BY Michael Bracewell in Features | 01 OCT 08
Featured in
Issue 118

Seeing is Believing

Bridget Riley has conducted an endlessly enriching inquiry into the relationships between form, composition and visual perception

BY Michael Bracewell in Features | 01 OCT 08

Across an airy open space within the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris is a new work created in situ by the British artist Bridget Riley for her summer 2008 exhibition ‘Bridget Riley – Retrospective’. Its impact is immediate, its effect engulfing. A series of multi-intersecting black circles on a white background, a vast painting titled Composition with Circles 6 (2008) covers the length and elegant curve of an entire wall. It is as monumental as it is delicate, as complex as it is simple, and possessed above all of a lyrical modernity. In its confluence of grandeur and stark, scientific purity one could fancifully imagine that this is a painting from the deep future. It is a work best likened to the layering harmonics of overtone chanting, the seeming drones of sound that can occur within the interplay of spaced and held notes. As the final work in this latest retrospective exhibition, Composition with Circles 6 (the seventh wall painting Riley has made since 1998) completes the circuit of the artist’s early, iconic black and white paintings of the 1960s.

For the last 40 years, Riley’s colour paintings have comprised an endlessly enriching exploration of the relationships between colour, form, composition and visual perception. As evidenced in Paris – by the rippling, smoke-like undulations, in shades of violet, pink and tangerine, of Song of Orpheus 3 (1978), for example, or the diagonal diamond colours, interspersed with blocks of black and white, of New Day (1988) – there is a timelessness to Riley’s work, in both its conception and its execution. Here is an arresting beauty in which the visually unexpected is held always in an ecstatic process of resolution. When it opened at London’s Hayward Gallery in 1971, the Arts Council of Great Britain retrospective exhibition ‘Bridget Riley: Paintings and Drawings 1951–1971’ not only broke all previous attendance figures but also confirmed the iconic yield of Riley’s signature style as perhaps the most instantly recognizable of any artist, living or dead.

Attending that exhibition as a young teenager, and unaware of the historical development of Riley’s art, it was impossible nonetheless not to be overwhelmed by its sheer sensory impact. The black and white paintings that Riley had made between 1961 and 1966 seemed already legendary; and the visual experience of looking at them was so dramatic, and their effect so immediate, that one was drawn without argument into what felt akin to a new gravitational field, in which sudden weightlessness had discovered its optical equivalent. Thirty-seven years later, exploring ‘Bridget Riley – Retrospective’, a survey of Riley’s entire career to date, selected and installed with economical precision, it was immediately evident that this unique gravitational field had, if anything, intensified. Entering the Paris show one saw, first, key pre-‘black and white’ paintings and drawings, among them Riley’s copy, made in 1959, of Georges Seurat’s Le Pont de Courbevoie (1886–7) and her Pink Landscape (1960) – made the year she toured Italy with her friend and mentor the artist Maurice de Sausmarez, with whom she saw the large exhibition of Futurism at that year’s Venice Biennale. There is already, in these early paintings, the hint of what might be described as a defining balance between warmth and precision: a foregrounded discipline of inquiry, in terms of seeing and looking in relation to artistic technique, which through its very concentration gives rise to work of great depth.

But however accomplished and encoded with clues as to the artist’s future direction, still these early works do little to prepare one for the declamatory, assured beginnings of her now legendary black and white paintings. As viewed at the Musée d’Art moderne, Movement in Squares (1961) remains as shocking in its modernity as it is enchanting in its aesthetic resolution. The painting tirelessly draws the viewer to its perpetual motion. Shuttling the gaze across the complexity of its visual mechanism, black and white squares become narrowed to lines, creating at first impression the sense of a fathomless crevasse within the painting’s surface, or the point of near contact between two cylinders, occurring within the right-hand portion of the painting. The viewer becomes pleasurably but forcefully vertiginous, compelled to seek new bearings within their perception; and, thus engaged, he or she is drawn entirely into the processes of looking. Re-encountering this painting, I thought how Riley’s use of assistants actually to make her paintings – from as early as 1961 – was vital to their conception.

