. But there is a new freedom. The structure acts as a basic construct, a formulation which is, as it were, a base round which and on which visual essays of effervescent exuberance concerned with aspects of luminous light and vibrant colour are woven. Certain of the paintings are concerned formally with great rectangles of colour, their size, although large, still retaining a surprising sense of intimacy because of the intuitive relationship of these blocks of rich, shimmering colour (actually each colour surface which appears ‘solid’ is achieved by acutely subtle layerings of colour underneath each ‘final coat’) to the scale of the human body. The borders and edges of the picture surface and the spaces between each articulated block of colour are activated by sudden shafts of vivid, light bursts of textured paint which link and hold each painting.

The latest paintings are less formal. Here there are panels rather than blocks of colour, and the panels burst their linear confinement to edge and shade one into the other at specific points. Across each panel subtle shadings of the chosen chief colour darken and lighten, as though an unseen source of light were playing, rippling, splashing over the main colour at various diffuse angles. There is a most delicate choreography of texture and colour, occasionally coalescing into a bunched burst of light or hot colour which acts as a lynchpin, unifying the vast expanses of pale yellow, cerulean, or whatever light-filled colour is taken as the chief singer. The colours in the paintings are treated as soloists and choir. Each colour has a voice which joins in polyphonic harmonies: themes, variations and fugues. The results are persuasive rather than dictatorial. 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. Rarely can the idioms of ‘pure’ painting be stretched with such delicate discipline to give such direct, readily accessible enjoyment. For all the artist’s profound understanding of both the past and present traditions of Western painting, John Golding has evolved a language of painting of his own which calls intelligently on that tradition, and then subsumes it into his own highly distinctive and original mode of visual thought. These are paintings structured on a most delicate balance achieved by due consideration and weight given to the inter-related functions of intellect, intuition and emotion.

Marina Vaizey
written in 1975

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