Bridget Riley never ceases to amaze. Throughout her career, the visionary artist has continually challenged the ways we see and understand the world around us. Now, aged 90, she has no intention of stopping - and says she's still learning from the mistakes of her past.
In an exclusive interview with BBC Newsnight, Riley, who is one of the UK's most renowned artists, described herself as a sort of creative sociologist.
"I held a mirror up to human nature and reported faithfully," she tells Kirsty Wark.
Art has contributed to her own understanding of the world, too. Artists have "borne witness" to society's "changing circumstances and events, to horrors and as well as to wonder," she says.
And as one of the most significant artists of the 20th and 21st century, Riley says she hopes her work has made a contribution to "order, stability and the joy of living."
British artist Bridget Riley, who is known for bold, blocky, and striped canvases of brilliant hues and contrasts, got her first taste of international celebrity back in 1965. Curator William Seitz included two of her paintings, Current (1964) and Hesitate (1964), in his groundbreaking exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, titled “The Responsive Eye.” The eye-popping black-and-white squiggles of Riley’s Current adorned the catalogue cover, asserting Riley’s prominent position within the show. The exhibition situated her among an impressive roster of global artists whose artwork reconsidered ideas about perception. The group included American painters ranging from Morris Louis to Agnes Martin, along with Brazilian artist Almir da Silva Mavignier and a Spanish collective called Equipo 57. Along with Mavignier, Riley was considered part of a new wave of “Op artists” who exploited visual principles to make work that seemed to vibrate with new energy. Josef Albers, Salvador Dalí, and the museum-going public all swooned at Riley’s work.
While Op art has gone in and out of style, Riley herself is still working and is beloved on both sides of the pond. London’s Hayward Gallery is displaying a major Riley retrospective through January 26th, celebrating over six decades of the artist’s bold geometric abstratractions. Her hard-edged shapes and brilliant palettes have given way to infinite possibilities on her canvases. Riley’s work, which at first appears to be a collection of simple patterns, rewards sustained, careful looking; her work’s genius lies in the way her compositions gradually reveal a vital, dynamic interplay of shape and color. Yet Riley’s considerations reach far beyond the tricks and treats of optical games, urging viewers to rethink the way they see.
In a mesmerising lifetime retrospective, the great abstract painter takes simple forms and colours and sets them off in glorious perpetual motion.
The word “BRiley” – like some fortuitous fusion of “brilliant” and “wily” – appears on some of the most spectacular paintings in British art. This is Bridget Riley’s signature, tucked modestly round the edge of the canvas, and about the only aspect of her work that never changes. At 88, Riley is still finding new ways to dazzle and exhilarate the eyes and mind with the slenderest of means, each canvas a sustained revelation from a mind that remains forever young.
Take a recent work from her Measure for Measure series. At a distance, the coloured discs on the white substrate scintillate like sequins, even in their muted tones of purple, green and brown. Walk closer and the picture performs a new magic. Green dances against purple, which sparks against brown, until the discs seem to jump and shiver; each leaving an afterimage, moreover, where the whole surface seems alive with the glistening patter of raindrops on water.
A fourth colour appears in the next version: dull turquoise – and yet the day brightens. The painting has its own weather. This is a marvel considering all you’re looking at is an array of drab discs on white paint; more extraordinary still, that radiance seems to float free, transmitting its light to another work hanging alongside. Some of this is to do with the complex interplay of optics, colour and perception, of course, and with measurements of all kinds (Riley’s titles are always epigrammatic). But it is an effect scarcely seen in any other artist.
The benches placed in museums offer to the weary a chance to sit back and lose themselves in a painting for a time, to really soak up its details and bathe in its oily surface. In Thomas Bernhard’s novel Old Masters: A Comedy, the character of the 82-year-old critic Reger has for 30 years spent four or five hours, every second day, sat on the same settee in front of Tintoretto’s White-Bearded Man in the Bordone Room of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. It has become for him a ‘mental production shop’, a place ideally suited to calm and quiet contemplation.
The white pew facing Bridget Riley’s Cascando (2015) in David Zwirner’s rear gallery for the current exhibition of her recent paintings at Zwirner’s London space, by contrast, feels more like a dare – a challenge to the sensorium. How long can you sit and continue to stare at this dense thicket of triangles and sly curves in acrylic on polyester before the lines start to whirl and dance, spiralling and cascading in an effect not entirely dissimilar to that proceeding from the consumption of LSD? Far from being opportunities for calm, detached contemplation; the paintings of Bridget Riley are a visceral assault on the senses.
