The desire to be a painter may spring from any of several sources. One might be stirred by other paintings seen in an art gallery or a private house—or one may be prompted by a wish for self-expression, a longing to convey something deeply felt. It may have come from a need to make an artefact, to build or fabricate, to shape and organise so as to bring a new entity into existence, to even simply from the pleasure of painting itself. All these reasons may play a part but in my case there was an additional one, and that was sight.
Long before I ever saw a major painting, felt the need to share an experience, knew the excitement of invention or painted my first watercolor, I had been fortunate enough to discover what "looking" can be—sometimes in a mere glance one can see more than in the close scrutiny of a thousand details.
I spent my childhood in Cornwall, which of course was an ideal place in which to make such discoveries. Changing seas and skies, a coastline ranging from the grand to the intimate, bosky woods and secretive valleys; what I experienced there formed the basis of my visual life.
Swimming through the oval, saucer-like reflections, dipping and flashing on the sea surface, one traced the colors back to the origins of those reflections. Some came directly from the sky and different colored 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, according to its various depths and over what it was passing. The entire elusive, unstable, flicking complex subject to the changing qualities of the light itself. On a fine day, for instance, all was bespattered with the glitter of bright sunlight and its tiny pinpoints of virtually black shadow—it was as though one was swimming through a diamond.
Taking dawn-walks over the cliffs when one's footsteps left a curiously flat heavy green mark in the pearly turquoise of the dew.
Looking directly into the sun over a foreshore of rocks exposed by the tide—all reduced to a violent black and white contrast, interspersed, here and there, by the glitter of water.
Delving into the minute grey and yellow word of the lichens, which encrust rocks and stems of trees like the work of the finest gold- and silver-smiths, setting off the sudden green of a patch of moss.
Dipping a bucket into shadowed water and suddenly seeing a right blue patch of reflected sky appear in the broken surface.
Going up and down valleys and around twisting corners there was a constant interchange of horizon lines, cliff-tops and brows of hills—narrow slivers of color rhythmically weaving and layering, edge against edge. And sometimes, on turning into a completely different aspect of the landscape, which—especially if this sun was behind—one encountered almost as though the new view was a monumental edifice, so flat and dense did the color seem.
Gazing at the reflected blue of the sky in a sandy pool which turns from pale yellow through jade to turquoise unexpectedly accommodating a curious compound, a non-color resembling ashy grey.
Seeing first the white of foam, the blues of sea and sky through the delicate tracery of a row of bare trees in winter and then seeing the same view uninterrupted. In one context a wide expanse receding towards a distant horizon, in the other a vertical 'cloisonné' of brilliant fragmented color.
Walking over the cliffs on a windy day—the rough grass snaking before one as though so many tiny silver pennants were fastened to the earth.
Noticing how the green of the tamarisk appears more yellow against the blue of the sea than it does against the greys of landscape.
Watching the narrow dark streaks of ruffled water—violets, blues and many shades of grey—as a sudden squall swept over the sea.
But whatever the occasion might be, the pleasures of sight have one characteristic in common—they take you by surprise. They are sudden, swift and unexpected. If one tries to prolong them, recapture them or bring them about wilfully their purity and freshness is lost. They are essentially enigmatic and elusive. One can stare at a landscape, for example, which a moment ago seemed vibrant and find it inert and dull—so one cannot say that this lively quality of sight is simply 'out there in nature,' or easily available to be commanded as wished. Nor is it a state of mind which, once acquired, can bend the most stubborn and unrewarding aspect of external reality to its own purposes. It is neither the one nor the other but a perfect balance between the two, between the inner and the outer. This balance is a sort of convergence which releases a particular alchemy, momentarily turning the commonplace into the ravishing.
Naturally, as a child one is more open to such experiences. When one gets older these tend to take place less often—that is they seldom appear any longer as pure revelations. But this does not mean that one has come to see things as they really are or any more truthfully. The damage is mostly done by the daily round with its heavy load of pressures and preoccupations which comes between, like a plate glass window, and through which one can certainly see but through which no vision can penetrate.
It seems to me that an artist's work lies here. I realised partly through my own experience and partly through the great masters of Modern art that it was not the actual sea, the individual rocks or valleys in themselves which constituted the essence of vision but that they were agents of a greater reality, of the bridge which sight throws from our inner-most heart to the furthest extension of that which surrounds us.
I discovered that I was painting in order to 'make visible.' On one hand I had to make something which had this essential quality of precipitating itself as 'surprise' and, simultaneously, there was no way of knowing with what one was dealing until it existed; so that in order to see one had to paint and through that activity found what could be seen.
The black and white paintings which I did in the Sixties laid bare this circular process. People found them hard to understand because the elements I used seemed far removed from the experience they produced. Habitually people expect to recognise in a painting something already known in a literal sense. I wanted to bring about some fresh way of seeing again what had already almost certainly been experienced, but which had either been dismissed or buried by the passage of time; that thrill of pleasure which sight itself reveals.
Color is the proper means for what I want to do because it is prone to inflections and inductions existing only through relationship; malleable yet tough and resilient. I do not select single colors but rather pairs, triads, or groups of color which taken together act as generators of what can be seen through or via the painting. By which I mean that the colors are organised on the canvas so that the eye can travel over the surface in a way parallel to the way it moves over nature. It should feel caressed ad soothed, experience frictions and ruptures, glide and drift. Vision can be arrested, tripped up or pulled back in order to float free again. It encounters reflections, echoes and fugitive flickers which when traced evaporate. One moment there will be nothing to look at and there next second the canvas suddenly seems to refill, to be crowded with visual events.
More than anything else I want my paintings to exist on their own terms. That is to say they must stealthily engage and disarm you. There the paintings hang, deceptively simple—telling no tales as it were—resisting, in a well-behaved way, all attempts to be questioned, probed or stared at and then, for those with open eyes, serenely disclosing some intimations of the splendors to which pure sight alone has the key.
January 19–March 10, 2018
David Zwirner is pleased to present recent work from the last four years by British artist Bridget Riley, her third solo exhibition with the gallery. Spanning three floors of the 24 Grafton Street location in London, the exhibition includes wall paintings and works on canvas as well as a group of related studies that focus on two themes: works in black-and-white and the disc. The works on view both extend and rework the artist’s previous investigations of these motifs in new ways.
On view through 2019
A new large-scale multicolored wall painting by Bridget Riley is on view at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. Titled Royal Liverpool University Hospital, 1983, as wall painting, Bolt of Colour, 2017, the mural has been conceived specifically for the museum’s special exhibition building and spans six of the eight walls of the structure, making it Riley’s largest work to date.
Wall Painting, Royal Liverpool Hospital 1983-2017 references the first wall painting the artist created in response to an invitation from the Royal Liverpool Hospital in the United Kingdom in 1979. Like the original commission, the design for which was completed in 1983, the new mural at the Chinati Foundation uses a palette of blue, red, yellow, green, black, and white inspired by a visit the artist made to Egypt in 1980. The wall paintings in Liverpool and Marfa share similarities in terms of scale and spatial orientation, while both Egypt and the high desert area where the Chinati Foundation is located feature strong natural light.