Bridget Riley @ Hayward Gallery

This is a major retrospective of the work of the celebrated British artist Bridget Riley (b.1931), covering 70 years of her career, and featuring over 200 works and 50 huge and wonderful paintings.

Movement in Squares by Bridget Riley (1961) Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © Bridget Riley 2019. All rights reserved

  1. It is a big, bright, light, beautifully arranged exhibition for which they’ve removed walls and partitions to make the gallery space as open and light as possible
  2. What’s not to love? Riley’s paintings are large and joyful, life-affirming, wonderfully inventive and teasing and striking and bold and imaginative works

To shake it up, the exhibition is organised thematically rather than chronologically, in order to draw attention to the interests and themes that recur throughout her oeuvre, themes such as ‘Stripes and Diagonals’. ‘Curves’, ‘Black and White’.

An explorer

As you progress through you learn that Riley is a sort of inventor, or explorer, or analyst, of the effects of pattern and colour on the eye and mind.

This becomes clear in what is chronologically the beginning but has been arranged to be the ‘final’ section of the show (though you can wander round it in any order), and is titled Beginnings.

It includes a large selection of drawings right from the start of her career. Some go as far back as her secondary school, the phenomenally posh Cheltenham Ladies College which she attended after the war. Others are from her time at  Goldsmiths College (1949–52) and the Royal College of Art (1952–55).

What we see is a very gifted student doing scores of life studies, nudes, portraits, and some landscapes. She was a good drawer and is quoted as saying drawing remains central to her practice – ‘an enquiry, a way of finding out’. I was particularly captivated by this woman’s head, whose beady features reminded me of Daumier.

But the point of showing the early work is to bring home how she was fascinated by the impact of lines and shapes. There are landscapes with detail filled in, and next to them the same landscape but sketched only as parts of lines, leaving the eye to complete the design and also to fill in the volume. Looking at them you realise how she was restlessly investigating the impact of shapes, patterns and design.

Seurat

The post-impressionist painter Georges Seurat is so important to Riley’s art that he merits a section to himself. Seurat pioneered the use of pointillism i.e. reducing the entire painting to blobs or dabs of colour. The aim was to make the colours vibrate against each other and so to capture the effect of light.

But in doing so Seurat discovered that deploying colour like this – not in the long smooth strokes of traditional painting, but in dots placed next to each other – created a curiously dynamic and energetic image. Riley was early on fascinated by the use of contrasting colours, patterns and sapes to create a completely deceptive sense of volume and depth.

So much so that in 1959 Riley made her own, larger version of Seurat’s classic painting The Bridge at Courbevoie. The aim wasn’t to reproduce it but to get right under the skin of Seurat’s method and vision. She’s quoted as saying:

I believed – and in fact still believe – that looking carefully at paintings is the best training you can have as a young painter.

Copy of Le Pont de Courbevoie by Georges Seurat by Bridget Riley (1959) © Bridget Riley 2019

The subject matter isn’t really the pint for either painter. It was the way design and depth and volume and shape could all be created by arranging dots. What came next was a breakthrough.

Black and white

She threw out colour. She chose to concentrate on black and white alone, in order to focus on the perceptual potential of the work – in order to explore the nuts and bolts, the bare bones of perception, to explore what goes on when we look at an image. And the results surprised even her.

Blaze 1 by Bridget Riley (1962) © Bridget Riley 2019

From 1961 to 1965 Riley worked only in black and white, exploring a wide range of visual effects, including many which create optical illusions of depth, of the picture plane folding away from the viewer, or emerging from the canvas, or shimmering.

She said at the time that she began with a basic geometrical shape (square, circle, line) and then ‘put it through its paces’ – subjecting it to systematic distortions and experiments.

She was immediately recognised as an exciting new voice and included in a 1965 collective exhibition, The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which featured many exponents of what was becoming known as Op Art (short for optical illusion art), so she found herself grouped with them, though she has always disavowed connection with the movement.

There are several rooms full of these wonderful optical illusions from the 1960s, many of which look like they could be on a polka-dot mini-skirt modelled by Twiggy.

Coloured lines

Then, in 1967, Riley first introduced colour into her work. Since then, the way that colour behaves and the way that different colours interact has been one of her main concerns.

At the core of colour is a paradox. It is simultaneously one thing and several things – you can never see colour by itself, it is always affected by other colours.

In particular her analysis led her to realise the importance of lines and edges.

A long line of colour, essentially an ‘edge’ without a large volume to carry, is the ideal element to work with this elusive relationship between colour and light.

It’s fascinating to share with her the discovery that colour is inherently unstable. The colours we see are defined by the other colours we see them with. Hence her work in the later 1960s and throughout the 1970s which explored a wide range of effects created by long, apparently straight, ‘edges’ of colour and the way they bleed and reverberate against each other.

