Catalogue entry

Gillian Ayres b.1930

T01714 Distillation 1959

Inscribed on the back t.r. ‘DISTILLATION 1959 by GILLIAN AYRES’also ‘TOP’ with arrows.
Household paint and artist’s oil colour on hardboard, 84 x 60 (203 x 152.5).
Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1973.
Exh: Premiere Biennale de Paris, October 1959 (Grande Bretagne, 1).

The following entry has been edited and approved by Gillian Ayres.

The artist told the compiler in conversation (6 November 1973) that ‘Distillation’ was painted partly in Ripolin enamel household paint and partly in artist’s oil colour. The paint was poured straight from the can or squirted direct from the tube. She also used a brush at this time but less frequently than in paintings done later the same year and during 1960–61— such as ‘Break-Off’, 1961 (T01715). These earlier paintings also often had bits of rag, paint tube tops and other small flotsam embedded in the pigment.

Her method was first to cover the entire ground very rapidly and then to work in more complex detail. She painted on a surface fluid with turps, so that the picture seems constructed of a balance of moving forces and fluxes. Rapidity of execution was paramount but meant that many paintings of the period were destroyed; sometimes because they failed to satisfy the artist, often because of lack of storage space.

Her concerns in these paintings were with space (‘In those days one talked about space where one would now talk about surface’), materials and colour and the balance of one element, one area of colour against another ‘so that nothing is more important than anything else. One was into the idea of no composition, but for a time afterwards I feel I slipped back.’

These paintings were done on the floor and photographs she had seen of Jackson Pollock working on his drip paintings were influential. However Gillian Ayres pointed out that she knew very little about Pollock beyond this. As an influence on her work Pollock was of literary rather than visual importance. Moreover she was not interested in the graphic element in his work—indeed she tried to avoid it. Where he worked with linear drips of paint her concern was with area and substance, with blobs and circles and the spatial character of their surfaces. She told the compiler that she felt that Lawrence Alloway, in his introduction to the catalogue of her first Molton Gallery exhibition in 1960, had exaggerated the importance of American influence; it is to Picasso rather than to Pollock that she traces the origins of her use of Ripolin enamel.

There were two main areas of experience more important to the work of this period than the impact of American painting. The first centres on her association with other English artists and particularly Roger Hilton, whom Gillian Ayres sees as the single direct influence on her work. She first met him when she was working part-time at the A.I.A. galleries in 1951–53. It was, she told the compiler, the first time anyone had really talked to her about painting. She recalls his discussing space, edge (which related back to his interest in Constant), colour and the notion of abstraction generally and that at the time he was ‘for environmental colour and against mood or any romanticism in painting’. Marked passages in her copy of Lawrence Alloway’s Nine Abstract Artists, 1954, pp.29–30, bear further witness to the impact of Hilton’s ideas.

The second important factor was the large mural decoration she did for the dining room at South Hampstead High School in 1957 and which established the kind of painting exemplified in ‘Distillation’ that was to occupy her for the next two years. Her first work of this loose tachiste kind was done two or three months before the Redfern Gallery’s Metavisual, Tachiste, Abstract exhibition of May-June 1957, where in fact she showed work somewhat similar to Poliakoff and influenced by Hilton, Heath and de Staël. Before the mural commission she had never previously worked on a large scale, but these paintings were 7ft 6in high and up to 11ft long and she learned much about space, scale and this kind of technique simply by doing them.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1972–1974, London 1975.