signed and dated ‘Joya 56’ (lower left)
oil on canvas
97 x 152 cm. (38 1/4 x 59 7/8 in.)
Painted in 1956
Acquired directly from the artist
Thence by descent to the present owner
Private Collection, USA

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Kimmy Lau
Kimmy Lau

Lot Essay

An extremely rare painting made at the crucial turning point of the artist's career, José Joya’s Untitled (Lot 7) from 1956 is one of the earliest abstract works ever created in the artist’s entire oeuvre. The work was created in Joya’s experimental period, and can be regarded as one of the works that sets the milestone of Joya’s later creation throughout his artistic career. One can always look at his entire oeuvre and find the essence of Joya’s creation originated from this historically important work. Indeed, works from this period are mostly collected by major museums and institutions such as the National Museum of the Philippines.

Untitled was acquired directly from the artist when he was in the United States, and has been kept in the same family collection since. The painting was created a year after Joya toured around Europe, including Spain, France, and Italy, during his first time in the United States pursuing his master’s degree in Fine Arts at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, a prestigious institution attended by his fellow artist Anita Magsaysay-Ho. Never before had his hand exercised such freedom, enjoying a new autonomy in painting that it had never experienced in the past.

Across the painting surface rich in both visual and textural details, Joya choreographs a series of colourful jewellike blocks that appear to intertwine a large expanse of variegated colour. The paints erupt over the entire canvas, flooding it with a vital sense of movement and energy. In the upper part of the composition, the colours are laid over one another until they fill up the whole canvas. We can see the softer red through jasmine yellow and cinnamon brown to compose a melodic colour dialogue, sometimes subtly and sometimes not, as the eye travels across the canvas. Instead of being independently positioned, the colours are overlapped, mixed and blended in with one another. It would be a challenge to identify which colour was used to start off the composition and where it ends.

Straddling along the threshold between Western Abstract Expressionism and Oriental quality, Joya’s Untitled extracts the essence from both and integrates them into his personal style. Spontaneous and energetic in execution, the painting draws from the Abstract Expressionists and their desire to tap on the primal impulses to create. In addition, Joya approaches the colour fields with gestural black calligraphic lines to contrast against the fluid background, revealing vibrant lines that are charged with a new energy that is not present in his pre- European period. American-born artist Cy Twombly similarly incorporates ‘meaningless’ scriptures into his composition. It is interesting to see how Joya relates to the calligraphic line whereas Twombly takes over the aesthetic of the graffiti - each artist interprets his own cultural writing in the same quest of a new universal form.

‘It was also during this period in Michigan that, in his compulsion and eagerness to develop his own style, he found himself going back to nature in a peculiar way that further released his sensibility from the bondage of academic realism which had paralyzed his hand in the earlier stages of his artistic development.’
– Leonidas V. Benesa

Despite the abstract composition, a strong sense of landscape is evident in this painting. It is during this period when Joya breakaways from depicting external objects to exploring the intuitive sensibility of the inner subject. It is no longer the depiction of a landscape’s appearance that matters. Instead, Joya captures his feeling and energy through the medium of oil paint, abstracted form and composition. Joya reminds us of the great Chinese abstract painter Chu Teh- Chun, in the way in which he discards ‘things with forms’ to express the meaning of a work to the fullest. During this formative period, Joya is obsessed with the idea of ‘oneness with nature’s forces’, which drives him to paint with ultimate freedom and autonomy. It is from his inner feelings, that he discovers the greatest and most organic power that later turns his outsights into insights with his imagination outshining the physical landscape.

Untitled is a primary example of Joya’s revolutionary painting practice, displaying the nascent ideas and technical and aesthetic breakthroughs that the artist pioneered the beginnings of the seismic shifts in art that occurred during this dynamic postwar period of discovery. Regarded as one of the foremost and most influential artists emerging from the Philippines, José Joya was selected to represent the Philippines in the 32nd Venice Biennale in 1964, which was the first time that the Philippines had participated in the history of art. He graduated from the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts in 1953 with the distinction of being the university's first magna cum laude. He won several prestigious art prizes and scholarships which funded exchange programs in Europe, including a one year grant to study painting in Madrid from the Spanish government's Instituto de Cultura Hispanica. The French government awarded Joya the Order of Chevalier des Arts et Lettres in 1987 and he was posthumously conferred the National Artist award of the Philippines in 2003.

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