I still remember the first time I saw Bridget Riley’s vivid, abstract paintings. It was at a provincial gallery, Wolverhampton or somewhere similar, in the mid-1970s. Coloured stripes and shapes shimmered and bounced, their contrasting yet consonant colours jostling and vibrating on the large canvasses. I was fascinated by the rhythm and energy of these paintings, but also the meticulous way in which they were created.
Bridget Riley is as ubiquitous as David Hockney and probably almost as popular, and her singing, zinging paintings are familiar and instantly recognisable. The Hayward Gallery’s new retrospective of Riley’s work celebrates the vibrancy and seriousness of her work. It’s her third exhibition at this gallery and the largest retrospective to date, spanning her early forays into the daring juxtaposition of colour and shape and the expressive pointillism of Seurat to the development of her own distinct style which seemed so in keeping with the mood of the Swinging Sixties yet is also timeless and fresh today, the mesmerising effects of her paintings not dimmed by the passage of the years. Now in her late 80s, Riley is still creating and her latest explorations with dots using a limited palette of muted colours are on display in the final room of the exhibition. Their colours are subtle but their impact is just as powerful.
In the large white spaces of the Hayward Gallery, Riley’s paintings can be viewed to their best advantage. Her black and white paintings – graduated dots and squares, waves and lozenges – trick and disturb the eye and brain, suggesting infinite depth and dimension in their two-dimensional surfaces, as visually cunning as a painting by Escher and equally challenging. Perception and sensation are important in all of Riley’s work, but the black and white paintings really test our ways of seeing. In Continuum, the viewer actually enters the work of art and is encircled by a continuous painted surface which spirals around itself, creating an unsettling immersive experience which Riley rejected as too literal, in favour of the flat canvasses which mesmerise and excite.
Look closer and one appreciates the care and attention which goes into producing these works (Riley uses a meticulous process of studies to work out her paintings, which are then finished by her studio assistants). Structure and process are hugely important to Riley, yet one has the sense that she works by the maxim of “through discipline comes freedom”: each painting has a freshly-minted immediacy.
On the upper floor of the gallery, this important process is examined in more detail with a display of her studies, which reveal how her decisions about colour, contrast, tone, tempo and scale influence the finished work. Here, there is also an opportunity to see her early work, when she was still a student and before she developed her distinctive style. There are some elegant life drawings and sketches of friends, intimate and touching in contrast to the large, vivid canvasses which populate this generous, uplifting exhibition.
Bridget Riley, 23 October 2019 – 26 January 2020
Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London
Header image: Installation view of Bridget Riley, Movement in Squares, 1961 at Hayward Gallery 2019 © Bridget Riley 2019 Photo: Stephen White & Co.