A new mural by Bridget Riley will be unveiled today at The National Gallery in London. Titled Messengers, the mural spans ten by twenty meters (approximately thirty-three by sixty-six feet) inside the museum’s Annenberg Court, an interior space connecting the Level 2 galleries with visitor facilities on the ground floor and the Getty Entrance; upon entering the gallery from Trafalgar Square, the mural will be one of the first artworks encountered. To date, the artist has completed a number of site-specific murals, beginning in 1983 with a commission for the Royal Liverpool University Hospital that recently inspired a new wall work at Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas.
Large colored discs in The National Gallery mural are based on recent wall paintings and works on canvas presented in the artist’s 2018 solo exhibition at David Zwirner in London. While new to Riley’s lexicon, the motif of the disc has its basis in the artist’s Deny paintings from 1966, which feature gridded circular forms. Painted directly on the walls of The National Gallery, the discs float, cloudlike, against a white background. The title Messengers is inspired by a phrase the British painter John Constable (1776–1837) used when referring to clouds, which feature prominently in the landscapes for which he is best known. Fascinated by the effects of weather on light and atmosphere, Constable called himself "the man of clouds" in a letter to John Fisher in 1823.
Although abstract, Riley’s work is also grounded in observation of the natural world, which she understands in terms of "the dynamism of visual forces—an event rather than an appearance." In a text written by the artist in 1984 called "The Pleasures of Sight," Riley describes her childhood discovery of "what ‘looking’ can be" as a crucial foundation for her artistic practice: "Changing seas and skies, a coastline ranging from the grand to the intimate …; what I experienced there [in Cornwall, UK] formed the basis of my visual life.… Swimming through the oval, saucer-like reflections, dipping and flashing on the sea surface, one traced the colours back to the origins.… Some came directly from the sky and different coloured clouds, some from the golden greens of the vegetation growing on the cliffs, some from the red-orange of the seaweed on the blues and violets of adjacent rocks, and, all between, the actual hues of the water."
Messengers also takes as a point of departure the work of Georges Seurat (1859–1891), who has been an important influence on Riley’s continued exploration of perception through the interaction of form and color. As Riley wrote in 1992, "Seurat looks into perception … by holding up a sort of mirror; and what we see is ourselves looking." Riley’s interaction with Seurat’s work in The National Gallery collection dates back to her early training as an artist, when she copied Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières (1884). For Daniel Herrmann, The National Gallery’s curator of special projects, Messengers "acts as a bridge between the Old Masters in our collection and contemporary art.” Riley served as a trustee of the gallery for several years and describes its collection as having been “a guiding star” throughout her career, “its pictures like a compass, sources of instruction and inspiration."
Image: Installation view, Bridget Riley: Recent Paintings 2014–2017, David Zwirner, London, 2018
Cover Image: Bridget Riley with Messengers, Annenberg Court, The National Gallery, London, 2019. © 2019 Bridget Riley. All rights reserved. Photo: The National Gallery, London