signed and dated ‘Joya 57’ (upper left)
oil on canvas
178.5 x 122 cm. (70 1/4 x 48 in.)
Painted in 1957
Acquired directly from the artist
Thence by descent to the present owner
Private Collection, USA

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Annie Lee
Annie Lee

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Lot Essay

José Joya is widely regarded as one of the most accomplished modern artists from the Philippines, recognised for his distinctive abstract compositions that were derived from his very personal engagements with both Eastern and Western painting traditions. Posthumously awarded National Artist of the Philippines, he not only excelled in his art, but was also academically exacting and intellectually rigorous, winning several prestigious art prizes and scholarships during his lifetime. This included a one year grant to study painting in Madrid from the Spanish government’s Instituto de Cultura Hispanica , and later a Fulbright-Smith Mundt Scholarship which allowed him to embark upon his master’s degree at the Cranbrook Academy in Michigan, following after fellow Filipino artist Anita Magsaysay-Ho who had attended the Academy before him. It was during this pivotal moment in his artistic career that Joya painted the present Untitled lot (Lot 26), an extremely rare piece of history and the earliest work offered by Christie’s to come to the market.

Whilst at Cranbrook, Joya was part of a circle of artists who were friends with the original collectors of the work. It was acquired directly from the artist just after it had been painted and has been kept in the family collection ever since. It was one of the few paintings by Joya that were displayed proudly in the office of the family business in Michigan, USA, throughout the years. Left untitled by the artist, the painting’s intimate history enhances our appreciation of this piece as significant of a key moment in Joya’s early development of his practice.

Joya painted mostly figurative works of objects and models prior to his time in Cranbrook. Exposed to the works of Abstract Expressionists luminaries such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, amongst others, the period between 1956 to 1957 saw Joya’s drawing and sketches develop intensely, veering towards abstraction with every decisive stroke. Exercising a new freedom of the hand that was never encouraged under the tutelage of his traditionalistic mentor at the University of Philippines School of Fine Arts, Joya’s new landscapes answered to no linear or fixed place in reality.

Spontaneous and energetic in execution, the present painting draws from the Abstract Expressionists and their desire to tap on the primal impulses to create; unhindered by the reality of nature. Joya’s development in this area was never entirely unexpected, with drawings and sketches that documented a keen desire to internalise the landscapes surrounding him, almost as if to digest the sights before being able to recreate the feeling or sensation of beholding the landscape before him. In his respect, his treatment of the landscape was far more oriental in its roots.

In traditional Chinese painting, there is a strong sense of empathy between the artist and the landscape. Truthful depictions of what is comprehended by sight are eschewed for a revaluation of the cosmic forces and energies of the surrounding environment. It is thus this feeling of a ‘oneness’ with Nature that preoccupied Joya’s thoughts. While the composition could have likely been derived from several sketches, the choreographed motion of the painting affirms the authority of the artist as an interpreter of Nature’s energy, eventually translating that into the language of paint on canvas.

Joya’s landscape is painted in a vertical format, mimicking the orientation of Chinese scrolls. Unlike Western horizontal landscapes that utilise lines of perspective, the vertical orientation allows for a depth of vision through the intuitive layering of different elements, and the use of negative areas to allow for spaces to ‘breathe’. Visually, Joya’s works appear to be influenced by the aesthetics of Hans Hofmann—both use layered blocks of colour to create depth on their surfaces without any directed perspective. Ideas of what appears to emerge or retreat is all very instinctively based on our perceptions of colour. Wu Guanzhong’s landscape paintings adopt a similar approach with colour. Speckling small blocks of a bright colours over a traditional ink landscape, or long languid strokes of deep black over the translucent grey wash of the mountain ranges, Wu’s works rely on our intuitive perceptions of colour to adjust our expectations of the relationship between foreground and background. Similarly, areas of red appear to advance whereas patches of black recede into the canvas in Joya’s painting. Using fewer colours with greater tonal variations, Joya’s more oriental aesthetic sensibilities produce a more austere abstraction of a landscape, only to be disrupted by a stray drip of the paint, or a patch of textured impasto.

What the painting may seemingly lack in refinement, it makes up for in raw spontaneity - of a bold, experimental period in the artist’s early career. Though untitled, the painting speaks for itself as an extremely important work in Joya’s oeuvre. Significant of his internalisation of several key influences in his practice – Rothko’s reverence of colour, Hofmann’s compositional structures, and the overall logic of traditional Chinese painting – the present painting traces the roots of his more widely recognised abstract landscapes of the sixties.

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