John Golding: Painter and art historian renowned as the foremost authority on Picasso

He attributed his later, more dynamic style of painting to the shredding of his artistic inhibitions

John Golding, the distinguished painter, art historian, exhibition curator and teacher, has died at the age of 82. Although he is best known for his work on Picasso and Cubism, and taught at the Courtauld Institute for many years, he was also an artist of considerable talent in his own right.

Harold John Golding was born in Hastings in Sussex, but he was brought up in Mexico, where his mother's family had lived since the early 19th century. At 13 he won a scholarship to Ridley College, an English-style boarding school near Niagara Falls, Canada, where his early gift for painting was purposefully developed by the art master. While studying for his BA in art and classical archaeology at the University of Toronto, Golding paid regular visits to New York, immersing himself in the collections of the Guggenheim and Metropolitan museums, and above all Alfred Barr's didactic displays in the Museum of Modern Art which were his initiation into modernism.

Meanwhile, in Mexico, he met Diego Rivera and the Mexican muralists and was befriended by the expatriate surrealists, especially Leonora Carrington, who had settled there during the war. His subsequent assimilation of American abstract expressionism was mediated through his admiration for the muralists and engagement with surrealist art and theory.

Golding's postgraduate studies in art history were undertaken in 1951-57 at the Courtauld Institute in London, with a break in 1953-54 when he returned to Mexico City to lecture at the American University and paint in the art department. At the Courtauld his mentors were Johannes Wilde, from whom he learned scholarly rigour, and Anthony Blunt, whose limitless intellectual curiosity was a constant inspiration. Blunt supervised his doctoral thesis on cubism with Douglas Cooper, who owned a world-class collection of cubist art and introduced him to Braque and the legendary dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, though a planned encounter with Picasso never materialised. It was also through Cooper that Golding met the historian James Joll, with whom he would share his life for some 40 years in an exceptionally harmonious partnership, until Joll's death in 1994.

The relationship with Cooper took a disastrous turn, however, when the latter became violently jealous of the universal acclaim that greeted Cubism: a history and an analysis, 1907-1914, the groundbreaking book based on Golding's thesis published in 1959. Applying to the study of modern art scholarly methods and standards hitherto reserved for the Renaissance, Golding laid the foundations for all subsequent histories of cubism, while his sophisticated understanding of the culture of the period, measured judgements and subtle analyses of individual works of art represent a touchstone for art historians generally. A third revised edition appeared in 1988.

Golding had spent a year painting full-time in Italy after completing his thesis and joined the staff of the Courtauld Institute in 1959 on the understanding that his schedule would always allow him time in his studio. An undogmatic, receptive, generous but not uncritical teacher, who tailored his advice to the individual, Golding had a devoted following among generations of Courtauld students, many of whom went on to establish successful careers in the academic and museum worlds.

Although he observed at close quarters the birth of the "new", theory-based art history, his own understanding of art came largely from looking intently at it and reflecting on the relationship between the creative means deployed and the aesthetic and emotional effect produced – an approach conditioned by his own practice as a painter. Firmly grounded in discussion of intellectual and artistic sources and punctuated by passages of enlightening visual analysis, his lectures were the testing-ground for numerous essays on the 20th-century artists who mattered most to him, notably Matisse, Picasso, Braque and the septet of abstract painters, Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky, Pollock, Newman, Rothko and Still. The latter were the subject of his final full-length book, Paths to the Absolute (2000), which won the Mitchell Prize for the History of Art in 2002. The fact that this book appealed strongly to fellow painters pleased him greatly.

By contrast, Marcel Duchamp: the bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even (1973) was undertaken in order to come to terms with an artist whose importance Golding never doubted but with whom he felt no affinity. It remains nevertheless the most sophisticated but lucid and accessible introduction to Duchamp's motivation, evolution, imagery and intellectual sources. The same year saw the publication of Picasso 1881-1973, a collection of essays Golding edited with Roland Penrose that included his own seminal discussion of Picasso's complex relationship to the surrealist movement. Visions of the Modern, a selection of his most original writings, some first published in The New York Review of Books, appeared in 1994.

Golding's renown and influence as an art historian have obscured the fact that he always considered painting his primary occupation. In 1962 he had his first solo show at Gallery One in London; regular exhibitions in Great Britain, Australia and Japan followed in the 1970s and 1980s. His growing reputation led to the invitation to teach at the Royal College of Art in 1971, and 10 years later to his appointment there as senior tutor of Painting. At that point he gave up teaching at the Courtauld Institute, then recovering from the scandal that erupted in 1979 when Blunt was unmasked as a Soviet spy. Although close friends of his, neither Golding nor Joll had known of Blunt's past as a spy, but in the aftermath they sheltered him temporarily from the aggressive siege of the press.

Golding's candid account of his aims and evolution as a painter appeared in the catalogue for his show at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, in 1989. There he described his transition in the early 1960s from figure paintings strongly marked by his admiration for Signorelli and Orozco, to colour field-style abstraction as a process of "moving... up and into the body imagery of my painting", and attributed the change of expressive language in part to an aversion to using his painting for purposes of self-discovery, even though emotion and memory continued to play significant roles in his work.

The more dynamic, physical style of his later abstract paintings he attributed to the shedding of lingering artistic inhibitions. In defining the inspiration derived from favourite artists of all periods – among them the great 16th-century Venetians, Turner, Matisse, Braque, the abstract expressionists and especially Cézanne – Golding voiced some of his most sensitive and subtle observations about painters and their methods. Between 1984 and 1991 he was a trustee of the Tate Gallery. His final solo exhibition was held at Roche Court, Wiltshire, in 2003.

Curating was a bridge between Golding's twin careers as painter and art historian and, alone or in collaboration, he was responsible for such memorable and revelatory exhibitions as Léger and Purist Paris (1970), Picasso's Picassos (1981), The Sculpture and Drawings of Henri Matisse (1984), Picasso: Sculptor/Painter (1994), Braque: the Late Works (1997), and Matisse Picasso (2002-03). Although scholarship always underpinned the selection, Golding drew a distinction between the exhibition and the scholarly book and saw installation as essential to success.

His brief experience as a stage designer in Toronto and on first settling in London in 1951 was perhaps the origin of his sense of the exhibition as an emotionally engaging event orchestrated by means of a sequence of contrasting movements. Many hours would be spent pushing photographs around on his kitchen table in west London to determine the most telling sequences and juxtapositions – sessions which sometimes led to drastic culling, for Golding was of the "less is more" school of curation. When it came to securing loans, his combination of knowledge, determination, tact and patience proved irresistible on almost all occasions.

Despite his natural reticence Golding was extremely hospitable. Fascinated by the lives and personalities of others and fond of art-world gossip, he possessed emotional intuition that enriched not only his intimate relationships but also his art-historical writing, where artists were always individuals with temperaments and experiences that had influenced the tenor of their work. Although privately his wit could be waspish and his judgement trenchant, his behaviour was always courteous. Such was his dislike of causing pain that it became his policy never to review an exhibition or a book that he considered fundamentally flawed.

Harold John Golding, artist and art historian: born Hastings 10 September 1929; died London 9 April 2012.

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