Having studied at the Royal College of Art in the early 1950s alongside Frank Auerbach and Peter Blake, Riley would come to be associated with a style of painting that could scarcely be more different from her peers. Influenced equally by the pointillism of Seurat, the dynamism of the Futurists, and the abstractions of Pollock, her work from the ’60s onwards consisted of flat planes of simple, repeated shapes (first in black and white, later with colour) assembled in often dizzying configurations. Working contemporaneously to such continental Op artists as Victor Vasarely and Julio Le Parc, Riley was included in the landmark exhibition ‘The Responsive Eye’ at MoMA in 1965, which emphasised the active role of the viewer and the potential slipperiness of seemingly objective geometric forms.
Looking now at Riley’s work from that period, one is struck anew by its elusiveness. Included in the present show are several early works, including Black to White Discs (1962/1965). On one level, the work could scarcely be more simple: a square canvas, on which is painted a diamond of little circles gradually fading from stark black on the right-hand side to ever-paler greys on the left, finally evanescing altogether. But the effect is mesmerising, the painting’s intentions so elusive as to come across like a force of nature, even as it recalls the cool repetition of mass-produced graphics.
With many artists, viewing their preliminary studies promises a chance to catch the creator at it, to see them in the process of working things out and slowly finding a particular form. No such behind-the-scenes glimpses are offered with Bridget Riley. The five ‘studies’ included in this show (one for Black to White Discs from 1961, and four for various iterations of the recent Measure to Measure series) are finished with the same perfection and precision as the final products. They’re just a bit smaller. But there no denying that a change takes place when the compositions reach their intended scale. There are five full-size versions of Measure to Measure in this show, numbered 14, 2, 3, 7, and 13, dating from 2016–17, each one a nine-by-nine grid of pale green, brown, and violet discs in not-quite-symmetrical arrangements. Gazing up at these paintings feels like apprehending some modern species of the sublime.
“You have to be willing to look, and able to look” stunning, mind-bending recent works by Bridget Riley
Like psychedelics for the puritanical, Bridget Riley’s work – not at its best as digital image files – has utterly mind-altering power. Looking long enough at it makes the eyes and the mind perform bold gymnastic leaps, as we weave our perceptions into hers and see things that aren’t there as fact, but very much are there as viewers.
That dichotomy between what is there, and what we see, is at the heart of the famed op artist's practise. “You have to be willing to look, and able to look,” Riley tells us at the press view of her new show, Recent Paintings, 2014 - 2017. “But there’s no must about anything.” She adds, “what I see, other people will see, and that's a dialogue you have.”
All the works in the show, which span the entire three floors of the David Zwirner gallery in London’s Grafton Street, were created in the past three years, making them the most recent (as the show title suggests) of the now-86-year-old’s career.
In the opening ground floor space, Riley’s work takes the form of vast monochrome patterns which form a sort of undulating geometry. We have to be careful with that last word, though – according to director of the Contemporary Art Society Caroline Douglas, who takes us around the show, Riley “doesn’t view them as geometric forms.” Instead – in the case of these monochrome works – the triangles “have a neutrality”, and refer to the patterns we find everywhere in nature, and in life generally. The triangles, then, are like the ‘X’ in a mathematical equation: they can represent anything and everything.
Black and white, in Riley’s hands, can be as vibrant and arresting as the most neon of hues or busy of rainbows. The artist looks back through art history to the likes of Velazquez to make this point, indicating that black and white have the capacity to make you all the more aware of how your visual perception actually functions.
Alone, on the wall, the points where black meets white become charged with an extra sense of intensity and dynamism. Their place in the first room of the show, as Douglas puts it, is an “opening declaring of intent,” in which the “wall is no longer a wall, the wall is a canvas.”
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again; these works require (and fully deserve) extended contemplation, and really looking. Just as Riley’s art career has been imbued with a glorious spirit of constant enquiry, so the viewers are invited to enquire and interrogate the forms she paints solely by looking.
It’s a somewhat meditative practice, all that looking. The mind creates fantastical forms and hallucinations: Riley goes as far as to say the works in fact only exist with the active participation of her viewers. This is best explained by one of the works on the top floor of the show, a series of disk-shaped marks in three shades of what Riley terms ‘grey’ (to us, they look like bluish grey, green and orange.)
On gazing at it, even for a short time, something “more develops,” to quote Riley herself. As you look away, then back again, new disks form from retina-trickery and the mysterious workings of the human mind. “You will see little bursts of light in the after-image,” says Riley. “You are creating the painting by looking at it.”
Bridget Riley review – a blast of pure psychedelic energy
To walk into Bridget Riley’s exhibition of new works – everything here, with a couple of exceptions, has been created in the last four years – is to see a mighty brain fizzing away with ideas that blow away all the sentimental cobwebs from art. Riley is a philosopher who is interested in perception – and nothing else. For her, a work of art is not a picture nor a political comment nor a splurge of self-expression. It is a way to explore seeing. If it does not leave you with your sense of the visible world shaken and reborn, what’s the point of it?
