Gillian Ayres, Nimbus
Modern British & Irish Art

Rediscovering Gillian Ayres

By Lydia Wingfield-Digby
"As a female abstract artist working in the UK, Gillian Ayres was way ahead of her time and the vast majority of her male counterparts but of course, for her, gender was an irrelevance"
Alan Cristea, 2018

G illian Ayres, who died earlier this year at the age of 88, was one of the leading exponents of the radical developments in abstract painting dominating British Art in the late 1950s and 1960s. Responding to the work of the Abstract Expressionist painters in America, Ayres and her contemporaries eliminated any reference to the outside world in their work, and instead focused directly on the abstract properties of the paint surface, texture, scale and colour, and in doing so reaffirmed the language of abstraction.

Painting in large-scale, their works redefined the relationship between the spectator and the canvas. These huge canvases enveloped the viewer, preventing them from looking into the painting; instead, the painting confronts them as an object. This British movement challenged convention and overturned assumptions about the subject matter, appearance and status of art.

Heralding in this new generation of British abstract painters was the notable exhibition Situation at the RBA Galleries in 1960. As the first group show of British abstract art of the new decade, this decisive exhibition was a defining moment on a par with Damien Hirst’s 1988 show Freeze in bringing this new direction of British Abstract Art to the public eye. Among the 20 artists included were soon-to-be-big names such as William Turnbull, John Hoyland and Bridget Riley - Ayres was the only other women included in this ground-breaking show and was already a well-known figure in Britain. She was included in Metavisual, Tachiste, Abstract: Painting in England Today in 1957 and chosen as a representative at the Paris Biennale in 1959. She would go on to be shown at the Kasmin Gallery (1965, 1966 and 1969), but Situation signalled the end of her public career for some years and the extent of her involvement in this movement is often seen as more limited in comparison to her male counterparts. This is partly historical – with the advance of Pop Art in the 1960s, abstraction as a whole was often overlooked during this time – but also circumstantial: for many years Ayres devoted herself to her family and to teaching, at which she excelled. From 1959 until 1965, she taught at Corsham, followed by St Martin’s School of Art from 1966 until 1978 when she became the first woman to run a fine art department in a British art school, with her appointment as head of painting at Winchester.

Work room, Llaniestyn, 1980s. © Sam Mundy

However, since 1980 the importance of Ayres’ work has been reassessed, with over twenty-five solo exhibitions, including the Museum of Modern Art Oxford, Oxford (1981); Serpentine Gallery, London (1983); Royal Academy of Arts, London (1997); Southampton City Art Gallery (2005). More recently the Jerwood Gallery in 2010 put on a show of her early work from the 1950s including her outstanding mural for South Hampstead High School which has been called ‘the only true British contribution to American abstract expressionism’ (Tim Hilton, The Guardian, 11 April 2018). In 2017 a larger exhibition was mounted at The National Museum Wales, Cardiff with her first show in Beijing at CAFA Art Museum. Currently her first selling exhibition is showing at PIFO Gallery in Beijing.

Sotheby’s is delighted to be including a work by Gillian Ayres for the first time in an Evening sale: Nimbus, not seen in public since it was gifted by Ayres to Anthea Alley.

Nimbus is one of the finest examples of Ayres’ work from the late 1950s and early ‘60s, encapsulating the quality, vitality and expressive power of her canvases. This work is in many ways the sister painting of the magnificent Break-Off, which was painted in the same year and is included in the collection of the Tate Britain. Conceived on an ‘American’ scale, it shares the same expansive framework, the same courage of gesture and the same beautiful balance of colour, between the bright, shiny surfaces of Pop and the more sombre palette of Abstract Expressionism.

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