in Interviews | 04 SEP 92
Featured in
Issue 6

Visual Fabric

Interview with Bridget Riley

in Interviews | 04 SEP 92

James Roberts: I was surprised to discover how tangible your paintings really are. Having seen so many in reproduction, it was quite a shock to find that they have a very strong physicality and presence, for want of a better word. The works seem far more to do with visual experience - with looking at the world - than I had imagined from the very flat, graphic qualities they have in print. From our conversation, I feel that this has a lot to do with your own first-hand experience of the natural landscape, and looking at the movement of form and light within that context.
Perhaps we should begin by talking about another artist who had a fascination with seeing and the perception of natural phenomena - Seurat.

Bridget Riley: Yes, that would be a good begin-ning because he was one of my own starting points in the late 50s. I learnt a great deal from him. When I first copied one of his paintings, I did not understand colour; but he made accessible the intuitive discoveries of the Impressionists through his methode, as he called it. One could see the extent of his influence in the Post-Impressionist exhibition held at the Royal Academy some years ago. Despite this method, or perhaps because of it, his work is very complex. He seems to me to reach a mysterious area which is, with respect, very beautifully just on the verge of being incomprehensible. Although the imagery in his work is drawn from external reality, it is fed by the sight of what he himself has constructed on the canvas. He sees himself seeing, so to speak. For someone rooted in the figurative tradition, a conflict is inescapable - but it is not a negative one; in his hands it becomes highly artistic. It seems to reach its highest point of balance in La Grande Jatte - after that, he had no choice, in a way, but to opt for one of the two courses. Very slowly, he started to select subjects within the range of absolute theory, with which he tried to pin down the external world. Another thing I love about Seurat: his refinement and reticence - no showing off!

This attempt to limit his subjects in order to bring his perceptual experience within the realms of theory is very visible in the later works of Seurat: the interiors and the subjects under artificial light, like La Cirque for instance.

There are the seascapes as well, but La Cirque is extremely interesting. In earlier work Seurat had underpainted with broad cross-hatched strokes, which he then modified with dots. He began to abandon underpainting with La Cirque. He probably felt that it was wrong.

Ideologically unsound.

Probably! When he worked with dots alone, space started to buckle and twist - I can understand why it fascinated the Cubists.

Do you think there was a sense of competition between Monet and Seurat? I'm thinking of the late, large water-lilies as a possible response to the monumentality of La Grande Jatte.

I don't think there was really a sense of competition, although Monet was certainly alarmed by the Neo-Impressionists. Impressionism had hardly won the day, in that it had not won a large public or beaten the Salon. Also Monet, who was deeply intuitive, doubted that the 'scientific' approach could be of real use.

How do you regard the more dogmatic aspects of Seurat: his rigorous theories on colour, for example?

Seurat wanted tremendously to prove, and his theories formed slowly as he went along. In trying to be true to them, he ran up against his own actual, perceptual experience. This was a tremendous problem, which he must have felt, I think, all the more acutely been torn between his dedication and his sensibility.

Is this responsiveness to real experience the reason you felt a stronger affinity to Seurat than someone more contemporary, like the French artist August Herbin, say, who shared similar interests in colour theory and abstraction?

Yes - if you go further back, you can discover more; it is richer. Your contemporaries are artists with the same problems and experience - you are all in the same boat. But if you swim further out to sea - where the waves are coming from, so to speak - you get a clearer view. Artists like Seurat and Monet reach aspects of truth that touch our own experience and make a link between the artist and the public. The difficulty is when concepts as rigid as those of Seurat come into contact with a reality which cannot be denied.

In the text Perception is the Medium, which you wrote in 1965 following The Responsive Eye exhibition in New York, you said that 'everyone knows, by now, the neuro-physiological and psychological responses are inseparable'. I know that it is hardly fair to hold you to something that was said almost thirty years ago, but do you still feel that this is the case?

Yes, of course I do. Truths do not change, but I think that it is possible that it isn't as readily understood now as it was then.

