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How to read it: Salix by Gillian Ayres RA

Published 11 November 2016

This vast and vibrant work by Gillian Ayres was inspired by the wild canvases of Jackson Pollock.

  • What can we see?

    This impressive painting of bold and colourful abstract shapes is almost two metres wide. Although there are, of course, many possible visual associations in it, Ayres insists she is a purely abstract painter (she says that abstraction “has been the force of this century visually”). Ayres says that her titles are arbitrary – but the title of this work, Salix, may encourage viewers to make figurative associations, as it is the Latin term for the Willow family of trees and shrubs.

  • Gillian Ayres RA, Salix
  • How did she make it?

    The artist’s physical act of painting is very evident in the work. She builds up paint into thick impasto often bypassing the use of brushes to make marks with her hands loaded with paint, maintaining an intimate connection her paintings. Ayres, now aged 86, says she is driven to paint every day. “When you’re born an artist, it’s almost like you’re trying to breathe,“ she says. "You can’t do anything else.”

    What were the artist’s inspirations?

    Bright colours and shapes connect Ayres with Pop Art, and she cites Matisse, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Venetian painting as inspirations – but Ayres’s thick, confident application of paint ties her most closely to American Abstract Expressionism. When Ayres was commissioned to paint a mural for South Hampstead High School (Hampstead Mural, 1957), a famous photograph of Jackson Pollock at work inspired her to paint on her hands and knees. A commission for a mural from Peggy Guggenheim had spurred Pollock to create the large-scale works that would define his career, and just as for Pollock, Ayres’ mural commission alerted her to the power of the vast canvas. She said, “a large-scale canvas has the possibility of one’s body movement relating to it, of obtaining a sense of place and the sublime.”

    So who is Gillian Ayres?

    Ayres was born in 1930 in Barnes and went to art school – despite her parents trying to bribe her with a global trip instead. She studied at Camberwell College of Art from 1945-50, although she left a month before graduating, believing exams to be "bourgeois”. Ayres has counted a number of hugely influential British artists among her friends as well, including Howard Hodgkin, Victor Pasmore and Roger Hilton. She lived in London, then Wales, and now in a remote house in Cornwall. She has travelled widely, including to India in 1991 where she was Britain’s only representative at the Seventh Triennale India. Ayres was the first woman to run a British art school’s painting department, as Head of Painting at Winchester School of Art between 1978 and 1981. She was awarded an OBE in 1986 and was elected to the Royal Academy in 1991.

  • When you’re born an artist, it’s almost like you’re trying to breathe. You can’t do anything else.

    Gillian Ayres RA