British painter and printmaker Tess Jaray relieves hard-edged abstraction of detachment, rendering soft architectural dilutions over a career spanning five decades.Read More
Born in Vienna, Tess Jaray spent her childhood in rural Worcestershire, England, where her family immigrated in 1938 following Germany's annexation of Austria. As a child, Jaray would explore the countryside and returned in the evenings to sketch the landscapes from memory.
Jaray's unconventional family—with her inventor father, artist mother, art collector grandfather, and gallerist aunt, who championed the German Expressionists in London—would nurture the painter's early interests, which would always place art with nature, alongside freedom and order.
Jaray left home at 16 to study painting at Saint Martin's School of Art London (1954–1957). She then attended the Slade School of Fine Art (1957–1960), experimenting with abstract expressionist techniques. As influences, Jaray notes the works of symbolist painter Gustav Klimt, Viennese and Italian architecture, and early Renaissance painting.
Following her graduation, Jaray was offered two travelling scholarships. In 1960, Jaray left for Italy, where she encountered Renaissance architecture. Jaray's second scholarship brought her to Paris the following year, where she worked in the etching studio of Stanley William Hayter.
Throughout Jaray's work, architectural structures are compressed into simple patterns. Space is flattened and stretched using geometry, colours, and shapes, replicating the physical encounter with place.
Jaray's early paintings are inspired by Renaissance architecture, and in particular its ceilings and domes. Depicting arched patterns against subtle shades, the paintings are often created in pairs, revisiting a single idea through opposition.
Structural paintings like Cupola Green (1963), set against a dark blue that incites reverence, retain historical motifs despite exuding an uninhibited expansiveness. In the picture, a bright turquoise arch stands out against the ceiling's curvature, hinting at a portal in space.
Jaray's paintings begin as preparatory sketches, where she experiments with a range of geometric forms before translating them to a large scale. Patterns are mapped out with masking tape to create a seamless finish, and high-contrast colours are selected to form vibrant backdrops, bringing to life otherwise simple shapes.
In her mature practice, Jaray has continued to respond to Renaissance art and architecture, with her 2021 exhibition From Piero and other paintings at Salisbury's New Art Centre influenced by the altarpieces of 15th-century Italian painter Piero della Francesca.
On the exhibition, Stephanie Bailey wrote for Ocula Magazine: 'Another group of large canvases in that show leaned in to hard-edge geometries completely... These works in particular exemplify Jaray's unceasing experimentation: a dynamic that keeps the artist at the vanguard of abstract painting.'
Jaray has completed a number of large-scale commissions in public spaces, starting in the 1980's. Often, these projects not only involve making the artwork, but redesigning the surrounding environment to create encompassing spaces.
Amongst Jaray's public projects is her 1991 commission for the Arts Council of Great Britain's rooftop terrace, when she paved the fifth-floor roofscape with Kirkstone Slate and Spanish stone, incorporating elements of architectural, ecclesiastic, and Islamic motifs.
Jaray was also commissioned to produce solo installations at the King's Cross Tapestry Building (2017), St Mary's Church in Nottingham (2012), and 23 Newman Street, London (2011).
From 1964 to 1968, Jaray taught at Hornsey College of Art, and then at the Slade School of Art, where she taught for three decades.
A widely published writer, essayist, and contributor to BBC Radio 3's 'The Essay', the artist often collaborates with artists and writers to produce books and exhibitions. A collection of essays titled Painting: Mysteries and Confessions, was published in 2012.
Jaray is a Royal Academician (2010), Reader Emeritus at the Slade School of Fine Art (1999), and an Honorary Fellow at the Royal Institute for British Architects (1995).
Tess Jaray has exhibited in solo and group shows internationally.
Select solo exhibitions include New Paintings, Karsten Schubert, London (2021); Return to Vienna: The Paintings of Tess Jaray, Vienna Secession (2021), From Piero and other paintings, New Art Centre, Salisbury (2021); East of the West, Karsten Schubert, Vienna (2019); Royal Academy of Arts, London (2019); Marc Straus, New York (2019); Aleppo, Exile Gallery, Berlin (2018).
Select group exhibitions include Women in Abstraction, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (2022) and Centre Pompidou, Paris (2021); Tess Jaray and Paul Cezanne, Karsten Schubert, London (2020); Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London (2019, 2018, 2017); Harder Edge, h Club Gallery/Saatchi Gallery, London (2018); Surface Work, Victoria Miro, London (2018); Barbican, London (1993, 1988); A Spiritual Dimension, Peterborough Art Museum and Gallery (1989); Tate Gallery, London (1977, 1967); National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (1968); Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura, Mexico City (1968).
Elaine YJ Zheng | Ocula | 2022