This article originally appeared in Contemporary Art Philippines (now Art+ Magazine) Issue 20 (2011). The article is republished here as part of #ArtPlusFlashbackFriday project.
Words by Cid Reyes, Photos courtesy of Ayala Museum
Ayala Museum recently held an exhibition of works by Jose Joya entitled Abstracting Joya. Some years ago, CAP Contributing Editor Cid Reyes got a chance to interview the late National Artist and published the resulting session in his book Conversations on Philippine Art. CAP is reprinting the original transcript with Cid Reyes’ introduction.
Jose Joya was born in Manila on June 3, 1931. He finished his Bachelor of Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines as the university’s first Magna Cum Laude in 1953. He was awarded a Spanish Government painting grant to Madrid in 1954-1955, after which he toured Europe. Through a Fulbright-Smith-Mundt grant, he finished his Master’s Degree in Painting at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1956-1957. His U.S. studies were followed by John D. Rockefeller III Fund and Ford Foundation grants to paint in New York City, where he stayed from 1967-1969. In the summer of the following year, he visited Paris.
Joya has exhibited widely and consistently in the Philippines (Luz Gallery, Philippine Art Gallery, Galerie Bleue, Ayala Museum, Museo Iloilo, Lopez Museum, Galerie de Iligan). In the international scene, he has held one-man shows in San Fransisco, New York, London, Brussels, Geneva, Rome, Madrid, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, and Beijing. He is the only Filipino painter ever to exhibit in the Venice Biennale in 1964. He has also participated in the International Biennales in Barcelona (1955), Cuba (1958) and Havana (1986).
Among his awards and distinctions are: The Ten Outstanding Young Men (TOYM) for Painting in 1961; and the Republic Cultural Heritage Award in 1967. He was president of the Art Association of the Philippines (AAP) in 1962-1965; and Dean of the UP College of Fine Arts in 1970-78. He was the holder of the Amorsolo Professional Chair in UP (1985). Also, he was Chairman of two Philippine delegations to China, the Educators’ Group in 1972, and the Artists’ Group in 1961.
He is listed in “Who’s Who in the World” Chicago, 1980; “Who’s Who in Art” England, 1982; “Who’s Who in International Art” Italy, 1984; “Men of Achievement” England, 1986; and “Asia’s Men of Achievement” India, 1987.
The French Government bestowed on him the Order of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 1987. A 30-year retrospective of his works was held at the Museum of Philippine Art in 1981.
The interview was conducted in the artist’s residence in Heroes Hill, Quezon City. September 1973.
CID REYES: In your early paintings, there would always be a central core, a tight-knit area of thick slabs of impastos. Was this a compositional device?
JOSE JOYA: It was indeed a compositional device. It was characteristic of those early paintings. Without that central core, the whole painting would collapse. On those canvases, it served as the seat of energy. From the core would come forth the wild explosions of very thick pigment. It’s like the eye of the storm.
Or to use another simile, the central core is like the mouth of a volcano spewing out hot, molten lava.
Yes, yes, quite right! You put it so graphically, I don’t quite know what else to say (Laughs).
These paintings seem to have a marked resemblance to the works of Afro, the Italian abstractionist. Did his works have any role in the development of your style?
I wouldn’t know. I was never particularly fond of Italian abstractionists, except perhaps during my formative years when I was studying the paintings of Afro and the lyricism contained in his works. No, I didn’t think the Italian abstractionists had any influence on me. The American abstractionists, yes; from them I learned spontaneity and energy, the dynamic approach to abstraction.
You are one of the most traveled artists in the Philippines. Can you tell us about the countries you have visited, the paintings you have seen and how these experiences have affected you?
My first trip outside the Philippines was made possible through the assistance of the Spanish government, the Instituto de Cultura Hispanica. Before going to Madrid, I first visited Rome, the first European city I ever saw. I was terribly moved and impressed by the scale of Italian architecture: really gigantic! It was overwhelming. The city seemed to have been built for gods, not for men.
In Spain, I didn’t paint much. I stayed less than a year. I did one painting, which I submitted to the Triennale in Barcelona. I went to all the museums and galleries. It was more a year of absorption than of work. I also visited France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and England. I saw the works of the old masters: Michelangelo, da Vinci, Raphael. I saw the great paintings of the Spanish masters, Velasquez, Goya and Zurbaran; and, of course, the French masters, Delacroix, Millet, Corot, and all the Impressionists. All these were real eye-openers for me. I can still remember the works of the Italian modern painters like Fontana.
