Phaëthon 1990 is a very large oil painting packed with a variety of interlocking but loosely defined shapes, including triangles, circles, semi-circles, arches and zig-zagging lines. Shades of yellow, red and orange are especially prominent, while many of the forms have been given thick white outlines. The surface of the canvas is thick with paint, which appears to have been applied quickly and freely in layers so that every area of the canvas is covered. At the top of the painting black and white lines radiate from multi-coloured bands that curve from one side to the other over the central composition, which is made up of loosely delineated shapes of various sizes. At the bottom edge of the work is a sequence of vertical parallel lines in black, brown and red paint, which the curator David Elliot has described as ‘a kind of garden fence behind which the intense drama of colour and form which comprises the centre of the painting can take place’ (Elliot 1990, p.4).
After a period beginning in the mid-1960s in which she worked predominately with acrylic paint, often producing work in muted colours (see, for example, Weddell c.1973–4, Tate T13725), British painter Gillian Ayres reverted to oil paint in 1976 and began utilising a much more colourful palette. Phaëthon’s thick layers of paint, exuberant colours and expressive paint handling are characteristic of Ayres’s work after she finished teaching at the Winchester School of Art and left London for north Wales in 1981. This painting was made using an upright canvas and a ladder in Ayres’s studio on the border of Devon and Cornwall, where she moved in 1987.
The title of this work refers to the figure of Phaëthon, who, according to Greek mythology, was the son of the sun god Apollo. The predominance of yellow, red and orange in the painting may allude to Phaëthon’s parentage, and in particular to the mythical account of Phaëthon’s journey in his father’s sun chariot, when he drove so fast it caused the surrounding landscape to burst into flames. However, the titles of Ayres’s works are usually conceived after the paintings have been completed, and in some cases have been suggested by the artist’s friends or by a process of free association. In 2001 Ayres remarked, ‘I like the titles and care about them but they do not describe the paintings’ (Gooding 2001, p.148).
Similarly, Ayres regards the forms in works such as Phaëthon as abstract, but has also claimed, ‘To get something … of the grand things in nature, but to make the paint itself do it, has been a constant ambition; one’s looking for something like that to happen’ (quoted in Gooding 2001, p.182). Elliot has suggested a conflict between ‘highly pitched geometric and organic forms’ in works such as Phaëthon, as well as a ‘transcendence from the material world’, that he compares to the abstract paintings made between 1912 and 1920 by the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) (Elliot 1990, p.4).
Phaëthon was first exhibited in a solo exhibition of Ayres’s work at the Fischer Fine Art gallery in London in November 1990.
David Elliot, ‘Gillian Ayres’, Gillian Ayres: New Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Fischer Fine Art, London 1990, p.4, reproduced p.11.
Gillian Ayres, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 1997.
Mel Gooding, Gillian Ayres, Aldershot 2001, reproduced p.162.
Supported by Christie’s.