Bridget Riley: Learning from Seurat @ the Courtauld Gallery

The English painter Bridget Riley was born in south London in 1931. She’s considered a leading exponent of Op Art, short for Optical Art – art which uses visual illusions to create effects.

This is a one-room exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery focusing on Riley’s early breakthrough encounter with Georges Seurat’s painting Bridge at Courbevoie, a highlight of The Courtauld’s famous collection of Impressionist paintings. Seurat (1859-91) was a pioneer of pointillism, the technique of building up a painting using dabs and spots of colour, as the Bridge painting amply demonstrates.

Riley was fascinated by Seurat’s approach, by the systematic juxtaposition of colours unrelated to each other, and the dynamic visual effects this created. In 1959 she made a close copy of Seurat’s painting to discover and experience the technique ‘from the inside’. Both Seurat’s original and Riley’s copy are in this room, allowing you to compare and contrast.

Bridget Riley Copy after Seurat’s Bridge at Courbevoie (1959) Oil on canvas © Bridget Riley 2015. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London.

Bridget Riley Copy after Seurat’s Bridge at Courbevoie (1959) Oil on canvas © Bridget Riley 2015. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London.

The exhibition hangs the Seurat and Riley’s homage to it next to each other, with half a dozen of Riley’s paintings from her subsequent career, so investigating the enduring impact it had on her. This is most obvious in a work like Pink landscape, from the very next year. It is still recognisably figurative, a tranquil landscape in the Seurat manner, the changing palette of colour spots used to create the image of a landscape, but also a mood, and a dynamic change of coloration from top to bottom.

Bridget Riley Pink Landscape (1960) Oil on canvas © Bridget Riley 2015. All rights reserved,courtesy Karsten Schubert, London.

Bridget Riley Pink Landscape (1960) Oil on canvas © Bridget Riley 2015. All rights reserved,courtesy Karsten Schubert, London.

But this figurative period didn’t last long. All the other paintings on display here show the dramatic evolution of her style towards total abstraction – not the deeply expressive swirls and folds and washes of Peter Lanyon, working at exactly the same time and featured in the rooms next door.

It is a highly technical abstraction, which takes Seurat’s explorations off into the realm of mathematical patterns. Over her career Riley has explored countless variations on repeating shapes and designs which create powerful optical illusions, static images which exploit the idiosyncrasies and foibles in human perception to appear shimmering and moving.

The earliest moves in this direction came with black and white works like Tremor (1962), which is on display here, entertaining and bright and puzzling in the way such a static image produces such a strangely moving image. It is achieved in part because the static black and white triangles slowly become more sinuous and curvy as the move towards the centre of the canvas before reverting to the more mathematical rigidity at the other side.

A few years later and, along with many other experiments, a work like Late Morning I shows the progression from spots to stripes, and to the austere geometry of parallel vertical bars. The exhibition helps you see how something so formal nonetheless stems from the same enduring interest in placing pure colours next to each other and seeing what happens. Here elongated, narrow strips of several shades of green, red and blue are lined up side by side.

Bridget Riley Late Morning I (1967) Acrylic on linen © Bridget Riley 2015. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London.

Bridget Riley Late Morning I (1967) Acrylic on linen © Bridget Riley 2015. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London.

The advantage of seeing these paintings in the flesh is that only then can you appreciate the artfulness which has gone into them. For example, Vapour (1970) looks drab, like the Brutalist concrete car parks which characterised the architecture of the period. It’s only when you look closely that you realise each vertical bar is made up of two colours which themselves subtly change shape across the painting. Many of them are predominantly green at the bottom but the green, like a sliver of ice, gets slowly narrower as you go up the surface. Some do this to the left of the grey column, some to the right, and it is this change and the variety of the change, which help explain why what should be a flat static image has a peculiar shimmering, or indeterminate, or slightly disorientating effect.

Bridget Riley Vapour (1970) Acrylic on linen © Bridget Riley 2015. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London.

Bridget Riley Vapour (1970) Acrylic on linen © Bridget Riley 2015. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London.

Later still, in the 1980s, in a work like Ecclesia (1985), you can see how the fascination with what happens when you juxtapose colours is still at work, here taking the hard lines of the radical 1960s and 70s and blurring the edges to create a kind of abstract impressionism.

Riley’s ceaseless experimentation in what has turned out to be such a productive field have been a constant element of abstract art since the 1960s, and this one-room exhibition sheds fascinating light on its roots and on her development over the past 50 years.

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