There is no mistaking a Gillian Ayres painting. You enter a room and there it is like a voluptuous jazz singer in mid-riff, drawing you in with its improvisations, its loops and swirls of melodic colour. Gillian Ayres is, along with Sandra Blow, Prunella Clough and Bridget Riley, one of our most significant post-war woman abstract painters; having said that she is probably one of the most significant British abstract painters. Part of a generation of women artists for whom feminism was not a debate, for whom it was simply painting that mattered. In a hard drinking, male dominated art world they just got on with it, staking out their claims based solely on talent and determination. In the last three decades she has, regardless of the vagaries of fashion, produced a body of work that with its loosely biomorphic forms and thick gloopy paint, reveals what it is to be a sensual, sentient being alive to the vividness of the visual world.
I first met her in 1984 and, as a young critic, was rather scared of her reputation but found a shy, feisty, kind, self-deprecating, witty and wonderfully knowledgeable painter. Born in 1930 she attended St. Paul's Girls School, where her best friend was Shirley Williams, then went on to Camberwell College of Art. Now despite a degree of ill health she has produced, in two years, a glowing body of new work which is among the most vivacious and exciting she has done yet.
The 1950s saw her closely involved with the leading British abstract artists of her day, such as Roger Hilton, but she was soon seduced by European tachism and American abstract Expressionism, for a time following Pollock's gestural involvement with the canvas by painting flat on the floor. She has been through a number of styles, all essentially abstract, but it was in the 80s that her work really began to glow. Like some enormous firework display, where by accident the whole box had been let off at once, her paintings were a wealth of stars, loops, zigzags and rainbows.
Now she has moved on again. She has always insisted that she is an entirely abstract painter but recently she has allowed subtly figurative elements to re-enter her work. There are fronds and seed heads, leaves and hearts all embedded in a marvellous cacophony of vertiginous loops and swirls. It is as though she is so engaged with the actual world that she can't quite keep it out. And the colour? Well the colour is sublime. A strong black, mottled with red, abuts a line of umber, which then moves into a swirl of fleshy pink, which wriggles its way into an area of crimson that flows into a wave of orange that has been placed next to an amoeboid patch of purple, in her large canvas Maritsa. And so it goes on in painting after painting. There are lozenges and ribbons of colour that, of course, are reminiscent of Matisse or Howard Hodgkin. But they are never simply decorative, for to stand in front of these works, particularly the gem like carborundum etchings painted by hand, where a blue and vibrant red bleed into the surrounding yellow with bravura confidence, is like listening to Beethoven's Symphony no 9 in D minor, Ode to Joy.
Sadness and melancholy are so often the stuff of art. What is so rare about Gillian Ayres's work is that it is about the life force. Her titles, such as Tender is the Night and Piper at the Gates of Dawn, reveal her love of literature and poetry. So it is, perhaps, not inappropriate that this wonderfully affirming work should remind me of the lines of the great American poet, Walt Whitman, who wrote out the sheer exuberance and love of life "I celebrate myself, and sing myself, and what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."
Gillian Ayres Paintings and Works on Paper 2005-7 at Alan Cristea Gallery, London from 17 May to 16 June 2007