Chant 2 by Bridget Riley (1967) © Bridget Riley 2019

May sound improbable but many of these vast collections of coloured strips do shimmer and vibrate against each other. And I realised that some of them created colour-based optical illusions. Lines of only red and green, viewed at the right distance, create additional lines of yellow which, in reality, are just not there. But you can see them, loud and clear.

In the early 1980s she expanded her palette to include more colours. Ra from 1981 is the first of Riley’s large-scale ‘Egyptian palette’ paintings, inspired by the colours found in ancient Egyptian art. You can see how much richer and deeper it is than something thinner like Chant 2. That’s also because she began using oil paint instead of her previous staple of acrylic paint, oil giving a richer and deeper effect.

Ra by Bridget Riley (1981) © Bridget Riley 2019

Curves

Curves were present in some of the early black-and-white paintings such as Kiss (1961) and Current (1964) but very much within the geometric simplicity of those early works.

In the 1970s she reintroduced curves as a compositional element using a limited number of colours that cross over each other in twisted curves, such as Aubade (1975), Clepsydra (1976) and Streak 2 (1979). You can see how these compositions lead logically on from – or certainly derive a strong visual debt to – the edge and line drawings. She has taken the discoveries of the use of multiple coloured parallel lines and subjected them to wave-like undulations.

Some of them, huge affairs hanging on the Hayward’s big white walls, are quite wonderfully hypnotic.

Stripes and diagonals

In the late 1980s a major shift occurred in Riley’s work when she crossed the stripe with a diagonal thrust of colour. The exhibition features four of these large ‘rhomboid’ paintings which create visual effects far more complex than the earlier Op Art or line paintings.

High Sky by Bridget Riley (1991) © Bridget Riley 2019

To be honest, paintings like this felt a long, long way from the works of the 60s and 70s. They had a very different vibe, and I didn’t warm to them as much. The Op Art stuff feels cool and stylish, sleek and slick like the original James Bond Aston Martin.

This feels more… well, how would you describe it? It is a natural progression from the line paintings which they’re exhibited next to but… some kind of line has been crossed into a different visual universe.

Even more so when, in the 1990s, Riley returned to the idea of interlocking curved shapes but combining them with what she had discovered about the power of diagonals to create more complex but also more zoomorphic or relaxed or curved patterns. And gone are the lines. These are experiments with blocks of colour as shapes, or with the way shaped colour effects us.

Painting with Verticals 3 by Bridget Riley (2006) © Bridget Riley 2019

What there was of hard angles and linear energy in the diagonals paintings has now been almost entirely lost. These rhomboid paintings are more… decorative. If they have a visual energy it is much more diffused.

Something about their sheer size and their bright bright colours reminded me of David Hockney’s last decade or more, both displaying a late-in-life love of big big brightly coloured, blocks of patterned or abstract shapes for their own sake. There were references to Matisse and his late-in-life highly-coloured cutouts. Maybe it is a state some artists arrive at after 50 years of painting – a sense of complete freedom.

Dots

And just when you thought she’d earned the right to hang up her brushes, Riley surprised everyone with another drastic change of approach – coloured dots. Black and white dots had featured in the early Op Art works, but now she set out to investigate the impact of using quite large coloured discs arranged in regular patterns.

The result was a large painting titled Cosmos and a series painted on canvas and on walls known as the Measure for Measure series, and the wall painting Messengers which was recently unveiled as a permanent decoration to the Annenberg Court in the National Gallery, just across the river from the Hayward.

It’s not just the shapes – it’s another experiment with colour as Riley deliberately pared back her pallete to just purple, orange and green. Then in 2018 she added turquoise.

Measure for Measure by Bridget Riley (2017)

Inventor and superviser

At some point one of the wall labels casually mentions that from quite early on Riley designed her pieces and then had assistants actually paint them. This professional and rather detached, scientific approach to the work is reinforced by the Beginnings section which, alongside the early drawings, includes quite a lot of studies for the early abstract works, cartoons or preparatory sketches, which are covered in notes and instructions and she suggested moving various blocks of colour around to experiment with the effects.

It’s somehow rather wonderful and inspiring to think of her as this chief, boss, head designer, experimenter, analyst and visual scientist, paying others to actually make the work so that she can continue her alchemical investigations into the visual power and patterns, designs and colour.

What I really really really missed from the exhibition is any summary of her findings. After a lifetime devoted to experimenting with visual effects – what conclusions can she share with us? She’s quite liberally quoted on the wall labels, but generally only in respect of particular works or series. Are there no general conclusions which she could share with us? I’d love to know.

Life enhancing

The Director of Hayward Gallery is quoted as saying that Riley’s work is not just vision-enhancing but life-enhancing’ and that seems to me absolutely right. This is a wonderful, inspiring and deeply enjoyable exhibition by a great and lovely artist.

