Bridget Riley explores the curve
At the age of 84 the artist Bridget Riley is still working, innovating and as enthusiastic about painting as she ever was. The latest show at the De La Warr Pavilion celebrates a particular aspect of her work: the Curve Paintings from 1961 to 2014. HOT’s Lauris Morgan-Griffiths went to see the work of one of Britain’s greatest living artists.
A quote from Robert Melville in the New Statesman, 1970, at the entrance of the gallery states: “No painter, dead or alive, had ever made us more aware of our eyes than Bridget Riley.”
And when you go in you see exactly what Melville meant. It takes a little while to adjust the eyes; it is a real assault on the senses. The paintings are a celebration of the curve: the images ripple, retract, advance, ebb and flow.
They move and they dance.
As I walk around the exhibition I begin to relax. I stand in front of different pictures and find them uplifting, refreshing. There is a rhythm to the work. I feel the effect of the sea, a cool breeze, changing light, a playful breath of wind. It is difficult to articulate how or why or even what is happening but I am responding to the pictures and the feelings in them. And it seems looking at others in the gallery that they are too.
The only reaction to abstract work is to respond as you respond. Allow yourself to lose yourself in the images and your instincts to take you where they will. However, I am not entirely sure that I am on the right track, or indeed on any track, so I ask curator and head of exhibitions at the De La Warr, Jane Won, for some guidance.
Won agrees that Riley understands the possible confusion and uncertainty and recommends people to allow the eye to drift one way and back again to allow the pictures to talk to them. Her influences are the Old Masters, Seurat, Titian, Velasquez, Cezanne, Matisse. Another strong inspiration comes from nature, colour, rhythm and emotions.
I think Kiss is my favourite work in the exhibition. And Won says it was the first curve she created which was to set her off on her new direction. Riley apparently knew she had achieved something particular when the Kiss winked at her. Its simplicity is incongruous, when you look into it, it is tantalising in its depth and mystery.
Her exploration of the curve has continued for five decades, though she dropped the arc totally for 17 years during the 1980s and 1990s. It is interesting seeing the exhibition, black and white, monochrome and then the explosion of colour. One of her latest works, Rajasthan (2012) painted directly onto the wall (by members of her studio), is an explosion of Indian orange, red, green and greys with interjections and pauses of white.
Although some are harmonious, rhythmic paintings they are not without their challenges: it is not only flowing curves – horizontals appear, colours pierce and puncture other colours and white gives a counterpoint of calm creating distinct pacing and movement. Purportedly clashing colours are so judiciously judged that they do not grate on the eye. The orange, pink and blue shapes in Red with Red 1 (2007) are like flames; it is on fire. In Trail (2009) the same colours occur, but with different scale and spatial dimensions; the dark blue cools the image and gives a very different effect.
I find it challenging to describe the paintings. It is over to the individuals to experience and explore them, to stand quietly and allow the pictures to communicate whatever people want to explore, hear and see what happens. The paintings do have their own rhythm. Jane Won explains that Riley herself has reflected that the best way to appreciate the work is to allow the rhythm of the paintings to wash over the viewer. The images have their own rhythm and it has been said, much as one doesn’t analyse bars in music, don’t analyse but lose yourself in the painting.
Similarly, look carefully at the colours. From a distance Untitled 1 (Warm and Cold Curves) (1965) looks black and white. Moving closer it is made of carefully crafted greys, browns and blues. But even those I begin to doubt. My sight seems to be playing tricks on me. Won takes me over to Entice 2 (1974). “Do you see yellow?” I do. However, there is no yellow. It is a trick of the light, the juxtaposition of colours, or maybe seeing what I want to see. Peering into the Study for Kiss (1961) is the black black or a very dark blue?
Amongst the exhibits are revisions, preparatory studies. Always fascinating to see an artist’s process, they show her way of collaging shapes and colours together and overlaying tracing paper. On this she she squiggles comments, alters lines, changes the proportions.
Then as suddenly as it started the exploration of the curve stopped and her work went in other directions. However, now in her eighties, Won tells me Riley is working in black and white and the curve is asserting itself again. It will be interesting to see this new phase of her work.
Go and see the exhibition, and allow the colour and shapes to open your eyes and explore whatever feelings the paintings reveal to you.
Bridget Riley: The Curve Paintings 1961-2014 De La Warr Pavilion, Marina, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex TN40 1DP until 6 September 2015. Open Monday-Sunday 10am-6pm.