There has been an enormous amount of debate over the last few years regarding the question of whether unmediated experience is possible at all. There are artists working with colour today who might argue that our response to colour and form is learned from the culture and modified by forces such as advertising.

I don't quite understand what you mean - do you mean that it is thought that 'conditioning' as it would have been called in the 60s is any more virulent today than it was then? If so, I doubt if it is any stronger, although of course, being subject to fashion it will appear different. There has always been this movement, or even opposition, between the forces of habitual seeing and the shock of new visual experience - they both co-exist, and to some extent one depends upon another. I don't believe that any one in their right mind would say that vision or sight cannot lend itself to a new experience - there is just too much evidence to the contrary. How is it that the Impressionists came about? How is it that Cubism ever happened if the argument you describe were true? These involved ways of seeing and perceiving that had not been experienced before. The moment habitual ways of seeing are established, you pave the way for them to be overturned. There is always someone doing something different. If you were a Korean potter working in Japan in the 11th century, you might have done something, used an ash glaze for example, that had not been seen before on the mainland. This gives people a genuine pleasure.
Painting is a perceptual medium and there has to be a fabric for the eye to engage.

How do you feel about the way that optical abstraction, in particular your work, has been appropriated by artists like Philip Taaffe and Ross Bleckner?

It is quite along time ago, but I don't think that either of them were interested in anything that interests me. The two terms 'Op Art' and 'Pattern Painting' are American expressions, and Americans do have a very particular view of European art that is at odds with how contemporary Europeans viewed the same movements.

Perhaps Europe has a Disneyesque exoticism: Philip Taaffe has been living in Naples for the last five years.

The one time I met Taaffe, he said that Italy was where he longed to be, which I can understand - the longing to be away from the dust and heat of a very poor part of New York. Italy must have seemed...


Yes. When I saw him and Ross Bleckner in 1986, they seemed to have an air of desperation: a quite genuine anxiety. They told me they were sick of being poor - and America isn't a country in which one can be poor without being more or less invisible. It's beginning to be difficult to live in Europe without money now, and this is cutting away at our culture. Perhaps it's not so much the case in England because we lost a great deal long ago in the Industrial Revolution, but on the Continent, where some countries were basically agricultural, it was until recently possible to be poor and still be able to take part in society - you had not lost your place. There were cafes and restaurants where you could go, and you didn't feel excluded because of your appearance. When I was a student I had two pairs of trousers, two men's shirts and a pullover, and it didn't matter.

Now it seems that it is the only thing that does matter. You read about people being mugged for their trainers.

Wasn't that the advertising slogan for Nike: 'Shoes to kill for'?

What is deeply disturbing is the fact the people were being robbed, or killed, not out of need, but for a status symbol. It seems as if it has become a necessity to own that kind of luxury item: that you have to possess them or you have no value as a human-being. Perhaps America has a different view of the world that needs a more material and tangible form of art. This may be one of the reasons why your work was misinterpreted to such an extreme degree.

There was a great tension and insecurity in America at that time. The next generation after the Abstract Expressionists felt uneasy about Pollock - and you recall that Rauschenberg rubbed-out a De Kooning drawing. I remember meeting the curator of a provincial American art museum; an intelligent and sensitive man who had once been an artist. Clement Greenberg had visited the college where he was studying and they put up a show for him. During the visit, Greenberg did not remark on this man's work, so he gave up the idea of being an artist.

On the other hand, the European reaction had been much broader. The link between us and our European past had not been broken at that time. People, even if they were not well-informed about art, felt more able to make the necessary effort to enter into the work displayed in art galleries and museums. I think it is self-evident that Europe is an intricate, old culture. I have a studio in France and I was looking at a highly detailed map of the area and it was absolutely covered with roads, paths and small constellations of towns, villages and hamlets. The entire area had been traversed by thousands of people for centuries, and that was part of the feeling of being in the landscape. I remember parts of Canada, Australia and America where nothing can be walked, and where experience of the place that you are in and communication with other people has to be made by other means. There is no difference between a phone call to another town and a call to another country.

