Bridget Riley (b.1931) is one of Britain’s best-known artists. Since the mid-1960s she has been celebrated for her distinctive, optically vibrant paintings which actively engage the viewer’s sensations and perceptions, producing visual experiences that are complex and challenging, subtle and arresting.
Riley’s paintings exist on their own terms. Her subject matter is restricted to a simple vocabulary of colours and abstract shapes. These form her starting point and from them she develops formal progressions, colour relationships and repetitive structures. The effect is to generate sensations of movement, light and space: visual experiences which also have a strong emotional and even visceral resonance.
After a childhood in Cornwall and two years in Cheltenham Ladies’ College, she studied at Goldsmith’s College and the Royal College of Art. She came to prominence with her black and white paintings in the early 1960s and gained international recognition in the 1965 exhibition The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Since then she has exhibited throughout the world, with major retrospectives at the Hayward Gallery in 1971 and 1993 and at Tate Britain in 2003.
2011 sees Bridget Riley celebrating her 80th birthday. It also brings the 50th anniversary of Movement in Squares (1961), the break-through black and white painting that marked her out as one of the world’s leading abstract painters. This exhibition at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, celebrates Riley’s work in light of this anniversary.
For most of her working life colour and our perception of its fleeting nature have been at the heart of her endeavour. This exhibition, organised uniquely for Kettle’s Yard, takes paintings and studies from the last thirty years to trace her progress through four chapters of stripes, planes, curves and stripes again.
Despite being abstract, Bridget Riley’s paintings are rooted in a Cornish childhood of looking at nature. ‘My mother … would always point things out: the colours of shadows, the way water moves, how changes in the shape of a cloud are responsible for different colours in the sea, the dapples and reflections that come up from pools inside caves.’ Art school training in life drawing instilled a sense of structure, since when a continuing study of the art of the past has stimulated and informed her work.
Deeply influenced by the discoveries of Seurat and the Impressionists, Bridget Riley’s approach to colour was radically affected by a visit to Egypt in the winter of 1979-80. There she found a palette of four colours, a red, a yellow, a turquoise and a blue plus black and white, which had endured for thousands of years and these became the basis for a series of vertical stripe paintings exploring their potential for interaction. ‘It was a very sturdy, solid group of colours with infinite flexibility.’ As the series went on so the palette expanded in rhythmic compositions of startling variety.
A desire to dig deeper into pictorial space, coupled with her careful study of Cézanne, especially his practice of drawing with colour, led to a new structure – the introduction of planes formed by the junction of intersecting verticals and diagonals – and of colours and contrasts. And then a longing for the return of curves and for work with larger areas of colour brought paintings where flat planes of colour appear to weave in space in compositions of lyrical and exuberant rhythms.
Now, using a close harmony of hue and tone spiked by strong contrasts, Bridget Riley has taken up vertical stripes again in her most recent paintings – the Rose Rose series. Despite their rigorous discipline, their subtly modulated planes offer a new plastic sensuality and radiate a tender yet powerful warmth.
Bridget Riley: Colour, Stripes, Planes and Curves opens tomorrow and continues until 20 November. The Kettle’s Yard exhibition coincides with Bridget Riley: Gouaches 1978-80 / Paintings 2011 at Karsten Schubert, London from
6 October – 18 November 2011.
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Bridget Riley in front of Justinian (1988)
© Bridget Riley 2011.
All rights reserved. Courtesy Karsten Schubert, London