In the early 1960s, she took on the epic sweep of American art and gave it a sharp scientific twist. Jackson Pollock’s paintings absorb the beholder in poetic tangles and forests of colour. Riley liked the scope and sweep, yet she put it all in a more solid psychological basis. The curves and eddies, twists and vortices of her early black and white paintings such as Hesitate (1964) are mathematically calculated. Their discombobulating effects are precisely planned. They turn perception inside out as you find spaces move and melt, shapes materialise in front of the canvas, reality itself burst open to reveal new dimensions. In the decade of psychedelia, Riley invented a legal hallucinogenic.
Her new exhibition harnesses that drug again. I confess that I was expecting to respect this exhibition rather than enjoy it. Riley has continued to explore abstract art all her life, in inventive and thoughtful ways, but often with quieter, calmer results than her early, revolutionary art.
What a thrill that in her new show she unleashes once again the monochrome psychedelic energy of her youth. A gigantic wall painting interlaces black and white curves and triangles with what seems at first like a calm geometrical elegance. Shapes tessellate like the patterns of medieval Islamic tiles in the Alhambra. But then, as your eyes adjust ... they can’t quite adjust. There is somehow too much to take in. The rhythm this jazzy mural creates is so complex and strange it befuddles your brain.
Perhaps the framed paintings would be easier on the eye. But no. Looking at Cascando and Rustle 6 – both painted in 2015 – I find myself seeing depths where there are no depths, a sublime architecture of black boxes appearing and vanishing. It is dizzying and disorientating.
The rest of the exhibition is more like what I expected of later Riley - but scintillating all the same. In a sequence of paintings called Measure for Measure, she plays with patterns of circles in just three colours – purple, orange and green. All three colours are warm, slightly muted, richly suggestive. I was so struck that I asked for an exact definition of them. The answer that came back from Riley’s studio: "They are purple, orange and green."
The way these dots interact is a 21st-century echo of the pointillist paintings of Georges Seurat, whose art Riley studied and copied when she was developing her concept of perceptual art. On the other hand, perhaps she did the Measure for Measure series to show Damien Hirst who’s boss.
We don’t have many artists in British history who rethink the very nature of perception as it was rethought by Cézanne, Picasso or Seurat. You could set the paintings in this exhibition beside a cubist masterpiece from 1910, a Cézanne view of Mont Sainte-Victoire or Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings and the dialogue would be fascinating. Or if that sounds too hifalutin, let’s just say Riley’s recent work blew my mind.
Few artists define an era as clearly as Bridget Riley defines the 1960s. From album covers to trompe l’oeil paintings, her op art is as synonymous with the decade as Twiggy and The Beatles. Riley’s work dazzles – her optical experiences trigger sensations of vibration or movement that can disorientate the viewer – but the artist shies away from the limelight, and so her first UK exhibition since 2014 at David Zwirner’s Mayfair gallery is exciting news.
Wall painting is Riley’s current artistic focus, and she will spend a month painting directly onto the wall of the gallery to create works that will be displayed alongside canvases in the show, Bridget Riley: Recent Paintings 2014-2017, which runs from January 19 to March 10. Her wall paintings aim to dissolve the boundaries between figure, ground and support – creating a new picture plane that differs from her works on canvas.
The ground floor of the gallery will feature pieces that represent the artist’s return to painting in black and white for the first time since the 1960s. Quiver 3 (2014) picks up the triangle motif that Riley first explored in Tremor (1962; Museum für Gegenwartskunst Siegen, Germany), and comprises tightly tessellated, irregular triangles that combine to create a subtle sense of undulation across the surface of the canvas. Here, she revisits the equilateral triangle, but introduces a curved edge that greatly modulates the overall tenor of the composition.
The artworks displayed on the first floor of the gallery introduce new motifs for the artist: those of discs or spots. Though new to Riley’s lexicon, these shapes can be traced to the artist’s Deny paintings of 1966, which feature gridded circular forms created during a period when Riley began to experiment with colour – and incorporated grey tones into her compositions as a chromatic intermediary between black and white.
A collection of studies that offer crucial insights into the artist’s working method will be on display in the Upper Room. Riley’s abstract compositions are inspired by Old Masters and the paintings of post-impressionists such as Seurat and Pissarro, as well as her own early experiences with nature. She has focused exclusively on work that explores simple geometric forms since 1961: lines, circles, curves and squares on different mediums – from canvas to paper and wall. Her work is as entrancing and relevant today as it was in the Swinging Sixties.