Like Mitchell and Frankenthaler, Ayres, too, has (unfairly) played second fiddle to her male counterparts in the narrative of British abstraction of the post-war period – that is until recently, as art historians, museums and collectors look to redress this gender imbalance. Just as American museums now see Mitchell or Frankenthaler as essential to any display of Abstract Expressionism, so the Tate, in the last few iterations of the hang at Tate Britain, have hung the magnificent Break-Off amongst the work of Ayres’ peers – Robyn Denny (with whom she taught at Corsham School of Art), Richard Smith, David Hockney, Bridget Riley and Anthony Caro.
Nimbus is in many ways the sister painting of Break-Off, painted in the same year. Conceived, very deliberately, on an ‘American’ scale, it shares the same expansive framework; the same courage of gesture; the same beautiful balance of colour, somewhere between the bright, shiny surfaces of Pop and the more sombre, metaphysical palette of Abstract Expressionism. And in both works, the forms float against the off-white ‘ground’, creating an ethereal space and slow movement, yet the drips and splats draw the eye back to the surface, asserting the painting’s ‘object-ness’, as required by Clement Greenberg.
Essential to Ayres’ technique in this period is her highly experimental use of oil paint and household gloss (ripolin) simultaneously within a single work, creating surfaces that are alternately deep and superficial. When one thinks of gloss, one thinks more of Gary Hume and the ‘YBAs’ of the early 1990s, but the likes of Ayres and Denny – the original YBAs in many ways – incorporated the shiny, brittle finish gloss into their work (also embracing the accidents this fickle material can create when it dries). Applied straight from the tin, it has the effect of placing their art in the ‘real’ world.
Perhaps in her later years, Gillian Ayres suffered something similar to Bridget Riley’s experience in the 90s – where the significance of her 60s work was widely acknowledged and yet the fact that she was still working left her something in limbo between being seen as a ‘Modern’ or ‘Contemporary’ artist. It is only relatively recently that Riley’s current output has been allowed to co-exist with the appreciation and understanding of her historical work. For Ayres, who was working until the very last, despite her ill-health, this sort of recognition, sadly, will come after her death, but when it comes it will be richly deserved. Works such as Nimbus are clearly important way-markers in the history of British art, in the history of women artists in British art, and in the dialogue between British abstraction of the 50s and 60s with the best of what was being made in Europe and, in particular, America.
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