Bridget Riley: The Art of Perception

Cliff Lauson

Discover the origins and evolution of Bridget Riley’s spectacular practice with Dr Cliff Lauson, Senior Curator at the Hayward Gallery, London. 

Lauson charts Riley’s oeuvre from her accomplished early sketches rendering the figure, to the painterly lessons she learned from the works of pointillist Georges Seurat, to her seismic break with representation into dazzling abstraction. Lauson also gives insight into the artist’s working methods, exploring how Riley hones the patterns of her compositions to give precise optical effect, for ultimately ‘perception itself is the medium that she’s working through’.

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Bridget Riley has a very interesting approach to art. Rather than have a particular subject matter, or a particular theme or content that she’s engaging with, when she makes a picture, she considers perception itself the medium that she’s working through. So, she’s a painter and she makes paintings, but actually through creation of composition, working through abstraction, she creates a perceptual encounter with the viewer.

 

Bridget Riley had a very classical training in art. She learned the art of representation. She learned life drawing, she learned how to draw and paint landscape, and she learned all the things about tone and light, and shade, rendering, the way light reflects of surfaces, composition, and depth. All of those basics of art practice of representation.

 

Over the course of her studies and her early work, Riley had a had a very close connection, or saw her work as having a very close connection, with this long tradition of painting. Amongst the artists that Riley looked back to included Impressionists and Post-impressionists, there are artists like Monet, Bonnard, Matisse and, in particular, Georges Seurat, the French painter was of importance for her. And through a number of artworks, she learned essentially the lessons that uh Georges Seurat had taught himself. Seurat was a pointillist painter, or a Divisionist painter, and that style is the application of thousands of dots of pure colour, but when you stand back and look at it, they merge together, and you can resolve a picture. And Riley studied this, and from their point of view. And she made a number of works, which were in the style of a pointillist painter to teach herself, and to equip herself, with the understanding of exactly how it is that perception works.

 

So, through her early years, Riley had been working in a representational manner. She’d been rendering the figure, or landscape, and at a point in the early sixties she broke with representation and decided to pursue abstraction. And she wanted to pare things down as much as possible, and that included purging colour, and going to strictly black and white. But it also included arranging or coming up with a composition that had a very minimal approach to it. And it’s important to note that this minimal approach I think differed, from other painters, who went down a similar path to abstraction. Whereas they may have done an all-black canvas, or an all-white canvas, and in that way been sort of ultimately minimal, Riley always sought to have a greater dynamism in the work, but with minimal components. So, her first picture Kiss, in the early 1960s, actually has quite a bit of movement through it even though it only has the two colours, and a very pared back composition.

 

Riley continued to explore black and white, and actually introduced grey as well as a colour, so you then had sequences, not only across tones and shades, but also across composition. And, in a way, she wanted to give herself enough time, to sort of push that to the limits. So, those black and white works from the 60s are in a way the most optically striking, they are very potent experiences.

 

As she moved on into late 1960s, she reintroduced colour to her work. And when she does, this she does it in small steps, she explores a very limited palette. Choosing maybe two, maybe three, maybe four colours, very carefully, but only examining the relationship between those few colours in her paintings. But that plays out on an epic scale, and that becomes something of a horizon, or a field of view, for the visitor.

 

And what is remarkable about these works, is that when you spend some time in front of the pictures, the colours play off of each other and actually generate further colours. And this can differ from viewer to viewer because we all see a little differently. But when you give these works time to unfold on your eyeballs, in your brain, different sensations and different colours can emerge, from just the composition and the choices that Riley has set out within the painting.

 

[Bridget Riley] You can see it’s two pairs of colours, a light pink and a magenta pink, and a blue and a green, so that each pair is related. Then both are pitched against each other. I was going to call it Bacchanal without Nymphs — and then I thought, ‘No, I mustn’t do that, I’m an abstract painter — I can’t possibly have anything like that creeping in!’ So, I called it Evoey because in Ancient Greece because the men and women taking part in a bacchanal would shout out ‘Evoey!’ Both of them, equally.

