Vital, anarchic, bold and immoderate Gillian Ayres is Britain’s grande dame of Abstraction, says Sue Hubbard
When I last stayed with Gillian Ayres at her home in Cornwall one of her dogs peed on the carpet before dinner and then died in the night. When I came down in the morning it was lying in the wheelbarrow, in her pretty three-bears cottage garden, stiff with rigour mortis. It is sometimes hard to believe that some of the best-loved contemporary British paintings have been produced at the end of this wooded lane in this warmly chaotic milieu full of books and pets. Now there are fewer animals and a cleaner, who also happens to be a painter, controls some of the domestic muddle. And there are no more cigarettes. It used to be forty a day untipped Senior Service. But then there was the heart attack and she was forced to be sensible and moderate.
Moderation is not an Ayres characteristic. Even as a child growing up in bourgeois Barnes she was, by her own admission, “a brat”. When she was 10 she rode round on her bike collecting bomb cartridges, walking back, one day, through Barnes High Street with an unexploded shell. In her early teens she announced to the headmistress at St. Paul’s Girls’ School, where Shirley Williams was among her best friends, that she didn’t believe in God and would no longer be going to prayers. At 16 she walked out of her exams and threatened that if she was not allowed to go to art school she’d run away to Scotland. Her kindly but slightly bemused parents agreed; maybe, she says, they thought it would help her choose nice curtain fabrics. Though her headmistress warned of “the sort of men you get in art schools.” Nevertheless she enrolled at Camberwell. To start off with her mother took her on the bus. It might, she thinks, have been different if she’d been a boy.
Born in 1930 she is, today, one of the grandes dames of British painting. Highly intelligent, feisty and fiercely independent her compulsive creative energy and generosity are reflected in her lyrical yet muscular works. Staying with her in 1997 at The British School in Rome when she held the Sargent Fellowship, I was struck not only by her knowledge of art history but also by the breadth of her reading. She is a committed modernist, part of a generation that, after the war, subscribed to the possibility of a ‘brave new world’, to the affirming power of a creativity based on a restless and vigorous questioning. She has always eschewed fashion and “followed her nose”, believing in the humanistic value of painting and is also deeply committed to the intellectual and emotional freedoms – a legacy perhaps of 50s Existentialism – inherent in abstraction. Having a conversation with her is like inhabiting one of her canvases. Ideas and words flow and swirl in all directions. You think you are in the equivalent of a red square only to find she has plopped you down in a blue arc.
In 1943, while still at school she discovered monographs on van Gogh, Cezanne and Monet and thought “my god, so this is what painting can do.” In those days there was huge suspicion of ‘modern art’ and she was desperate to find people who shared her interest. This she did at Camberwell where demobbed servicemen, such as Terry Frost and Harry Mundy (later her husband) were studying as mature students. Ayres temperament soon led her to reject the muddy English colours and “the measuring thing” of the dominant Euston Road School aesthetic. When Coldstream one day remarked condescendingly in her presence that “Matisse can pass me by” she answered with characteristic brio “He may pass you by but he won’t pass me by”. As she says, she could be an argumentative brat. But it was her involvement with the AIA Gallery, which in 1951 mounted the first post-war exhibition devoted to abstraction with artists such as Hepworth, Roger Hilton and Victor Passmore and her discovery of American Abstract Expressionism, of Pollock and Rothko, that was to define her own idiosyncratic visual language. She experimented with Riplon, a household paint, and other ‘non-art’ materials, working on hardboard to create an abstraction where not only the visible traces of her actions but the characteristics of the material itself were apparent. It was around the time she was commissioned to make a mural for South Hampstead High School for Girls that she also started to paint on the floor pouring and tipping paint in pools of colour. She had certainly seen Hans Namuth’s famous photo of Pollock dripping paint but was, at this point, not that familiar with his work. But Ayres was interested in something deeper than mere experimentation. She was interested in visual truth. She is not an intellectual aesthetician; her influences are other painters such as Titian, Rubens or Turner and her love of colour and light, which she appropriates from the natural world to create works full of movement and energy like polychromatic jewels.
Elements in her paintings – she later returned to oils – often resemble natural objects such as stars or leaves, petals and moons. But it is not nature she is attempting to paint but a comparable feeling of pleasure and awe evoked through the paint itself. She works intuitively, creating arcs with the sweep of an arm, pulling her fingers through the thick paint. She also spends a great deal of time looking and this visual intelligence is translated into the variations of light and colour, the vitality of movement that characterises her work. Despite ill health she paints ceaselessly when not rushing around making wonderful meals for family and friends. While I was with her the papers were full of the New York disaster and talk of impending war and there was much discussion about moral certainties and the role and value of art. Yet for her painting is about the fact of being alive. The very act of ‘doing’, the endless intuitive creative search, the “condensation of sensation to perception” that can be shared between artist and viewer, is utterly life affirming. Her work is, like her, vital, anarchic, bold and generous spirited. In the end, she says, “The act of painting is an act of belief.”
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2001
Image © Roger Mayne