Strangely, it was in Europe that I first saw the works of the American painter Jackson Pollock. I also remember having seen the paintings of Graham Sutherland and Francis Bacon and the sculptures of Henry Moore in London in 1954. You can just imagine the tremendous impact of all these works of art on someone like me who came from the other side of the globe.
In America, I got exposed to the New York school of painting. There, I came face to face with the works of Pollock, de Kooning, Kline, Rothko, and Motherwell.
I spent a year at the Cranbrook Academy, by the way. I did a lot of paintings there. Cranbrook was situated in this isolated and forested place. There, you led a closeted existence, working with other artists, architects and designers, all of you squeezing yourselves dry trying to discover what you wanted to say. Cranbrook was supposed to be an advanced post-graduate school for painting and the arts. Those who went there already knew more or less what they wanted to do. I met my professor only once or twice: at the start of the term (when I gave him my card) and at the end of the term!
Another memorable trip was the one I took to the People’s Republic of China. I was impressed not so much by the system of government there as by the way of life, I discovered how much a people can accomplish together when united by one ideology. I admired the outgoing humanism of the Chinese people. Abstract art has not really taken hold of China. There, art is essentially concerned with relaying a social message. Technically, the modern Chinese painter is an expert.
I believe you traveled to America a second time on a J.D. Rockefeller III grant. You stayed in New York for a number of years. How was it living there?
I was in New York in 1967-69. New York is such a big world; you bump into someone once and then never see him again. You lose touch with people so easily. Anyway, I have decided that I cannot really paint in New York. The scene is not really for me—it’s just too fast. I’m quite the contemplative kind. Everyone there is fighting everyone else just to take his own place in the sun. I personally feel that making a name for one’s self is not the right motivation to do art, but the star system is deeply ingrained in the American way of life. In New York, you can actually become a star painter overnight even without working hard for it. It all depends on the promotion machinery that’s backing you. You can either tie up with a dealer or a group with similar vested interests. But to me, what’s important is for the artist to paint in the manner he believes is right for him, free from the pressures of such fights and struggles. In the long run, talent will always determine one’s survival.
Who were some of the artists you met in New York?
I met Mark Rothko personally, and I visited Robert Motherwell in his studio where I spent an afternoon with him. Helen Frankenthaler, his wife then, was there too. I also met the Japanese artist Kuniyoshi, who’s based in New York. The other artists I met at opening nights at the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, and the Jewish Museum.
Did you join any shows?
Yes, quite a number of them. In fact, Marlborough, one of the biggest galleries in New York with branches in London, Zurich and Rome, prevailed on me to stay longer. They were thinking of putting up a show of my works, but the city was really too fast for me; it was cramping my creativity. I realized then that I would rather paint in Manila as I really felt alien in New York. In any case, some of my works had impressed the officials of the Museum of Modern Art. I was invited to join a show of foreign artists working in New York, which was being organized by the Institute for International Education. The official who chose the artworks was Mr. Rene d’ Harnoncourt, then the director of MOMA. Unfortunately, three days after he visited my studio, he passed away. The job was then turned over to the director of a museum in Florida. He chose a mixed-media drawing which was eventually bought by somebody from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Miss Carter Jones. This drawing traveled from New York to California for two years.
Were you very much influenced by the kind of painting being done in New York?
Well, I think it was more a question of enrichment rather than a question of absorbing influences. By then I had already set my mind on what I wanted to do. Stylistically, I had already found myself, and none of these Minimal or Conceptual things happening in New York could change my point of view.
What made you decide to be a painter in the first place?
I can’t really say: I do know that I used to react quite intensely to paintings. I was really more interested in architecture, and even then I was already much inclined to sketching and drawing. I was fascinated by the old books of my uncle. One was a book on the French Revolution which reproduced a number of etchings. Those were among my earliest exposures to arts, although I never really gave painting much serious thought then.
Did your parents like the idea of your becoming a painter?
Their initial reaction was negative. At that time, nobody really thought of becoming an artist. In fact, I wanted to be an architect, but the thought of all the mathematics and sciences discouraged me, so I decided to be a painter instead.