 

Riley’s titles are quite interesting. Riley’s titles might give you a hint of something. They might give you a particular clue or a small reference that can be sometimes musical, can sometimes be atmospheric. And the work behind me, Rajasthan, might give you a sense of a location. However, the titles never fully describe a sort of contextual situation, or contextual lens through which to read the work, and that’s because the work does need to stand on its own with the perceptual effects, or engagement that you have with it. So, Riley is very careful to maybe create a mood with her titles, but not to overly describe something which may close-down how you experience the work.

 

When making a work, Riley spends a lot of time working out the colours and the composition, because those are the key aspects of a picture. That work is done in the studio, and it’s a lot of intuitive understanding about how colours relate to each other, and how composition might be read or might affect the viewer. It’s also done with a lot of experimentation. So, there’s a lot of studies that reveal something of that working process. So, you might find a cartoon of a picture that’s heavily annotated in pencil markings about ‘This colour one way’, and then you have a different cartoon that says, ‘Actually, we’ll try it a different way and we’ll go in that direction.’ Once a cartoon is settled upon, and it’s finally ready to become a final image, Riley works with a team in her studio, and they create the final canvas, the final picture.

 

Well, I think that one of the great things about Riley’s work, and it’s the thing she’s sort of developed over years, and years, and years, to make her own, is that the viewer really is half of the equation. So, on the one hand you have all these decisions about colour and composition and size and scale, and on the other you have all the different people who will encounter these pictures. And they see differently, they stand at different heights, they bring to each picture different histories or histories of perception.

 

Although they are pictures, and they’re paintings, that most are most often hung on the wall, they’re also something of an event. So, there’s something durational about the experience of viewing them. And I often ask people to stand in front of picture much longer than they usually would. And in this modern age of an increasingly short attention span, it’s important that one gives the paintings time to unfold and to fully allow you to engage with their perceptual effects. And whilst one person might say, ‘This work to me feels very quick and zippy’, somebody else might say, ‘Oh, actually, this one to me looks like it’s asking you to slow-down a bit and spend a bit more time’.

 

When Riley made her black and white works, she was included in an exhibition in New York, at the Museum of Modern Art. It was in 1965 and it was called The Responsive Eye. And the curators of that exhibition thought that her work was fantastic; so fantastic that they put her painting on the cover of the catalogue. And that was a really great and early moment of recognition for Riley, at such a prestigious organisation. Then she followed on with a tour through Europe that also came to the Hayward Gallery in 1971. Coinciding with this activity through the 60s was a cultural phenomenon of Op Art, and there was, I think, a moment where culturally and socially there seemed to be a conversation going on between art and perception, and things like fashion, music, maybe architecture, but certainly much more pop life sensibility. For Riley, that was a sort of factual thing that happened in the past — the sort of coincidence of those two things — but she’s always been really clear that her trajectory has come out of the longer and rich tradition of art and painting specifically. And so that now, decades later, Op Art is sort of a chapter in the history books — a cultural phenomenon — but Riley’s work has stood the test of time.

Filmed on the occasion of:

Bridget Riley

Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre

23 October 2019 – 26 January 2020

 

 

With thanks to

Bridget Riley Studio

Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre

 

 

Music

Audio Network

Free Music Archive

Music Vine

 

 

Archive

Alamy

Getty Images

Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre

 

 

Credits

British op artist Bridget Riley photographed with her work in 1975

Jack Mitchell / Getty Images

 

 

English op artist Bridget Riley photographed with her work at a Manhattan gallery showing, May 1975

Jack Mitchell / Getty Images

 

 

Continuum [Reconstruction]

Bridget Riley, 1963/2005

Acrylic on aluminium

208 x 853 x 30 cm

Collection of the Artist

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Composition with Circles 4

Bridget Riley, 2004

Installation View at Hayward Gallery, 2020

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Portrait of English Op artist Bridget Riley as she poses in front of one of her works, New York, May 1975

Jack Mitchell / Getty Images

 

 

Bridget Riley, winner of the Venice Biennale in 1968, mixing paint in her studio workshop, 26th July 1979
Evening Standard / Getty Images

 

 

British artist Bridget Riley’s Tatler cover, 1964

Tony Evans / Getty Images

 

 

Installation Views of Bridget Riley’s Early Works at Hayward Gallery, 2020

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Copy of Jan van Eyck’s ‘A Man in a Red Turban’

