Gillian Ayres, Abstract Artist Besotted by Paint, Dies at 88

Like other abstract artists, she did not discuss the meanings, if any, in her works. She insisted that she thought only about the shapes, the space and the colors.

“People like to understand, and I wish they wouldn’t,” she told The Financial Times in 2015. “I wish they’d just look. It’s visual.”

Gillian Ayres was born in London on Feb. 3, 1930. Her father was a part-owner of a hat factory whose customers included the British Army. Her mother, the former Florence Brown, was a homemaker. For a while, she attended school in an air-raid shelter in London.

When she was attending a girls’ school in 1943, books on van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne and Monet inspired her to paint. And at 16, she insisted on attending art school and was admitted to what is now called the Camberwell College of Arts in London.

Chafing at the rigidity of the teaching, she left shortly before taking the final exam. She got a job as a hotel chambermaid in Paris, then returned to London to work in an art gallery with Henry Mundy, a painter she had met at Camberwell. They married in 1951 and divorced 25 years later.


“Bybios,” a 2017 work by Ms. Ayres.

By the mid-1950s, Ms. Ayres was a rising abstract painter, splattering paint on a canvas on the floor like Jackson Pollock.

“The whole idea of the canvas as an area in which to act, an area and what one does with it — I wanted to find out about that, obsessively,” she told The Telegraph in 2010.

Ms. Ayres came of age in Britain with abstract artists like Howard Hodgkin and Victor Pasmore. Roger Hilton, an older artist she admired, wrote a note to her in the early 1950s that she often referred to in the ensuing decades, she told The Independent in 1995. It described the abstract painter’s journey into the unknown, armed only with colors, shapes and space-creating powers.

“Can he construct with these means,” the note said, “a barque capable of carrying not only himself to some further shore but, with the aid of others, a whole flotilla, which may be seen eventually as having been carrying humanity forward?”

Ms. Ayres made her journey into abstract art in Britain as a woman among far more men.

“Nobody else was doing anything as adventurous or uninhibited, like throwing paint at the canvas, which only had parallels in America,” Alan Cristea, whose London gallery represents Ms. Ayres’s original prints, said in a telephone interview. “But she refused to be classified as a woman artist; she thought that was silly.”

Yet, he added, “She became sort of a role model for women of the younger generation.”

Her work has been widely exhibited in Europe, and when she had a show in Manhattan, at the Knoedler Gallery, in 1985, the New York Times critic John Russell praised her as a “full-bodied, adventurous and uncompromising painter.”


“Dance of the Ludi Magni,” a 1984 oil painting by Ms. Ayres.

Courtesy Alan Cristea Gallery, London

He later wrote, “Pushing the medium to its limits, she communicates a kind of reckless radiance that comes across in paintings large and small, square or round.”

Mr. Ayres taught at St. Martin’s School of Art in London and the Winchester School of Art in Hampshire, where she was the head of painting.

Mark Hudson, an art critic for The Telegraph and a former student of hers, recalled in an article on Friday how influential Ms. Ayres had been.

“Within months of her arrival,” he wrote, “a substantial number had stopped painting aimless landscapes and started producing large-scale, gestural, Ayresesque abstracts — a development that had more to do with Ayres’s force of personality than any kind of systematic instruction.”

In addition to her son Sam, Ms. Ayres is survived by another son, Jim Mundy, and a granddaughter. She continued to live with her former husband for most of the years after their divorce.

Ms. Ayres stopped painting about a year ago because of illness.

“I always knew in my heart of hearts that the day she couldn’t paint, she wouldn’t live very long,” Sam Mundy, also an abstract artist, said in a telephone interview. “I’m surprised she lasted a year not painting.”

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