Gillian Ayres in 1993. Photo: Camera Press.

Gillian Ayres (1930–2018)

Gillian Ayres, the British painter and printmaker whose vibrant abstractions earned her a Turner Prize nomination in 1989, has died at age eighty-eight. Since the 1960s, Ayres has been considered a leading contemporary artist in the United Kingdom; she received a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 2011. Born in 1930 to affluent parents, Ayres studied abstract art at the Camberwell School of Art at sixteen years old. In 1957 she had her debut solo exhibition in London, eventually rising to international fame in the late 1950s despite the chillier response to her paintings from the local art scene, which had not yet embraced her kind of free-form abstraction.

Ayres was admired for the eccentricity of both her work and personality. She made art compulsively, almost endlessly; once, she continued to add paint onto a canvas even as a curator was walking it into a gallery to be installed. For her earlier pieces, Ayres would often climb a ladder to hurl oil paint on large canvases laid on the floor. Her works never sought to depict landscapes or people, but reflected how she claimed to see the world: in ebullient shapes and colors. Her work has been featured in more than twenty-five solo shows at venues including the Royal Academy of Arts in London, the Serpentine Gallery in London, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and National Museum Wales in Cardiff.

“To me, art—color in art—is wonderfully indulging,” she told the Independent in 1995. “I don’t see why you shouldn’t be filling yourself up, making yourself happy. Enjoying yourself. Feasting on beauty. I want an art that's going to make me feel heady, in a high-flown way. I love the idea of that.”