Riley’s work is based assiduously on an almost algebraic formulation of testing and re-testing visual elements, until she resolves, through the painting, what is best described as her Proustian recall of time and place. Riley has commented in the past on how she asks her assistants not to make comments or suggestions about the direction a work might take – requiring, above all, to pursue for herself the intricate processes of artistic synthesis. Anne Monfort’s essay ‘Making Visible’ (2008) includes an excellent summary of Riley’s method of working, beginning with a quotation from the artist’s own accounts: ‘My work has developed on the basis of empirical analyses and syntheses, and I have always believed that perception is the medium through which states of being are directly experienced.’1 Monfort then continues: ‘In practice the artist first chooses a module through which she can visually explore the behaviour of interacting shapes and/or colours. The repetition or declinations of this module, the switch in scale, then allow her, in her own words, “to clarify” the effect she is after’.2

For a teenager in 1971, whose visual education had been imparted as much through the strands of popular culture and subculture (Richard Hamilton’s design for the packaging and art work of the Apple records release The Beatles of 1968, for example), as it had within galleries or museums, there was the notion – widely held at the time – that Riley’s mesmeric paintings, and in particular her black and white works, were somehow representative of the modern Pop Zeitgeist in concentrate. A similar transaction had taken place in 1966, when the Victoria & Albert Museum had held its exhibition of works by the Aesthetic movement artist and illustrator Aubrey Beardsley – the received idea of which, in terms of style, was immediately taken up across the bandwidth of fashionable underground adaptations of Art Nouveau revivalism.

In Riley’s case the imposed subtext was that in their dizzying effect and their evocation of movement, coupled with their ultra-modern monochromatic coolness, her black and white paintings somehow articulated a kind of Space-Age psychedelia – concerns that could not, then or now, have been further from Bridget Riley’s thinking, character or approach to art-making. Twenty-five years later, shortly after she gave her ‘William Townsend Memorial Lecture’ entitled ‘Painting Now’ at University College London, she said to me that, as regards the attempts to relate her art to the psychedelic experience: ‘I was surprised to be seen as a sort of representative of an aspect of the psychedelic culture. It was a collision between my intentions as an artist and the cultural context in which I found myself. I remember being told as though it was some sort of compliment that it was the greatest kick to go down and smoke in front of my painting Fall [1963].’3

The same painting was awaiting me in Paris, still drawing a crowd. My gaze is engaged with the painting before, in fact, the eyes have had a chance to comprehend and order its sudden, disruptive surge of visual information. On a white background a densely packed but neatly spaced succession of softly curved, methodically spaced black lines appears to be descending in a series of increasingly frequent undulations. Almost immediately the eye becomes aware of a seemingly tireless, disorienting movement within the apparent simplicity of the composition; and from this a sensory paradox begins to emerge: your gaze is drawn, as though by instinct, to search across the painting’s surface for the source of this dramatic, vertiginous effect, only to discover that there is nowhere for it to rest on. Having identified a point of focus, the sensory experience of attempting to study the painting is disrupted by a series of oscillatory shimmers, blurs and visual echoes; if you then stand back, unblinking, to try to comprehend the work in its totality, you quickly become aware of successive horizontal bars of visual movement – an optical effervescence that appears to ripple, slipping in and out of focus, across the widths of the peaks and troughs created by the stroboscopic acceleration of the black lines on the white surface.

Colour, too, can begin to emerge: a translucent lavender luminescence across the lower third of the painting, gradually giving way to pale tangerine. These black and white paintings, which would develop to include shades of grey, in minutely gradated fades from black to white – as represented in Paris by, among others, Burn, Turn and Pause (all 1964) – might be seen as both the inauguration and the summarizing documents of Riley’s long fascination with the processes of looking and seeing. More specifically, the vital internal equation between the temper and the technique of her painting: on the one hand, sensory bedazzlement; on the other, artistic detachment and an almost scientific – and certainly mathematical – concentration on the refinement of form and composition. In a highly illuminating conversation with the art historian E.H. Gombrich, first broadcast on BBC Radio 3 as part of Bridget Riley: Five Dialogues on Art in December 1992, and subsequently published under the title ‘Perception and the Use of Colour’4, the question of Riley’s translation of perception into technique, and the relation of precise stylistic discipline to the creation of an aesthetic, was directly addressed.

Riley quotes from Paul Klee’s The Thinking Eye (translated 1961), which she cites as ‘one of my bibles in the 1960s’, continuing: ‘This particular paragraph struck a very powerful chord: “My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each one of my undertakings. I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful, the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit.” I think that’s a very beautiful piece, and it became a guiding principle.’ Gombrich responds with a quotation from a sonnet by Goethe, which concludes: ‘Accepting limits will reveal the master, and nothing but the law can give us freedom.’

In one sense Riley might be seen as the modern representative of the equation between artistic discipline and beauty to be found in Oscar Wilde’s maxim, in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), that: ‘The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.’ This sentiment is taken in its turn from the pronouncement of Gustave Flaubert, in his voluminous Correspondence that: ‘The artist should be like God in His universe: everywhere present, but nowhere seen.’ This was advice also followed by the young Truman Capote, during his early search for a mature literary style that would be free of self-expression and authorial presence, existing solely as art. In the winter of 1997, attending Riley’s ‘Painting Now’ lecture, I was struck by the clarity with which she defined the nature and role of the artist, and in particular the painter. Her points of departure were literary – two of the great pillars of Modernism: ‘When Samuel Beckett was a young man in the early 1930s, and trying to find a basis from which he could develop, he wrote an essay known as ‘Beckett/Proust’ (1931), in which he examined Proust’s views of creative work; and he quotes Proust’s artistic credo as declared in Time Regained – “the task and duty of a writer are those of a translator”.

