Cover "Karate", 1965, oil, from the artist's collection

Though highly revered in art circles, the painter José Joya never achieved the status of National Artist—until in 2003, eight years after his death. Tatler Philippines paints a portrait of the master of Filipino modern art in this article:

This feature story was originally titled as José Joya: Portrait of a Master published in the September 2003 issue of Tatler Philippines. Few changes were made in the lead paragraph of this article to suit this year's publishing. Meanwhile, the body of the article that follows was copied in its entirety.

He can now rest in peace—and eternal glory. Eight years after his death, at age 63 of prostate cancer in 1995. José Tandig Joya has finally earned the country's most printed accolade—the National Artist Award for the Visual Arts—which was conferred by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on June 25 at the Malacañan Palace, together with living National Artists for Literature Virgilio Almario and Alejandro Roces, Eddie Romero for Film and Salvador Bernal for Theatre and Design.

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The award was announced in the papers on June 3, suspiciously coinciding with Joya's 72nd birthday. The honour was long overdue, since Joya, when he was alive, had been nominated several times and on as many occasions rather mysteriously bypassed for reasons now deemed petty and indefensible. But his conscience-stricken peers would not allow such injustice to continue for long and this time Joya was destined to claim the rightful prize long denied him.

The acknowledged pillar of Philippine modern art pursued his calling in a steadfast, consistent and audacious manner. For more than four decades, Joya nurtured his art, exploring its full potential from a medium of representation to modernism, and in due time transforming it into a personal iconography of abstract expressionism.

Born in 1932 in San Miguel, Bulacan, Joya was attracted to drawing early in his youth. In his book Joya on Joya, he recalls that his drawings in this earlier period became independent studies conveying distinctive expressions. He was "then primarily interested in capturing the essence of the subject and in the artistic elaboration of my concept, qualities that frequently asserted themselves in my abstract art."

Joya graduated with a bachelor's degree in fine arts in 1953, magna cum laude, from the University of the Philippines' School of Fine Arts, the first to have earned such a distinction from the State university since its founding in 1908. A year before his graduation, he had won first prize from the Art Association of the Philippines for his oil painting, Approaching Storm, an early work that prefigured his obsessive unrelenting energy and dynamism.

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In those heady years of the early fifties Joya had aligned himself with the 11 modernists who gravitated at the Philippine Art Gallery, run by writer-gallery operator Lydia Arguilla. In those formative years Joya was caught in the "crossfire between traditionalist mentors and modernist friends," the ensuing flames of intellectualism in modern art fanning his imagination and, indeed, inflaming him beyond words.

In 1954, after taking up Design Studies at the University of Santo Tomas, Joya received a travel grant from the Spanish government's Instituto de Cultura Hispanica, which gave him firsthand exposure to European art and culture, leaving lasting impressions from the places he visited as well as the images that would eventually find their way into his work.

A year after his Spanish sojourn, Joya was awarded a Fullbright-Smith Mundt scholarship to the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan to finish his master's degree. During his painting studies he discovered drawing as a medium that would best capture his insights spontaneously, filling volumes of sketchpads with imaginary figures, which he later exhibited at the James Thrall Library Middletown in New York. Here, in postwar New York, he was thrust into the artistic ferment and spirit of experimentation pervading the emerging school of abstract expressionism with Jackson Pollock and the New York School as its main proponents. It was a voyage, recalls Joya, that reaffirmed his belief in the vast potentials of abstract art, even as he continually worked on large canvases, on his return to the country, from where evolved his style of  "impasted shapes, interlocking jewel-like facets that glowed from within and at the same time reflecting the all-pervasive light."

In 1964 Joya and the sculptor Napoleon Abueva were chosen to represent the country at the 32nd Venice Biennale. For this prestigious event he assembled nine large paintings, including Hills of Nikko, Quiapo Nazarene Festival, Venetian Daybreak and Primitive Rituals, which showed the expressive style that would later become identified as abstract expressionism, of which he would be the most ardent progenitor. Joya's art would be characterized by a pervasive kinetic quality, evident in the sweeping movement of the hand, and asymmetrical arrangement that is more Oriental than Western, in image and feeling.

Joya returned to New York in 1967, as a scholar of the John D. Rockefeller III Fund and, a year later, of the Ford Foundation, which gave him the opportunity to study at the Pratt Institute for Printmaking and work in the United States for two years. On the way home, he toured Europe, visiting art centres in the various cities of the continent. It was once again an opportunity for the artist to indulge in his other passion—drawing—which, though in a representational style, coexisted with his unflagging pursuit of abstraction. (Joya has published two books of drawings, the first in 1973 and the second, Joya on Joya, in 1978.)

Meanwhile, Joya's evolution as an artist would find its apotheosis in new works that extolled the primacy of design in modern art, a style that in time would lead him to explore indigenous forms and expressions. Later, in the 1970s, this preoccupation would find fruition in collage using rice paper with acrylic. The resulting oeuvre revealed multilayered, overlapping space, impenetrated with vibrant tropical hues, with occasional use of monochromatic and neutral colours.

In the 1970s, Joya would find himself working in a variety of media and forms, from ceramic designs and figure sketches to oil and acrylic paintings, which would form the bulk of his major works. "It is an abstraction," in the words of the critic Alice Guillermo, "that probes into emotional significations of colour with hues as terms in a vocabulary for capturing moods, nuances of feeling and inner states, while thoroughly pursuing artistic concepts, problems and values."


Tatler Asia
Above "Two Women", undated ceramic plate

An integral aspect of Joya's artistic career, equally important in assessing his lifetime contributions, is his involvement in the academic life, having served on the faculty of the UP College of Fine Arts in Diliman and later as dean of the college from 1970 to 1978. Throughout his academic stint, he encouraged young talents by helping establish the Fine Arts programme in UP Cebu, sponsoring a scholarship programme for young and deserving talents and an annual art competition named after him.

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Joya was committed to propagating art consciousness among the masses, mounting exhibits in various parts of the country, bringing art to the depressed urban areas and the grassroots through the organizations he worked for, such as the Art Association of the Philippines, which led to the formation of art groups in various parts of the country.

He was also the prime mover of numerous outreach programmes that promoted cultural interaction, including that of the Association for Philippine-China Understanding, which led to a deeper understanding of cultures between the two countries.

Joya echoes his belief thus: "In creating an art work, the artist is concretizing his need for communication. He has an irresistible urge to reach out and attain a level of spiritual satisfaction and to project what he is and what he thinks through his work."

Joya received countless awards and citations in his lifetime, notably the Republic Heritage Award in 1961, the Patnubay ng Sining at Kalinangan Award in 1971, the 1987 Order de Chevalier des Artes et Lettres from the French government, and the 1991 Gawad CCP sa Sining also in 1991. His works are also found in important collections—private, corporate, and institutional—here and abroad.

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As a newly proclaimed National Artist, Jose Joya has been posthumously accorded his rightful honour and pantheon as a towering figure in Philippine art. He was an artist whose work laid the foundations for an expressive and powerful modern art, articulating its power, dynamism, and vitality that continue to inspire and be emulated by succeeding generations of artists.

Tatler Asia