Bridget Riley, 1947

Oil on canvas

66 x 56 cm

Private collection

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Water Lilies

Claude Monet, 1916

National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo

Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

 

 

Water Lilies

Claude Monet, 1915-26

Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City

VCG Wilson / Corbis / Getty Images

 

 

Mimosa Bouquet

Pierre Bonnard, circa 1945

Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

 

 

Blue Interior

Bridget Riley, c.1955

Oil on canvas
121.5 x 91.5 cm

Private collection

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte

Georges Seurat, 1884-6

Art Institute of Chicago

VCG Wilson / Corbis / Getty Images

 

 

La Luzerne, Saint-Denis

Georges Seurat, 1885

National Galleries of Scotland / Getty Images

 

 

Pink Landscape

Bridget Riley, 1960

Oil on canvas

101.5 x 101.5 cm

Private collection

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Copy after ‘Le Pont de Courbevoie’ by Georges Seurat

Bridget Riley, 1959

Oil on canvas

71.1 x 91.4 cm

Private collection

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Lincolnshire Landscape

Bridget Riley, 1959

Oil on canvas

65.5 x 76.2 cm

Private collection

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Tourists take in Georges-Pierre Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte at the Art Institute of Chicago, 2013

John Gress / Corbis / Getty Images

 

 

Notes and Colour Study for ‘Pink Landscape’, 1960

Bridget Riley, 1959

Both pastel on paper
Both 40.4 x 50.7 cm

Private collection

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Installation view of ‘Bridget Riley’ at Hayward Gallery, 2019

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

Photo: Stephen White & Co.

 

 

7 Images of English op art painter Bridget Riley at work in a studio, April 1964

Tony Evans / Getty Images

 

 

Kiss

Bridget Riley, 1961

Synthetic emulsion on canvas

122 x 122 cm

Private collection

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Movement in Squares

Bridget Riley, 1961

Synthetic emulsion on board

123.2 x 121.2 cm

Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Shuttle 2

Bridget Riley, 1964

Synthetic emulsion on board

107 x 107 cm

Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. The Alexander A. Goldfarb Contemporary Art

Acquisition Fund and the Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Pause

Bridget Riley, 1964

Synthetic emulsion on board

111.8 x 106.7 cm

Private collection

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Where

Bridget Riley, 1964

Synthetic emulsion on board

107 x 113 cm

Private collection, England

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Drift 2

Bridget Riley, 1966

Synthetic emulsion on canvas

232.4 x 227.3 cm

Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York. Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1967 (K1967:5)
© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Arrest 3

Bridget Riley, 1965

Synthetic emulsion on canvas

174 x 191.8 cm

Lent by Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Exposure

Bridget Riley, 1966

Synthetic emulsion on canvas

203 x 406 cm

Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Horizontal Vibration

Bridget Riley, 1961

Synthetic emulsion on board

44.5 x 141 cm

Private collection, Nottingham

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Blaze 1

Bridget Riley, 1962

Synthetic emulsion on board

106.7 x 106.7 cm

Private collection, on long loan to National Galleries of Scotland 2017

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Chant 2

Bridget Riley, 1967

Acrylic emulsion on canvas

231 x 228.6 cm

Private collection

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Rise 1

Bridget Riley, 1968

Acrylic emulsion on canvas

188 x 377.2 cm

Museums Sheffield
© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Late Morning

Bridget Riley, 1967–68

Acrylic emulsion on canvas

226.1 x 359.4 cm

Tate. Purchased 1968
© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Measure for Measure 13

Bridget Riley, 2017

Acrylic on canvas

156 x 156 cm

Private collection
© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Measure for Measure Wall Painting

Bridget Riley, 2017

Installation at Hayward Gallery, 2020
© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Bridget Riley interview, 2003

ITN / Getty Images

 

 

Cascando

Bridget Riley, 2015

Acrylic on polyester

150 x 450 cm

Private collection, courtesy of Ivor Braka Limited

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Aria

Bridget Riley, 2012

Oil on canvas

232 x 185.2 cm

Private collection

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

High Sky

Bridget Riley, 1991

Oil on canvas

165 x 227 cm

Private collection

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Rajasthan

Bridget Riley, 2012
Installation view, Bridget Riley, David Zwirner, New York, 2015

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner
Photo by Tim Nighswander

 

 