What sort of training did you have as an artist?
My formal art training started when I joined the School of Fine Arts of the University of the Philippines, although earlier on, when I was about 11 or 12, I was already doing a lot of sketching. I found it the most natural thing to do when given a paper and pencil. I remember I used to watch sign painters working on Raon and R. Hidalgo during the Japanese Occupation.
What kinds of paintings were then being exhibited in Manila?
Very conservative. By Amorsolo and his followers. I remember seeing an Amorsolo exhibition on Escolta during the Japanese Occupation. Needless to say, they were all representational.
Did you have any favorite painters then?
The only painter whose works I was exposed to was Fernando Amorsolo. Most of his paintings were then being reproduced in calendars and magazines. I used to copy Amorsolo’s paintings even before I joined the UP. The other painter I used to hear much about was Juan Luna, but I was never really interested in him. I couldn’t associate myself with his subject matter. I just thought of him as a great Filipino painter.
What were your earliest paintings like?
Oh, very representational. I just painted things as I saw them; just recording reality and painting nondescript people. I used to paint farm scenes, farmers threshing rice and peasant folks doing pottery.
Did you join art competitions?
Yes. The first competitions I joined were those arranged by the Phi Alpha, the fraternity of the UP College of Fine Arts. In two of these annual competitions, I won first prize. One was for a painting called “Approaching Storm,” which depicts a herd of carabaos running for shelter as a strong wind lashes at them. Overhead, there are these dark clouds. There was even a lightning bolt! The following year, I won the Shell art contest with a painting that showed the influences of Manansala and Anita Magsaysay-Ho. It was a painting called “Gossips,” portraying some women gathered round a water well, gossiping as they do their washing, while in the background there are some children bathing.
Which qualities attracted you to the work of Manansala and Magsaysay-Ho?
It’s not really a question of what attracted me to these painters. I suppose I merely wanted to know why they painted the way they did, and wanted to test my capacity to react to their painting styles. In any case, this period of experimentation didn’t really last long. At most, two years. I really couldn’t go any further with what Manansala and Magsaysay-Ho had done so I had to try other means until I could find my own individual style.
Do you remember the first painting you ever sold?
Yes, it was a very happy occasion. The buyer was a Jew from New York who used to work with the United Nations. He bought this painting of a still-life of mangoes and watermelons. I remember I was just a second year student at the UP then. I sold that painting for P150, a very good price at that time—1950.
Why did you stop doing representational painting? Was it because you felt it was limiting you, that you wanted to break through the bounds of representing physical reality?
Actually, my transition from representational painting to total abstraction was very gradual. It was only during the late 1950s or early 60s that I started doing these Abstract Expressionist paintings, and I’m using that label as mere convenience, a label attached to the New York school of painting. Abstraction is an international trend; it isn’t a contemporary development as most people would think. Even in ancient times, the Orientals were already doing calligraphy and Persian geometric designs; it isn’t at all a recent phenomenon. Now, of course, you have an American type of abstraction [led by] Pollock and company. You also have a French type of abstraction in the works of, say, Soulages and Mathieu. Also, I need not tell you about the Spanish type of abstraction, which is best exemplified in the paintings of Tapies or Saura. No, abstraction is not a time-honored convention in the Western world as it is in the Eastern world.
Your paintings are also characterized by a calligraphic use of brushstrokes. To what extent has calligraphy played a role in your painting?
Oh, to a very extensive degree. This is what I mean by the importance of drawing, you see. Drawing does not necessarily mean the rendering of the human figure: it is an integral part of composing a picture and it is essentially linear. I once did a diptych painting called “Gemini” which I consider a study in tonality in terms of black and white, the advancing and receding qualities of shapes and forms. Oriental calligraphy is very much in evidence, in the manner of the Chinese and the Japanese. Now the Western painter would never compose a picture in this way, unless he has been immersed in Zen painting as, for instance, someone like Mark Tobey.
Please tell us why you made use of old Filipino alphabets in your later paintings.
That was a conscious attempt on my part to integrate indigenous elements of Oriental calligraphy into my work. [In these paintings] various old Filipino alphabets have been incorporated in the picture surface via incisions, almost as if they were cryptic Malayan symbols. I have always thought that we Filipinos suffer from too much Western influences. It is good for us to start re-discovering our past.
