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Gillian Ayres: The Abstract Painter of Vibrant Canvases


Creating non-geometric abstract painting by layering thick layers of pigment, draws on a variety of styles and art historical movements, the English abstract painter, Gillian Ayres, is celebrated as one of the most significant abstract painters to emerge in London during the postwar period.

Best-known for her large, vividly colored abstract paintings and prints, Ayres was born on February 3, 1930. From 1946 to 1950, she studied at the Camberwell School of Arts in London. After completing her education, she worked part-time at the AIA Gallery from 1951 to 1959 and went on to teach at the Bath Academy of Art, Corsham, until 1965. She then taught at St. Martine’s School of Art, London from 1965 to 1978 and in 1978 became the Head of Painting at Winchester School of Art, where she remained until 1981.

Ayres was inspired by abstract expressionist art in the United States and painted in a lyrical and gestural style that stood in contrast to the hard-edge forms of her contemporaries. Ayres’s career attests to her experimental spirit, as she switched from oil to acrylic paints for much of the 1960s and early 1970s- creating textured surfaces- only to later return to oil.

Ayres first exhibited with “Young Contemporaries” in 1949 and with London Group in 1951. Her first solo exhibition was at Gallery One, London in 1956. Subsequent solo shows were held regularly throughout Europe, including the Kara Benson Gallery, Oslo (1957), the Molton Gallery, London (1960, 1962), Kasmin Gallery, London (1965, 1966, 1969) and Galeria Alvarez, Porto, Portugal (1977). She went on to have several exhibitions with the Knoedler Gallery in London and New York from 1979, and a retrospective of her work was held at the Serpentine Gallery, London in 1983.

More recently she has had solo shows at the Tate Gallery, London (1995) and at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (1997). She continues to exhibit regularly at Gimpel Fils, London and at the Alan Cristea Gallery, London. Among her many awards are the Japanese International Art Promotion Association Award (1963); Art Council of Great Britain Bursary (1975); Arts Council of Great Britain purchase award (1979); Second Prize, John Moores Biennale, Liverpool (1982); the Blackstone Prize, Royal Academy of Arts (1988; 1990); Charles Wollaston Award, Royal Academy of Arts (1989); and Prize Winner, Gold Medal, Seventh Triennale- India, British Council (1991).

Ayres was awarded an OBE in 1986 and was elected Royal Academician in 1991 (ARA 1982). She was made an Honorary Doctor of English Literature by London University (1994), a Senior Fellow of the Royal College of Art, London (1996) and received a Sargent Fellowship from The British School At Rome in 1997. London’s University of Arts made her an Honorary Fellow in 2005.

In recent years, the artist has experimented with woodcuts, creating ebullient works evocative of Henri Matisse. Never didactic, her oeuvre illustrates an artist constantly experimenting with the possibilities of paint. Gillian Ayres lives and works in Cornwall and London.


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