I’ve managed to get to the end without conveying that some of the art has really genuinely hallucinatory optical illusory power. I found myself walking back and forth in front of a series up on the first floor of the curved line paintings from the late 60s. They really did shimmer and billow as you walked past. Maybe you get a little of it from this image on your screen, but imagine something like this only ten feet tall. It’s transporting!

Cataract 3 by Bridget Riley (1967) © Bridget Riley 2019

Interview

The exhibition was first staged at the Royal Scottish Academy. In this video Bridget Riley is interviewed by Sir John Leighton, Director General of the National Galleries of Scotland.

Curators

Senior Curator Dr Cliff Lauson, with Assistant Curator Sophie Oxenbridge and Curatorial Assistant Alyssa Bacon.


Related links

Reviews of other Hayward Gallery exhibitions

Messengers by Bridget Riley @ the National Gallery

At the moment the National Gallery is forcing visitors to enter through the small Getty entrance to the right of the main portico. You trot up some stairs and go through an airport-style metal detector security, walk past the enormous shop (there are three main shops in the gallery) into the long narrow space called the Annenberg Court, and then have to mount quite a big flight of stairs to reach the main entrance hall.

The stairs are black and are attached to one wall of a large white space. Usually it is painted pure white to create a sense of light and emptiness. Now, however, it has been decorated by leading British artist, Bridget Riley, with a series of large green, beige and grey dots.

Messengers by Bridget Riley. Photo by the author

Messengers by Bridget Riley. Photo by the author

Riley (born in 1931 and a Companion of Honour and a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire aka CBE) made her reputation in the 1960s as a leading proponent of Op Art i.e. art interested in exploring all kinds of optical illusions.

The wall labels explain that this work is entitled ‘Messengers’ because Constable referred to clouds as ‘messengers’ in one of his letters. It is deliberately ambiguous so it can also be taken as an allusion to the numerous angels, messengers and bearers of news, that we see in the skies of so many National Gallery pictures.

A more direct influence is the pointillist technique of the French painter George Seurat, famous for large scale pointillist masterpieces such as Bathers at Asnières.

It’s easiest to think of Riley’s dots as a sampling of Seurat’s little dots which have been blown up to huge proportions. When this happens you learn that most of a Seurat painting is made up of the spaces between the coloured dots – just as the ‘solid’ atoms which make up us and everything around us are actually mostly empty space.

Because, in my opinion, what the dots do is emphasise the size and whiteness of the space, bring it out. Previously this was a big white empty space. Now, it has become much more problematic for the eye and mind. The wall label which explains the work suggests that, if you pause (on the landing at the top of the stairs or half way down the stairs) to look at the dotted wall, they will leave after-images on the viewer’s retina that suggest volume and movement.

Maybe. To the number-minded like myself they suggest some kind of pattern. In fact I quickly realised they are painted in broken diagonal lines. If there were a few more of them they’d begin to crystallise into Xs. As it is there are diagonal ‘paths’ between the lines. Can you see any other patterns?

Messengers by Bridget Riley. Photo by the author

Messengers by Bridget Riley. Photo by the author

Anyway, after reading the label and pondering Messengers for a few minutes, I passed on to the Boilly exhibition in Room One of the gallery, across the central hall (and next to another, huge, shop).

When I came back the same way, walking across the old, dark-wood-panelled central hall, I suddenly realised that, approached from this side, the big atrium and Riley’s dots are framed by a characteristically Victorian, huge, dark, oak-framed doorway.

Framed. Just like one of the thousands of Old Master paintings in the rest of the gallery.

Messengers by Bridget Riley. Photo by the author

Messengers by Bridget Riley. Photo by the author

My photo doesn’t really convey it, but to me this framing effect gave the image a lot more bite.

Standing on the stairs beneath the big white open space of the court felt a bit like being on the escalator at any number of modern shopping centres, with a vague sense of a big light space looming over you.

But framed like this, the image had more definition and power.

Also, God knows how many art videos I’ve seen which make a virtue of showing nothing very much happening, and so I found the framing effect almost transformed it into an art video experience.

In a sort of way, for a few minutes, I enjoyed standing there, in line with the centre of the doorway, watching people walk in and out of it, almost all of them busy and purposeful, but a few pausing to lean against the balcony and look out at the dots.

I liked the contrast between the black oak doors, the black outline of the balcony and the (mostly) black clothes that everyone was wearing and the ringing white walls of the Annenberg Court.

I liked the contrast between the complete stasis of the dots, caught/trapped/arranged in their punctured latticework – and the busy, chaotic strutting, strolling, ambling, chatting, pausing and hesitating of the people moving in front of it.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

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