Born in Manila on June 3, 1931, Jose Joya is considered the pioneer and foremost abstract expressionist painter of the Philippines. His work is “characterized by calligraphic gestures and linear forces, and a sense of color vibrancy emanating from an Oriental sensibility.” The spectrum of colors native to the tropical Philippine landscape are believed to have been the source of Joya’s vibrant, yet harmonious palette. The greens of the rice paddies, the golds of the harvest fields, and the seemingly infinite hues of the Pahiyas festival, were some of the inspirations behind the artist’s unique style of heavy impastos, spontaneous brushstrokes, bold textures, and unexpected splashes of color.
During his pre-teens he dabbled in architectural sketching, but by the time he had to choose a career path for college, he discovered that the math and science required of an architect was beyond his skill. In his early years, Joya studied under prominent Filipino artists Fernando Amorsolo and Guillermo Tolentino at the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts. He graduated as the college’s first magna cum laude in 1953, and while riding the wave of success, was urged by Philippine Art Gallery member Fernando Zobel de Ayala to do what young artists must do if they want to expand their influence and intellect—travel. The Spanish government awarded him a grant to further study painting in Spain at the Instituto de Cultura Hispanica from 1954 to 1955. After studying in Madrid, he left for the United States on a Fulbright Smith-Mundt grant to attend school in Michigan at the Cranbrook Academy of Art under Zoltan Zepeshy, where he would eventually earn his Master’s Degree in Painting (1957). At this time, Joya was beginning to be influenced more by abstract American painters and new ideas in Philippine modernism than the traditional methods and styles he learned from Amorsolo and other professors. From 1967 to 1969, he received another grant, this time from the John D. Rockefeller III Fund and Ford Foundation, to paint at New York’s Pratt Graphic Art Center. After viewing works by Jackson Pollock and other American abstract expressionist artists, he began to experiment with his own interpretation of the movement’s unconstrained and dynamic works through the use of personally developed techniques, novel materials, and new styles. For example, Joya painted on ceramics, such as plates and other everyday materials, instead of the traditional canvas and sketched with markers instead of pens or pencils.
Joya’s diverse artistic career evolved from early works influenced by his traditional education that emphasized figure drawings and portraits, to nonfigurative abstraction on large canvasses, and lastly to ceramic art. Examples of his earlier conservative works include Ligawan (1948) and Hidalgo Studies (1951). His works that demonstrate a shift away from Western influence toward abstract painting include: Space Transfiguration (1959), Ang Tutubi (1967), Cityscape (1972), Warm Afternoon (1974), and Spirit of Season (1992). Some of his most famous works include Barter of Panay (1948), Christ Stripped of His Clothes (1954), Granadean Arabesque (1958), Dimensions of Fear (1965), Vista Beyond Recognition (1981), Torogan (1985), and Playground of the Mind (1998). Many of his paintings are allegories of human nature and the life cycle. In Hills of Nikko, Joya uses characteristics of the winter and summer seasons to symbolize the frailties and strengths of the human spirit.
Not only was Joya a cutting edge artist, he was also a visionary who pushed for his fellow man and culture to be recognized by the rest of the world as an artistic force to be reckoned with. He was president of the Art Association of the Philippines (1962-1965) for three consecutive terms, later became Dean of his alma mater from 1970 to 1978, and served as chairman of the Philippine Delegation to China (1961, 1972). As Dean he created art scholarships and worked with an art historian to modify the art curriculum to include more liberal arts and art history instruction. He also established the VACOOP—the Visual Artists Cooperative of the Philippines. From 1987 until his death, he served as chairperson of the National Commission on Culture and the Arts.
Throughout his career as a painter he was awarded numerous first place prizes at the many exhibits he entered. In addition, he was posthumously honored by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as National Artist For Visual Arts in 2003 for his significant contributions to the development of Filipino fine art awareness and for his generous teachings to his fellow Filipino artists. He was the awardee of the French government’s “Chevalier dans I’ Ordre des Arts et Lettres” in 1967. Retrospectives and shows of his works were held at the Philippine Art Gallery (1954), the Venice Biennial (1964), the Museum of Philippine Art (1981), the National Museum (2011), and the Ayala Museum (2012).