Simon Tait

Bridget Riley: The Eye’s Mind

Bridget Riley didn’t invent Op Art. The phrase first appeared in Time Magazine in 1964 in response to Julian Stanczak’s exhibition Optical Paintings. Defined as a form that uses visual trickery to challenge perception, it was a natural successor to Futurism, Constructivism, Vorticism and even Dadaism, liberated by Impressionism. But Riley made it what it is now.

She’s been doing it over almost 70 years, and the exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, in her 89th year, is the definitive retrospective, her exhibition – ‘One of the great artists this country has produced’, Ralph Rugoff, the Hayward’s director says of her, precisely. ‘Her work is a perpetual process of discovery’. She worked closely on the show with designer Paul Williams (half of the Stanton Williams architecture/design partnership), a collaborator for 25 years, and she vetoed two previous plans before sanctioning this hang.

In contrast to its previous presentation in Edinburgh last summer, this exhibition is not chronological but thematic, and though the pictures are the same – apart from four wall paintings that have been added to profound effect – the difference is between the history of Bridget Riley and the story of her work, the narrative she wants to portray.

The show effectively starts with her one conspicuous failure, Continuum (1963, revisited in 2005), the only three-dimensional piece she undertook which is a walk-in cylinder of a spiralling continuous surface, and it was too physical. ‘The viewer found himself actually “in” the work,’ she says, ‘where all I wanted was visual absorption’. She abandoned the idea, and later explored flat enveloping images that propose infinity with vast murals such as the one next to Continuum, Circles 4 of 2004.

This reflects the purpose of Riley’s work, as well as her progression: the visual, and how manipulations at different times of line, form and colour change perceptions to the extent that a flat canvas itself can become three-dimensional and colours appear where there are none. And the thing about Op Art is that it isn’t just illusion: on the top floor of the gallery are her sketches, the painstaking handwritten notes, the plans confined by graph paper squares, the tissue paper cut into spirals, as well as her competent art school life drawings; and somewhere in all this is the ingredient that turns the calculated illusion to beauty, to art.

The paintings and designs may seem essentially mathematical, but the first expression is always on to paper. ‘For me’, she wrote in the catalogue of a 2009 Arts Council touring exhibition, ‘drawing is an enquiry, a way of finding out – the first thing that I discover is that I do not know. This is alarming even to the point of momentary panic. Only experience reassures me that this encounter with my own ignorance – with the unknown – is my chosen and particular task, and provided that I can make the required effort the rewards may reach the unimaginable. It is as though there is an eye at the end of my pencil, which tries, independently of my personal general-purpose eye, to penetrate a kind of obscuring veil or thickness. To break down this thickness, this deadening opacity, to elicit some particle of clarity or insight, is what I want to do’.

Bridget Riley, ‘Study for Turn’, 1964.

Riley tells a story about Blaze I, the black and white spiral of chevrons that first made her name. She was twenty-eight on her first visit to the south of France, and had no more than an inkling of what she wanted to do. She brought the unformed inkling back to London where she developed a geometric shape in her mind, looking at it from different angles and positions, and then from above… suddenly she had it, she could commit something to paper: ‘And I realised it was about the light from the Mediterranean I was seeing, the light you never get in London’.

She had her first solo show a couple of years later at the One Gallery in 1962, seen by the critic David Sylvester, who ‘got it’ immediately: ‘This proposing and disposing of order seems no mere game with optical effects, seems to symbolise, dramatically, an interplay between feelings of composure and anxiety’, he wrote in a review.

Goldsmiths and the Royal College of Art made her a painter, but it was while she was working in advertising that she fell under the influence of the Impressionists, the Post Impressionists and Seurat in particular, revealed so thoroughly in the Courtauld Gallery’s exhibition four years ago, Bridget Riley: Learning from Seurat. It was at the Courtauld in the late 50s that she saw Seurat’s Le Pont de Courbevoie and made her copy of it, a larger version than the original, that still hangs in her studio as a perpetual reminder today.

What she discovered in Seurat was the use of colour to create light, and through it movement, and how the painting was designed to inspire the act of looking. ‘His work gave me a sense of the viewer’s importance as an active participant’, she wrote later. ‘Perception became the medium’.

This has been her guiding principle, and the reason that her copy of The Bridge is still important. Cezanne, Monet, Matisse, Pollock have all been inspirations. ‘Impression was a way of looking’, she says, ‘which established what I aspired to. Abstractism is finding out what a particular form can do’.

Bridget Riley, ‘Copy of Le Pont Courbevoie’, 1964.

But the difference between this Hayward account of the Riley achievement – using 200 works, and 50 key paintings – and the Edinburgh exhibition is that the chronological account is not the point. The phases and chapters stand by themselves without necessarily having to be in any order. She has all her black-and-whites in one large section, showing how she began, but also how she returns to earlier thoughts with new interpretations and fresh ideas. The confident, jangling triangles of Quiver of 2014, for instance, near the more orderly, tentative pieces making up Tremor of 1962. In recent years she has become interested again in the monochrome interaction of forms, lately returning to circles.

The way shapes respond to each other, almost introducing their colours as they interlace, led her later colour pieces (four of them shown together) from Justinian of 1988 to From Here of 1994. ‘I have to find out what a particular form can do without breaking its character’, she says. ‘Something has to serve a purpose – it doesn’t have to represent anything’. Knowing what will work is almost like déjà vu, she says, as if you’re not inventing something but remembering it. It’s already familiar: Cézanne’s word for it was “sensation”’.

Bridget Riley, ‘Pink Landscape’, 1960.

When the colours are twisted along a curve, their relationship is different again, something that has been revisited though Riley’s career, with shapes cut from coloured paper, à la Matisse, and moved around like jigsaw puzzle pieces until the fit was right. ‘A rhythmic vehicle for colour’, she calls it. And the collection of her writing, edited by Robert Kudielska and recently republished by Thames & Hudson, bears the title she chose for it: The Eye’s Mind.

The dynamic varies but never seems to lessen, and today she is as enthusiastic as ever. ‘Energy, I hope and pray, is what I can still invest in it’, she says. ‘It’s a very active thing, the work, and it’s also something I love doing. And maybe that’s the secret.’

Review by Simon Tait 

Bridget Riley (solo show) is on view from October 23, 2019 – January 26, 2020, at the Hayward Gallery. For more information, read here.

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