This could also be said of a composer, a painter or anyone practising an artistic métier. An artist is someone with a text which he or she wants to decipher.’ Beckett interprets Proust as being convinced that such a text cannot be created or invented but can only be discovered within the artist himself, and that it is, as it were, almost a law of his own nature. It is his most precious possession, and, as Proust explains, the source of his innermost happiness. However, as can be seen from the practice of the great artists, although the text may be strong and durable and able to support a lifetime’s work, it cannot be taken for granted and there is no guarantee of permanent possession. It may be mislaid or even lost, and retrieval is very difficult. It may lie dormant, and be discovered late in life after a long struggle, as with Mondrian or Proust himself.’5

Hearing this, I made a note: ‘Bridget Riley has just made a profoundly personal statement without revealing anything about herself.’ ‘Riley’s black and white paintings were made in response to the trauma and anger she felt at the age of 28, when an older man with whom she had been having an affair brought their relationship to an end. As she later recalled her feelings at that time as being: ‘I can’t communicate verbally with you, so what’s the point in trying? But I’ll paint you a message so loud and clear you’ll know exactly how I feel.’6To say that there were absolutes; that one could not pretend that black was white … to make a deliberate statement, to make a thing that put itself into hazard by some aspect of its own nature. And that was the beginning of the black and white paintings. People at the time thought, and some people still seem to think, that they were paintings having to do with optical experiment … really they were an attempt to say something about stabilities and instabilities, certainties and uncertainties.’7

By the time of her retrospective exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 1971, Riley had already begun working in colour. Studies for her early paintings, now on display in Paris, reveal finely conducted experiments – including delicate designs in gouache and pencil on graph paper, such as Study for Arrest (1965). Riley’s studies for her paintings have the finesse of architectural or technical drawings, in which mathematical notations are set aside from the gradually emerging composition of a work. By the late 1960s Riley’s investigations into colour – informed by extended periods of travel and research in India, Japan, Europe and Egypt – had assumed a grace matched only by their sudden, electrifying vibrancy. Paean (1973) and the epic Shih-Li (1975) may be seen as evidence of both tempers, presenting an intensity and movement of colour that, seemingly, will endlessly renew across subsequent paintings – horizontals, ‘zigs’ and curves.

Riley’s new exhibition makes clear the stature of the artist’s achievement. You could think of a younger generation of artists – Sarah Morris, Jim Lambie, Ian Davenport – whose work seems descended, if only in part, from not only an aesthetic project established by Riley’s example but also from a kind of intellectual authorization, deriving from her pioneering approach to making art. I found myself thinking of systems and layers, of the sublime aspects of art which are derived in part from the precise sequencing and honing of repetitions. Moving from painting to painting, one’s eyes in a constant state of re-awakening, it ceased to matter how much or how little one knows about Riley’s working methods. The ‘act of translation’ that she acknowledges as the defining characteristic of an artist, and the fragility of the text they carry with themselves, are all too apparent through the living spirit of her paintings. Faced finally with Composition with Circles 6, it seems sure that Riley, in the language of colour and form, has been writing her own Time Regained for at least half a century: an epic excursion into the consciousness of time, place and memory, refined from an infinity of elements into a universal and symphonic text, open to all.

1 Bridget Riley, ‘Perception Is Medium’, The Eye’s Mind: Bridget Riley, Collected Writings 1965–1999, ed. Robert Kudielka, Thames & Hudson, London, 1999, p. 66
2 Anne Monfort, ‘Making Visible’, Bridget Riley – Retrospective, Musées de Paris, 2008, p. 24
3 Michael Bracewell, ‘Bridget Riley: “A Plea for Painting”’, The Guardian Weekend, 15 March 1997
4 Bridget Riley, Five Dialogues on Art, Zwemmer, London, 1995, pp. 34–7
5 Bridget Riley, ‘Painting Now’, William Townsend Memorial Lecture, University College London, 1997
6 Bridget Riley, ‘Personal Interview, 1988’, The Eye’s Mind, p. 25
7 Bridget Riley, ‘The Experience of Painting’, The Eye’s Mind: Bridget Riley, Collected Writings 1965–1999, p. 125

Michael Bracewell is a writer based in the UK. His most recent book, The Space Between: Selected Writings on Art, is published by Ridinghouse, London.