Now in her eighties, the Turner Prize-nominated Royal Academician who was made a CBE in 2011 – among other accolades – is, according to BBC broadcaster and art enthusiast Andrew
Marr, “probably the finest abstract painter alive in Britain.” Yet Gillian Ayres’ name isn’t part of the public consciousness in the same way as many of her contemporaries. But that may be about to change. A fresh critical eye is being cast over her 60-year career with a major retrospective at the National Museum Cardiff, an exhibition of paintings and woodcuts at Alan Cristea Gallery in London and a new monograph by art critic Martin Gayford. Gillian Ayres’ place in the history of British abstract art looks increasingly undisputed.
A serious colourist whose bold forms and joyful compositions burst with movement and energy, Gillian’s long career has revolved around her obsession with using paint to capture an emotional response. She has experimented with media, scale and abstraction, while following her own exploratory path. “Her motifs are there to carry colour-energies, not to represent anything, even when they may look like fronds, leaves or stars,” says Andrew. “They aren’t symbols. One of her strengths is that, for Gillian, a painting is a painting is a painting.” And the artist has long eschewed offering a commentary on her work, letting her greens, blues, pinks and oranges do the talking. And this singular approach may have contributed to her low profile, says Andrew. “She does most of her work far from London, on the border between Devon and Cornwall, and seems entirely uninterested in playing any of the art games used to promote contemporary painters,” he says. “She just gets on with it, and lets the works speak for themselves. As, increasingly loudly, they do.”
Born in Barnes in 1930 and educated at St Paul’s Girls’ School, Gillian showed early determination to take the road less travelled, insisting on studying art – something largely unheard of for polite young women of the time – at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. Yet, finding her
“I FIRST SAW
HER WORK IN THE 1980S,” SAYS ANDREW. “I CAN REMEMBER AN ALMOST VISCERAL THRILL AT THE COMPLEXITY OF THINKING AND DENSE WORKING”
artistic instincts in conflict with the Euston Road School style of painters who
taught there, she dropped out before sitting her diploma, taking off for Cornwall to focus on her daring interplay of colour and explore new ways of working. And upping sticks and heading to some of the most remote parts of the UK – Wales, Cornwall and Devon – is a pattern that has repeated itself throughout her creative life.
During the 1950s, she applied oils and household paint with rags and brushes, creating works inspired by Tachisme painting and Abstract Expressionism, such as Tachiste Painting No.1. By the 1960s, she had made a name for herself on the art scene and was experimenting with light-filled, optimistic works in oils and acrylics that captured the hedonism of the decade.
When painting found itself out of fashion in the 1970s, Gillian – always out of kilter – was instead creating them on a larger and larger scale; whether it was discovering Van Gogh as a schoolgirl or engaging with Abstract Expressionism, her style has always been something all her own. If it can be said to have roots, the paintings find their essence in the British landscape – the lure of the sea and the sky – which she has repeatedly sought out.
“She has always quietly and doggedly gone her own way,” says Andrew. “But I think the interest in the texture and thickness of paint, and in finding ways to describe landscapes in a non-literal way, relate to people like Peter Lanyon. She is certainly very un-American.”
Later into the 1970s and during the 1980s, Gillian began to use thick and heavy impasto to create paintings that were exhilaratingly charged with emotion. She went to live on the remote Lly^n Peninsula in North Wales in 1981, a move which seemed to herald this particularly fertile period, dubbed by Andrew as her ‘furious impasto’ stage.
It was around this time he first stumbled across her work. He tells us: “I think I first saw Gillian’s work at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in the early 1980s, just after
I’d arrived in London for the first time. I can remember an almost visceral thrill at the complexity of the thinking and the dense working; I bought a cheap commercial poster of one of the paintings and had it hanging in my flat for years.”
The ‘furious impasto’ paintings, which she produced into the 1990s, remain a career highlight, says the broadcaster, with the 1990 painting A Midsummer Night at the pinnacle
20 Artists & Illustrators
for its “complexity and remarkable energy”. It’s this fruitful phase that the Cardiff exhibition explores, featuring the artist’s greatest works from the 1950s to 1980s.
Andrew hopes this rare chance to see a large body of Gillian’s work in one place will redress another problem of her profile – the difficulty of seeing her work. As well as her desire to work away from the cut and thrust of the art world, the artist lost an important body of work in a warehouse fire and her early Tachist pictures are hard to find. “I wish more people knew where they could see her work,” says Andrew. “The very early wall paintings, which you can find at South Hampstead High School, are well worth a trek. She shows every summer, of course, at the RA. I sometimes stand and watch, and her work always seems to attract a cluster of gapers.”
But it’s Gillian’s life-long passion for paint that keeps Andrew enthralled with her work, as well as establishing her as one of Britain’s most important working artists. As an amateur painter, it is the process of mark-making, leading to image-making – which can bypass the brain and connect to something more primal – that truly inspires him. “She can organise a very complex and large space, throbbing with energy and always on the edge of chaos, yet holding itself together right at the end,” says the broadcaster. “It’s a plate-spinning display of confident élan, and if I was ever able to paint something a third as good as the least successful of her pictures, I would die a happy man.”
This confidence in colour and belief in the image forms what Andrew calls the artist’s ‘painterly intelligence’. “It’s worth trying to see some of the rare footage of Gillian actually painting,” he adds. “She stares and stares, and then
suddenly scoops up soft, recently mixed paint and pushes it onto the canvas with her hands. I think paint as a material object – part of the dirty, sloppy world that we all live in – matters very much to her and this is important in the chilly, glossy, digitalised world of today.” And if there’s one reason to value and celebrate the work of Gillian Ayres today, it’s this passionate commitment to colour and paint. Gillian Ayres is at the National Museum Cardiff until
3 September 2017 and Gillian Ayres: Paintings and Woodcuts is at Alan Cristea Gallery, London, until 22 April 2017. A monograph, Gillian Ayres, by Martin Gayford with introduction by Andrew Marr, is published in April by Art Books, £45. www.museum.wales/cardiff; www.alancristea.com; www.artbookspublishing.co.uk