You have also made consistent use of an ordinary house painter’s paste called ubok. Why?
I use a lot of ubok because with it I am able to achieve certain textural qualities, which I could never get from the usual oil tubes. It is perfect for achieving impastos. When you dribble it across the canvas, you get these terrific clots and blobs which are a very physical manifestation of the action of painting. Unfortunately, ubok has a tendency to yellow with age, but nevertheless, I have discovered a way to avoid this. You see, all paintings kept in the dark or in storage for a long time tend to yellow faster, so I make sure that my paintings are exposed to light.
Do you mix ubok with oil?
No, no. If you do, red oil, for instance, will turn pink. I only use ubok as a base. The actual color rests on top of this layer of ubok. With the ubok, I often introduce foreign materials like pebbles, ground shells and sand.
Have you ever considered incorporating found objects in your works?
You mean the way Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg have done with their paintings? No, no. The idea is totally alien to my personality. Johns and Rauschenberg were a product of the post-Abstract Expressionist era in America and, as you know, they were, in fact, instrumental in the evolution of what we know now as Pop Art. No, I cannot include found objects in my paintings, things like Coca-Cola bottles or rubber tires. I am more concerned with painterly qualities. I am more traditional in that sense. Incorporating found objects is a distinct characteristic of American art; the Americans are, after all, surrounded by all these things, by a flood of consumer goods and the gadgets of industry. Our situation in the Philippines is not quite the same. We are not yet a highly industrialized society. Of course, we do have a number of painters who have incorporated found objects in their works and have done some successful pieces like, for instance, Jerry Navarro. Still, I think this practice is alien to the Filipino’s artistic mind.
Do you consider your works as Filipino in spirit?
Foreigners who have seen my paintings know that they were painted by an Oriental. That much is clear. Of course, they couldn’t say if it was done by a Filipino. I don’t know if we have any painter who approximates what you call “Filipino spirit”—whatever that means. I don’t know. Perhaps the moment you become identifiable as “Filipino,” well then, that’s the end of you. The mystery of art is something you can’t really pinpoint.
Can you tell us something about your working process—how you handle paint, how you prepare the preliminary designs of your paintings, and how the element of chance enters into your work?
By now, my working process is a fixed procedure. During the earlier stages of my painting career, I started naturally with preliminary studies and sketches. That’s because I didn’t have as much control of the paint as I do now. In any case, a preliminary design is merely to “concretize” whatever hazy visual idea I have in mind. But in the actual process or act of painting, I very seldom refer to this design. Most often, if not always, the final painting doesn’t anywhere resemble the original sketch. Now I have more control of the situation, I find no need for a preliminary design whatsoever. I know exactly where the splash of paint will fall, and as regards the element of chance or accident, I believe that, too, can be controlled. Accident then becomes an integral part of the painting.
How long does it take you to finish a painting? In one sitting? Days or weeks?
Most of my best paintings were executed in the shortest possible time. Here, the element of spontaneity comes into the picture. Now if the painting is too large or requires a certain drying period, it can take two or three months to finish.
You are one of the first Filipino painters to have worked on a larger scale.
I have worked on both large and small scale, and whether large or small, the painting carries the same quality and feeling. Naturally, the idea of a large-scale painting has to do with the idea of physically enveloping the viewer; the confrontation between canvas and viewer becomes more powerful, more intense. One of the largest paintings I’ve done is called “The Origins,” which is about 12 feet by seven feet.
A newspaper in Hong Kong has ranked you among the most expensive painters in Asia. This must be a vindication of the days when Philippine paintings were going for a song.
The Philippine art market is one of the healthiest in the world; it just hasn’t crashed into world consciousness. If it does, I’m afraid there will be a tendency among our artists to commercialize their paintings, much to the detriment of their art. Duldulao’s book has been of tremendous help; you see what the Philippines lacks is the dynamic promotion or, as in politics, the logistics of selling Philippine art to the world. The mere fact that our artists are now being bought by responsible collectors all over the world is a good indication that Philippine art is being recognized by the rest of the world. The Philippines is now invited to join international biennials, and this is another proof of our acceptance. Organizers of such biennales will not invite a country which they think has not reached a certain level of excellence. Whether or not the Philippines has yet to win a Grand Prize is not the issue. Since, as you know, in most international competitions, be it sports or beauty competitions, politics is involved to a certain degree.