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2002 A Short History of Abstract Art in Britain

Traditionally, Gallery I at the Summer Exhibition is dedicated to work by Honorary Royal Academicians, which are hung by the President. The year 2002, however, saw a departure from this convention: Galleries I, II, and III were devoted entirely to abstract works by Academicians, arranged by the artist Maurice Cockrill and the Royal Academy Exhibitions Secretary Norman Rosenthal. The opening gallery featured paintings by Gillian Ayres, Sandra Blow, John Hoyland, and Albert Irvin, together with a geometric sculpture by Philip King that juxtaposed glowing triangular towers of yellow, orange, and red pigment with a circular structure of coarse straw- and slate-coloured pebbles.1 According to the sculptor Alison Wilding, who edited that year’s iteration of the Royal Academy Illustrated, the room effectively constituted “a tribute to British abstraction”, uniting artists whose careers had developed in tandem since the 1950s and 1960s, sometimes intersecting but also diverging significantly.2 As such, the display encompassed a number of the many routes to abstraction taken by artists practising in Britain during the immediate post-war period and beyond.

The paintings selected for Gallery I were all large-scale abstract works that dominated the walls, but the biggest by far was Ayres’ triptych Ankh 2000, its three constituent pieces together measuring over five metres long, and one and a half metres high (Fig. 1). It is not only Ankh 2000’s size which endows it with a commanding presence, but moreover its dynamic composition of hastily rendered amorphous shapes in purple, blue, white, and pink, which jostle together vigorously against a vivid salmon ground. The title indicates that the two looped crosses on the far-right panel—one red, the other yellow haloed with teal—can be read as ankhs, the ancient Egyptian symbol for life. A large cloud shape, mirrored on a smaller scale at the work’s top left, floats across the central and right-hand sections of the triptych; these pillowy, cartoon curves come straight from a child’s drawing. Speckled ovoids dominate the majority of the canvas, and four of these egg-forms are contained within the pink, amniotic innards of the large cloud. A globular white area to the far left of the work repeats this exploration of inner and outer states through the black hole in its centre, which is in turn filled with green, lilac, and yellow marks. The tripartite format establishes links with Medieval and Renaissance triptychs of the crucifixion, pulling the work’s eclectic referents together into a meditation on the life cycle. 

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Despite the significant amount of time that has passed between Ankh 2000 and the paintings with which Ayres came to prominence during the 1950s and 1960s, the work encapsulates the aims of the Gallery I hang in that it synthesises forms and concerns that have shaped the artist’s experiments in abstraction from the beginning of her career. The thick, viscous quality of the paint in Ankh 2000, although applied to the canvas according to a specific design, recalls the tachiste spills and swirls that Ayres created by pouring Ripolin house paint over canvases laid on the floor, such as Untitled (1956) and Distillation (1957). Her large painting Cumuli (1959), which built on these earlier works by combining pours and drips with areas of applied brushwork, was included in the important Situation show at the RBA Galleries in September 1960, organised by the critic Lawrence Alloway.3 The exhibition, for which all canvases had to measure over thirty square feet, brought together a number of trends in post-war abstraction, which Margaret Garlake lists as: “the development of basic design teaching, the unprecedentedly large and tranquil canvases seen in The New American Painting, the stimulus of an urban environment and the possibility of working within a professionalised and international milieu.”4 Ayres’ work registered both the impact of Jackson Pollock, and the developments of art informal or tachisme theorised by Michel Tapié in Paris, a city that she visited regularly in the 1950s.5 Her exploration of materials and techniques at this stage can be understood as both a phenomenological investigation of the interrelation between physical and mental experience, and a questioning of raw matter’s potential to signify. While this interest in creation and generation assumed tangible, process-based manifestations in her early work, Ankh 2000 shows how this would increasingly become a conceptual issue for Ayres, as she shifted away from chance operations and improvised mark making, but nonetheless remained intently engaged with the experiences of gestation and germination.

