In the 60 years since she took a revelatory trip to Italy, Tess Jaray has relentlessly explored pictorial and architectural space through abstract painting. Two exhibitions at the start of this year reflect her enduring engagement with pattern, repetition, colour and structure. At the New Art Centre in Roche Court, UK, she is showing a group of recent works inspired by architectural elements of Piero della Francesca’s frescoes and paintings, and others evoking the patterned roof of St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna.
Jaray was born in the Austrian capital but grew up in the UK, after her Jewish parents had fled the Nazis—many of her family died in the Holocaust. A retrospective, Return to Vienna, opens in February at the Secession there, with around 50 paintings representing one of the most singular and consistent bodies of work in recent British painting.
The Art Newspaper: The Roche Court exhibition features paintings after Piero. Tell us about those.
Tess Jaray: I’ve been, I suppose, obsessed with Piero ever since I first saw his frescoes in Italy, which is actually 60 years ago. And nobody has ever, for me, superseded that. I mean, there are plenty of great artists in the world—plenty of great Renaissance artists and some good contemporaries. But he’s been part of my view of art since that time. I did a couple of paintings going back three years, which were based on his architecture. There isn’t much architecture in his paintings, but there’s one—The Discovery and Proof of the True Cross—where there’s a facade of a Renaissance building with circles. I was very inspired by it and did a couple of paintings from it. And then I somehow got pulled in and thought I’d like to do more. They’re very small, all different sizes, maybe 30cm by 40cm. What I’ve done is just looked very closely, very carefully, at reproductions, and became very inspired to work from them. I probably have to admit—it’s a term I don’t like—but they are “abstracted” from Piero. Stolen, taken, inspired by—whatever word you want to use, it probably all applies.
How did you choose the details?
It was entirely intuitive. I’m always accused of being intellectual and I’m not. It’s simply a question of being able to look really closely at what some of those shapes and forms do, how they work, and then going away and doing something with it. So, with Piero’s Resurrection—Aldous Huxley said that it’s the greatest painting in the world, and I wouldn’t want to argue with that—I had to simplify that right down and substitute the staff with the flag with the cross he holds in his hands. I just substituted what you see there so that somehow my mind has turned those things around. There are three derived from The Flagellation of Christ and some people view that as his greatest. But all three are inspired by the famous floor, the paving. And when I was a young artist, nobody really knew what that floor would look like seen in the flat. The lecturer who taught perspective at the Slade when I was there in the late 1950s did a work-out of it. But now, of course, with computers, people have worked it all out.
You have said that your epiphany was the engagement with architecture that began on a trip to Italy in 1960.
I think that’s true. I was lucky enough to be at the Slade at a most wonderful time. It was a very inspiring period. We were a very serious bunch of people. And we had Ernst Gombrich, who was my father’s godfather, although I never met him. Nobody who ever heard Gombrich has ever forgotten it—we got a very strong sense of the Renaissance—but he never talked about architecture. Going to Italy, it was like opening a door into paradise. It was a period of great freedom; I don’t think young artists can have that anymore. I think this was a huge advantage and privilege for my generation. Italy is, in any case, a magical country; it was like entering another world. I’d never thought about architecture, I didn’t realise that by walking into a Brunelleschi building—which hit me in particular—you could actually be transported. I became very aware of the difference in the effect on a human being between one building and another. And I was amused also by the fact that there’s a lot of what we might call façade-ism in Italy—the fronts of things are obviously wonderful, but sometimes they’ve left the exposed brickwork on the back. So that really opened my eyes.
When I came back and started working in a studio, I didn’t know how to use all that new experience. It took a couple of years. But then there was a moment of epiphany: it was the year when “hi-tech” was actually the invention of masking tape. I drew a line across the canvas, a horizontal line in the middle, and then I drew two lines going in at a slight angle. And I thought: “Oh, my God, I’m making space.” Suddenly, I realised that’s what I wanted; I wanted to make space, to make something that you could disappear into. That wouldn’t have happened without Italy.
What about colour and space? As you were beginning that process, the ideas of the Bauhaus and particularly Josef Albers were quite influential.
We were all interested in those colour theories and in the fact that people like Goethe and so on hadn’t got it right. But I would say it’s almost impossible to be logical about colour. I think colour is entirely an intuitive thing, even if you’re working from a landscape. So I can’t explain where my colour comes from. It’s something that developed over the years. I just went for what I thought was right, in the 1960s. Now, I recognise the complexity of it all quite differently. And I recognise when something happens and something doesn’t happen. But the thing that we learned from Albers was, as he called it, “the interaction of colour”. I think it may be the case—and this doesn’t sound very modest—that I have developed my own palette. And I haven’t a clue where it’s come from. Except that in relation to other colours, it has to have some sort of an atmosphere.
You were born in Vienna and you now have an exhibition at the Secession.
When people ask where I grew up, I say I grew up in Vienna in the middle of the English countryside. My parents were in their early 30s when they came over here so they brought Viennese culture with them and their values didn’t change. But they absolutely adored the English. And I’m so happy they’re not here now to see what’s happening [with Brexit and English nationalism]. They wouldn’t have taken that very well. So it was a very mixed upbringing. But I never had any problems with going to art school or anything. We didn’t have television in those days; we would just read in the evening, or I would sit and draw—and I would draw from the landscape.
• Tess Jaray: Geometries, New Art Centre, Roche Court, Salisbury, 23 January-10 April; Return to Vienna: the Paintings of Tess Jaray, Secession, Vienna, 19 February-11 April