You have talked about the loss of focus in painting and relates that to the loss of certainty that accompanied the decline of Christianity, amongst other things. This seems particularly important. Romantic painters - Delacroix for instance, in The Death of Sardanapalus - experimented with attempting to disorientate the viewer, and I think this is symptomatic of a general sense of doubt.

A shift of focus is not necessarily negative: doubt may be attendant on Romantic painting, but I don't think it is central to Delacroix's tempera-ment as an artist - nor is it the only alternative to Christian certainty. In art, painterly space has always been one of the principal areas of inven-tion. In Piero della Francesca's Flagellation, space starts and stops: it is constructed to move the eye over the surface with varying emphasis. He was very skilful with perspectival space: establishing it and then denying it in a virtually musical scheme. Vermeer is a similar case - an entirely different character of space, but an extremely sophisticated one. In the beautiful little painting Artist in his Studio, it's more like a game of chess, except that instead of the manoeuvres being played intellectually, there they seem to be virtually palpable - that is to say, plastic. The space that was established in the Renaissance was opened up and expanded with colour. There is an apocryphal story that when Picasso, in later years, took one of his paintings to the Louvre, he said `It is the same!'. This was not to do with any sense of virtuosity, but that Cubist space was the same pictorial space. At least, that is how I interpret it.

The stripe paintings seem much simpler in the sense that there is less disorientation involved than with the black and white paintings and the early colour paintings. They are easier to enter and become involved with because there isn't that same kind of spatial manipulation.

Yes, there is a difference. It is deliberately `com-posed' - however unfashionable such a concept may be. Music has been a guide in that, as it has for so many artists. I made those paintings in 1981 or 1982, and at that time I began to build up the colour interactions quite freely using the visual sensations they generated to make a shallow space and to provide the rhythm.

I don't quite know how to look at your most recent paintings - they seem to have a very different sense of depth and movement, but I cannot actually say what it is.

Now I am trying to give the eye something more to do. To take it on its simplest level, before you can respond to a piece of music, your ear has to be engaged - you have to have something to listen to. That is obvious, and in painting it is as necessary to direct the eye: to offer it different depths, movements and relationships to make. But, unlike music, the flat surface of a painting is seen all at once and so one's memory works in a different way. Painting is a perceptual medium and there has to be a fabric for the eye to engage.

What kind of fabric?

Exactly, what kind of fabric!
Do you have an answer to that?
Well, yes I do - but it is not words, it is something that can only be discovered by being looked at: a visual fabric. That is the only thing that it can be. When I am working, I form and reform patterns of looking. You could say that the eye abhors a vacuum and that what it wants to see indicates precisely what relationships I should put there. One cannot cheat: what is thought and felt by the artist is apparent at every stage. Every weakness, and any strengths, declare themselves precisely. But these paintings are not ideas - I have to make decisions as they come along. There is a story, reported by Paul Valery, of an exchange between Degas and Mallarmé: Degas said that he had a wonderful idea for a poem, and Mallarmé replied that poems are made of words, not ideas!

Many of the ideas that seem to be important for you belong to the 19th century, which seems very far away now.

It is not that l have lived a long time...

... but that the world has changed in a very short time.

Certain things do not. The things I find myself up against and dealing with are constant - not that my way of dealing with them is, because I slowly understand them better. The making of works that may become art is an activity that is fundamentally unchanged and has been continuing for a very long time. The skills may change, but the judgements that you have to make and the parts of the human mind that are called into use are unchanging. This is one of the pleasures of making art: that you know you are using that part of your mind.

For a change.

Indeed. It is a part of the mind that people go to for refreshment - to feel alive. The love of working is really the state of mind that one is in.

According to Sensation, an exhibition of recent paintings by Bridget Riley will be at the Hayward Gallery, London from 17 September - 6 Decem-ber 1992.