Frank Auerbach: The Spectator

Gillian Ayres: Paintings from the 1950s

Jerwood Gallery, Hastings, until 25 November

Gillian Ayres: Paintings and Works on Paper 2010–12

Alan Cristea Gallery, 31 & 34 Cork Street, W1, until 21 December

Frank Auerbach: Early Works 1954–78

Offer Waterman Gallery, 11 Langton Street, SW10, until 1 December


There are only eight single paintings in the current show of early work by Gillian Ayres (born 1930) — eight paintings and the four panels of a mural created for the dining room of Hampstead High School for Girls. The mural is over seven feet high and 27 feet wide, and its scale and achievement are remarkable for a young painter. (Ayres was 27 when she painted it.) But it is less original than the paintings it prepared the way for, and which now hang in the Foreshore Gallery of the Jerwood Foundation’s splendid new space in Hastings. The mural has an undeniably decorative impulse and looks very much of its time, but the paintings have moved beyond period confines and peer expectations. They are wonderfully fresh and full of energy, and explore an abstract language that touches easily upon the elemental without being in any way descriptive.


The viewer may be tempted to discern landscape or weather in these images, boulders or sunspots, tide-wrack or a mountain-top view under mist, but these are paintings about paint more than anything else. They do not convey their secrets in reproduction, but must be experienced directly to appreciate the huge range of mark and gesture, surface ripple and texture — a panoply of what paint can do when directed by urgent imperatives. If that makes the paintings sound chaotic, then I’ve given the wrong impression. They could be all over the place, but as you look at them, the guiding intelligence emerges, evident in unexpected structures and rhythms, and resulting in a marvellous lucidity and coherence.


Not everyone will enjoy this show: there are still too many even of the gallery-going public whose minds are closed to abstract art, either out of timidity (not daring to trust their own feelings and judgments) or entrenched ignorance (what’s it supposed to be? It doesn’t mean anything). But if you are able to respond to the spiritual bounty in these paintings and to their technical freedom and inventiveness, you are in for an experience of great unusualness and pleasure. These paintings, with their oceanic pulse of pure sensual delight, stimulate the mind as well as the emotions, and draw from deep within a cry of recognition — as at the discovery of a new yet shared language for celebrating the richness of our lives. It’s as if Ayres has given voice to feelings which previously were only dimly recognised and articulated. And this is in 2012 — how startling must they have seemed in the late 1950s when first made?


On the evidence of this exhibition, Ayres could have been the British Helen Frankenthaler, doyenne of second-generation American abstract expressionists, but she chose to go her own way and develop her work in new directions. The Jerwood paintings were carried out in oil and Ripolin, a French household enamel gloss paint, briefly fashionable and used a lot by Picasso. In the mid-Sixties Ayres began to work in a more formalised way in acrylic, returning to oil only around 1977, but from then on developing an intensely vibrant vocabulary of shapes and marks that gave rise to a long series of paintings of great sumptuousness. In recent years, Ayres has refined and simplified her shape-invention, and her latest work marks another new departure. Having thoroughly explored the rich textural potential of Carborundum prints since 1998, in 2011 she began making woodcuts and the flatness demanded by this new medium has influenced her handling of painted imagery.


I was given a preview of her new show at Alan Cristea and was immensely impressed by the vigour and invention of both the paintings and the woodcuts. Interestingly, there is a relationship between the latest work and the formalised acrylic pattern-pictures Ayres was making in the mid-Sixties, though now there is considerably more freedom and variety of surface. Ayres orchestrates a repertoire of shapes ranging from the organic to the geometric, placing them in bold outline against strong contrasting colours. Look, for instance, at ‘Celinale’ with its striped yellow lake overset with plant forms, and note the complex thin paintwork of the stripes. Here is a great and lyrical colourist playing magnificently with paint. It takes courage and generosity of spirit to keep reinventing yourself as Ayres does.


It’s quite a contrast to turn to the early work of Frank Auerbach (born 1931), laid out superbly at Offer Waterman Gallery, in a museum-quality mini-retrospective. The first thing to register is the abstract quality of what can only be called painted reliefs, so deep is the accumulated surface of paint. But abstract structure is matched by a strong sense of organic growth, with a rich (if restricted) palette enhancing the pronounced physical presence of these works. Once the sculptural quality has been absorbed and enjoyed, the eye is free to decode the subjects of these edible-looking slabs of pigment. There are 18 drawings and paintings in this choice selection, all of the head or figure, two specifically named as portraits, though this does not seem to mark them out in any particular way stylistically. Perhaps the portraits are more legible in terms of the viewer being able to distinguish features? This hardly seems to be Auerbach’s aim. In his paintings he is principally concerned to create an equivalent to what he has been so intently scrutinising: ‘a new species of living thing’, as he calls it.


Certainly Auerbach’s paintings live in the mind as an essence of an individual, a vital trace in dynamically moulded paint. The large red painting by the door as one enters, entitled ‘Studio with Figure on Bed II’ (1966), vibrates with human presence, emerging through the hefty impasto and tubed surface. One of the pleasures of the show is to see several small works, equally as potent as the larger pieces, two heads of his model E.O.W. and a painting of J.Y.M. in the studio. Downstairs is one of the major treats of the exhibition — ‘Head of Leon Kossoff’ (1954) — with a strange skull-like yellow painting of Helen Gillespie. Upstairs is a marvellous charcoal drawing of Kossoff, with ‘Figure on a Bed’, all spatial bands and dynamic diagonals hanging opposite, while a small arresting oil of Kossoff again, densely compacted, is on the landing. These are lovely objects well presented: a delight.


Sometimes I wish galleries would collaborate a little more effectively. There was an exhibition of recent work by Frank Auerbach at Marlborough Fine Art, but it has now ended so I can’t review it, even though it contained (among other things) a series of beautiful new drawings. And the Jerwood show only overlaps with the Cristea one by little more than a week, although the Hampstead Mural is on long-term display in Hastings until January 2013. The chance to compare an artist’s early work with his or her current output is rare, and when the painters are such major figures as Ayres and Auerbach, extremely informative. Yet other factors (no doubt sound commercial ones) have intervened, and the full impact of two ‘early and late’ parallels is denied us. However, there are still three very good shows concurrently on, and the Jerwood ends first. Any takers for the 10.15 from Charing Cross to Hastings? You arrive in good time for lunch in the Jerwood café.


Andrew Lambirth, Spectator, 15 November 2012

November 15, 2012