In this respect, it is the paintings that Ayres developed after the tachiste works that have the strongest correlations with Ankh 2000. During the early 1960s, Ayres started dramatically thinning her paint, applying it in rapid strokes to create watery colour fields in which quickly executed squares and circular shapes hang as if suspended in a chemical solution. The edges of these forms, as in Break-off from 1961 (Fig. 2), fray and bleed into their surroundings, giving the impression of the smallest building blocks of life—cells and molecules—undergoing transformations and evolving into new arrangements.6 Catherine Jolivette has argued that, under the impact of scientific developments and technologies such as the microscope, artistic approaches to landscape in Britain during the 1950s underwent dramatic change:

the new worlds open to exploration by the artist were both microscopically small and infinitely large. […] The visions revealed by the microscope and the telescopic lens were no longer interpreted as archetypes and symbols, but investigated pragmatically by artists exploring both their formal structures and the processes of growth.7

Ayres’ play with scale and her highly ambiguous shapes are evocative of this vertiginous shift into microscopic worlds, resonating with a wider artistic impulse to use artworks and exhibition spaces as sites to address the interrelation of growth and form.8

Equally, while works such as Break-off are clearly non-representational, Ayres’ pastel palette resonates with the synthetic tones embraced by Pop art during the 1960s. In a 1967 statement, Ayres conveyed the eclecticism and diversity of the objects that triggered her paintings:

Often objects of diverse origins seem to me to have something exotic, unfamiliar, although they are basic enough:

Jelly moulds
Mrs Beeton’s ice creams and cakes
Finials and crockets
Lichens and seaweeds and cupcoral and urchins
Uccello hats and plumed helmets.9

This combinatory ethos has remained central to Ayres’ practice. While on the one hand it is overtly formalist, in that Islamic art and architecture can be treated in exactly the same way as “lichens and seaweed” as a source for appropriated motifs, it also indicates a non-hierarchical attitude to source material, and even an affinity with collage aesthetics, which provides a through-line from the 1950s and 1960s into the 2000s. Ankh 2000 is the product of precisely this readiness to combine a curve taken from a “jelly mould” with a pattern from Uccello, resulting in paintings where the abstracted traces of myriad elements coalesce in a soup-like combination. Works such as Ankh 2000 assume the status of painterly petri dishes, in which fragmented components imbued with potential meaning making are gathered together to see if their re-combination will generate new significations. The presence of the work in Gallery I for the 2002 Summer Exhibition therefore underscores that any “tribute” to abstraction must of necessity register multiple interweaving histories and processes, including international connections and myriad lines of conceptual enquiry. 

  1. Andrew Lambirth, “Gallery I”, in Alison Wilding (ed.), Royal Academy Illustrated 2002: A Selection from the 234th Summer Exhibition, exhibition catalogue (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2002), 12.↩︎

  2. Alison Wilding, quoted by Lambirth, “Gallery I”, 12.↩︎

  3. The committee that Alloway led included the artists Bernard Cohen, Robert Coleman, William Turnbull, and Robyn Denny, among others.↩︎

  4. Margaret Garlake, New Art, New World: British Art in Postwar Society (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 60. The New American Painting was an exhibition organised by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which travelled to the Tate Gallery in 1959. This show of primarily Abstract Expressionist work built on the success of the 1956 show Modern Art in the United States, which culminated in a room of Abstract Expressionist works.↩︎

  5. Mel Gooding, Gillian Ayres (Aldershot: Lund Humphries, 2001), 37. Tapié co-organised the exhibition Opposing Forces at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1953, which included works by Sam Francis, George Mathieu, Henri Michaux, and Jackson Pollock. Ayres titled a 1957 work Tachiste Painting No. 1, and fifteen of her paintings were included in the group exhibition Metavisual, Tachiste, Abstract of the same year at the Redfern Gallery. See Metavisual, Tachiste, Abstract: Painting in England To-Day, exhibition catalogue (London: Redfern Gallery, 1957).↩︎

  6. Gooding perceptively observes of these paintings: “It is as if we are looking at continuously moving amorphous organic forms on a hugely magnified microscope slide through a lens with a delimited field of vision.” Gooding, Gillian Ayres, 76.↩︎

  7. Catherine Jolivette, Landscape, Art and Identity in 1950s Britain (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 132.↩︎

  8. This is perhaps epitomised by the exhibitions mounted by artists affiliated with the Independent Group at the ICA in the early 1950s, notably Growth and Form by Richard Hamilton and Ronald Avery in 1951. There are also suggestive overlaps between Ayres’ application of poured paint and that of Magda Cordell. For an important study of Cordell’s work, see Giulia Smith, “Painting that Grows Back: Futures Past and the Ur-Feminist Art of Magda Cordell McHale, 1955–1961”, British Art Studies 1, doi:10.17658/issn.2058-5462/issue-01/gsmith.↩︎

  9. Gillian Ayres, in Alan Bowness, Recent British Painting (London: Lund Humphries, 1968), 21. This book was a reprint of the catalogue that accompanied the 1967 exhibition of the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation collection at the Tate Gallery.↩︎

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Explore the 2002 catalogue