Bridget Riley, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, review: eye-scrambling insights into the workings of a truly great artist — ★★★★
By Mark Hudson
This review, originally published on The Telegraph's website, refers to our recent exhibition of the work of Bridget Riley. The exhibition closed on Sunday, 22 September.
Bridget Riley has never given much away. Since she sprang to fame in the Sixties with her mind-bending op art paintings, appearing in endless magazine spreads as the dreamy-eyed it girl of Swinging London art, Britain’s greatest abstract painter – some might say our greatest living artist period – has remained a resolute enigma. You can look in vain at Riley’s paintings – with their endless acres of stripes, curves and what, for want of a better term, we’ll call wavy lines – for the slightest detail concerning her life or personality. What does become every apparent, however, in her biggest exhibition in Scotland to date (and one of her largest anywhere) is her obsessive drive to draw the absolute maximum – the universal, in fact – from the relatively limited set of visual ideas she has made her territory. And it’s been that way, it seems, from the very beginning.
Comprising 81 prime works, spanning eight decades, from her early preoccupation with the French pointillist Georges Seurat through her pivotal op art period to works created by the 88-year-old painter only last year, it begins with a surprise, hidden away in an underground gallery where you could easily miss it: an array of Riley’s earliest works, starting with life drawings done while she was a pupil at Cheltenham Ladies College. There’s nothing juvenile about these works. Riley’s rigour and instinct to probe into visual form are already evident in these highly competent, very traditional drawings. Indeed, such was the parochialism of British art education at the time they might have been done in the 1840s rather than the 1940s.
Gradually, influences from Munch, Matisse and Mondrian creep in, but it’s all a bit tentative and genteel, until around 1960: at 29, Riley starts picking apart Seurat’s pointillist paintings, in which the French post-impressionist broke visual form down into dots of pure colour. Doing both copies of Seurat and her own pointillist paintings, several of which are shown here, she came to the revelatory conclusion that Seurat relied on the perception of the viewer to reconstruct his dots into meaningful forms. “Perception,” she noted later, “became the medium.”
This notion, the show argues, has been her work’s central impulse ever since. Riley’s paintings, we’re led to understand, are not only about purely abstract elements such as colour and space, visual rhythm and tension, but about the way the viewer experiences these things. That gives us quite an insight into an artist who often gives the impression of being indifferent to the fact that the rest of the world even exists.
It’s easy to see how an early work such as Lincolnshire Landscape, 1959, with its Seurat-style dots merging into tasteful abstraction, led eventually to Away, 2012, a sonorous arrangement of vertical stripes in muted pinks, oranges and blues, that’s hung beside it. It’s less easy to understand how Riley was able to jump in a mere three years from these quiet early experiments to the astounding monochrome paintings that made her name. We’re shown a whole room of them, and the best, Current, 1964, with its row of vertical stripes appearing to slide down the canvas in a succession of elastic bulges, still gives an electrifying sense that the world is somehow being changed in front of you. You still find yourself looking at the painting from the side to make sure the surface isn’t actually moving – and even then you don’t feel quite certain.
Riley’s experiments with visual perception arrived just as early psychedelia was kicking in, and while you can imagine she wasn’t in the slightest interested in any of that, when she reintroduces colour into her paintings a few years later, the results have even more of an ecstatically groovy period feel. The surface of the fabulous Cataracts 3, 1967, seems to undulate in every colour under the sun as you pass in front of it, though it comprises only red, white and blue in carefully modulated brighter and duller tones. What better way to convince the viewer that art is all about their perception of visual form than to utterly disorientate them?
When Riley begins focusing entirely on stripes from the late Sixties, the effect is more austere, requiring more time and harder looking to get the point, which is, no doubt, exactly what Riley would want. Trying to pick apart the precise alternations of orange, lilac, green and white that make the panoramic, horizontally-striped Rise 1, 1968, appear to ripple before your eyes would probably drive you mad. Fortunately, Riley has provided eight meticulous sheets of drawings showing exactly how she did it, with the intended effect elucidated in pencil alongside, “the entire sequence is organised to rise from the bottom of the painting to the top in a scarcely perceptible manner as (though) through water affected by depth, currents and filtering light.” Nothing here is left to accident or improvisation.
Riley’s rhomboidal paintings of the Eighties and Nineties are, at first sight, less easy to like: wide vertical stripes with diagonal lines slicing them into fields of brilliantly coloured diamond-shaped shards. If the colour feels at first harsh and synthetic and the forms lack the elegance of her earlier work, you need – as with all her paintings – to spend time looking to even start to feel the effect. Don’t try any of that eight-seconds-a-picture or “I’ll snap it and look at it at home” nonsense here.
As you gaze at a work such as High Sky, 1991, flat shapes start to become three-dimensional planes that dance before your eyes, some advancing, some receding in an effect rather like the sort of urban view where you lose track of what’s substance and what’s reflection. Of course, though, Riley isn’t trying to evoke a literal place. “I don’t paint light,” the exhibition quotes her saying. “I present a colour situation which releases light as you look at it.” Her paintings aren’t intended to evoke visual phenomena, but to be visual phenomena in their own right.
This is the most lucid exposition I’ve yet seen of an artist whose paintings make an immediate impact, but whose ideas can seem impenetrable. It gives the sense of heroic uplift you’d expect from seeing Bridget Riley’s greatest hits hung in the stately halls of the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, but also, and far more importantly, it offers a view into the obsessive, even slightly cranky background workings of one of the very few living British artists who genuinely deserves to be called great.