Study for ‘Turn’ ’64

Bridget Riley, 1964

Pencil and gouache on paper

34.4 x 37 cm

Private collection

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Final Cartoon for ‘From Here’

Bridget Riley, 1994

Pencil and gouache on paper mounted on canvas
175.7 x 244.4 cm

Private Collection
© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Artists working on black and white Bridget Riley wall painting for exhibition, 2003

ITN / Getty Images

 

 

Bridget Riley retrospective; Wall painting being worked on, 2003

ITN / Getty Images

 

 

Installation view of Bridget Riley, ‘Composition with Circles 4’, 2004

Hayward Gallery, 2019

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.
Photo: Stephen White & Co.

 

 

Installation view of Bridget Riley, ‘From Here’, 1994

Hayward Gallery, 2020

Oil on canvas

157.6 x 227.8 cm

Private collection

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Installation view of Bridget Riley, ‘Movement in Squares’, 1961

Hayward Gallery, 2019

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.
Photo: Stephen White & Co.

 

 

Two Greens and Blue

Bridget Riley, 2000

Oil on canvas

Private collection

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

A visitor looks at a Bridget Riley at the Paris Musee d’Art Moderne

BERTRAND GUAY / AFP / Getty Images

 

 

A woman looks at a painting by English painter Bridgett Riley named ‘Gala’ at a Sotheby’s preview on January 28, 2009

Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

 

 

Arabic student Sofia Niazi looks at ‘Movement in Squares, 1961’ by Bridget Riley

Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

 

 

Installation view of Bridget Riley, From Here, 1994 at Hayward Gallery 2019

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.
Photo: Stephen White & Co.

 

 

Red with Red Triptych

Bridget Riley, 2010

Oil on canvas

1 panel: 169.4 x 250.4 cm

2 panels: 169.4 x 91.5 cm

Overall including 68.6 cm gap between

each panel: 169.4 x 570.6 cm

Centre Pompidou, Paris. Musée national d’Art

Modern / Centre de création industrielle
© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Current

Bridget Riley, 1964

Synthetic emulsion on board

148.1 x 149.3 cm

The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Philip Johnson Fund, 1964
© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Current

Bridget Riley, 1964

On catalogue cover of ‘The Responsive Eye’, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1965

By William C. Seitz. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in collaboration with the City Art Museum of St. Louis, et al.

 

 

Bridget Riley with one of her paintings, circa 1965

Tony Evans / Getty Images

 

 

Private View Card for ‘Bridget Riley: Paintings and Drawings 1951-71’, Kunsthalle Bern

Kunsthalle Bern, 1971

Courtesy of Hayward Gallery

 

 

3 Installation Views of ‘Bridget Riley: Paintings and Drawings 1951-71

Hayward Gallery, 1971

Photos: John Webb

Courtesy of Hayward Gallery

 

 

Climax

Bridget Riley, 1963

Synthetic emulsion on board

91.5 x 100.5 cm

Private collection

© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

Persephone 2

Bridget Riley, 1970

Acrylic emulsion (Cryla) on canvas

212 x 168 cm

Private collection
© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Clepsydra

Bridget Riley, 1976

Acrylic on canvas

202 x 257 cm

The Lambrecht-Schadeberg Collection/Winners of the Rubens Prize

of the City of Siegen in the Museum für Gegenwartskunst Siegen
© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

Bridget Riley photographed with her work at a Manhattan gallery showing in May 1975

Jack Mitchell / Getty Images

 

 

London, UK. 22nd Oct, 2019. Bridget Riley (pictured) with Painting with Verticals 3, 2006 at her major retrospective exhibition at Hayward Gallery (23 October 2019 – 26 January 2020)

Guy Bell / Alamy Stock Photo

 

 

Music 

Algorithms

Chad Crouch, 2019

(CC BY-NC 4.0)

 

Picturesque 3

Alex Arcoleo, 2013

 

Vigil

Brandon Hopkins

 

Deep Dive

Fell Creek

Bridget Riley’, official website

Bridget Riley’, Hayward Gallery, 23 Oct 2019 – 26 Jan 2020

Adrian Searle, ‘Bridget Riley review – a shimmering, rolling, flickering spectacular’, Guardian, Tue 22 Oct 2019

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