Essays by James Hyman

Life through colour: the gouaches of Bridget Riley (1980-1995)

Life through colour: the gouaches of Bridget Riley (1980-1995)


Essay by James Hyman for the catalogue accompanying the exhibiton:
Bridget Riley, Museum für Moderne Kunst des Landkreis Cuxhaven, Otterndorf, Germany, June 2-July 14


In his memorable "Letters on Cézanne" Rainer Maria Rilke addresses not only the Frenchman's extraordinary use of colour but also succinctly encapsulates the restless, searching quality of the artist. In one moving section Rilke has an epiphany he recognizes that in Cézanne's approach: "there was a mutual struggle between the two procedures of, first, looking and confidently receiving, and then of appropriating and making personal use of what has been received - that the two perhaps as a result of becoming conscious, would immediately start opposing each other talking out loud, as it were, and go on perpetually interrupting and contradicting each other." [1]

The personal search that underlies the creative process; the stimulating tension between the observed and the realized; and the activating effect this has on both the picture and the viewer also distinguishes the work of Bridget Riley.

Ever since Riley was a student at the Royal College of Art (1952-55) and spent long, patient hours in the life room drawing from the figure, preparatory study has been fundamental to her painting. Such preparation may be characteristic of Riley's figurative contemporaries but is rare amongst abstract painters. For Riley, however, it is essential.

This "research" - and it is this term with its allusions to science and to intuition as well that Riley uses to characterise the approach - is disciplined and tightly controlled but also empirical or `hand-made'. Studies range from small single patches of colour through large gouaches that build up complex relationships of colour to full scale `cartoons' that collage together coloured paper.

The pictures in this exhibition - frequently made in les Bassacs, a small hamlet in Cézanne's beloved Provence - are the building blocks for paintings, although they are on paper they do not fail into the category of "works on paper", they are preparatory studies. Each painting comes at the end of a laborious process. Each requires calculation and skill but also depends on sensation and intuition, as well as success there is failure, an abandoned idea may later provide the point of departure for fresh enquiry through a process of controlled improvisation the result may be balanced, composed and `classical' or turbulent, upsetting and disturbing. But whether it is harmonious or discordant, each piece is the culmination of countless modifications and reassessments.

However tight the construction, the roots are personal. But although based on perception the result is never descriptive in the sense of recording an experience, it is, of course, possible to identify different, distinct elements but what is important is their relationships and potentialities. Small discrepancies or "trip-wires" animate the surface. Local incidents and apparent variations in depth subvert a unified `ail-over' structure. Constancy combines with change to generate movement.

There is repetition, contrast, splitting-up and mirroring, but there is no formula no system and no codification. Nor is there any mystery instead there is function and purpose. This has always been the case in Riley's work although the nature of the enquiry has changed.

In pieces from the early 1980s such as study for ra, 1980 and study after silvered, 1981 the composition is simplified to thin vertical lines and free reign is given to the sensations achieved through just a handful of the same colours. In both studies precisely the same number of each colour is used, but the impact is quite different, the former is clear and bright, especially on the left where there is a concentration of yellows. The latter is soft and hazy with almost no accent placed on any particular hue.

In the mid 1980s there was a transition, first, in 1984, the use of bands of black and white was jettisoned as Riley introduced stripes of pale lilac-pink and green as in two related works April 25 and September 14, both from 1984. But as the colour became increasingly saturated a change of form was need. In 1985 new colour energies began to burst free as, for the first time, Riley abandoned the use of a fixed palette. In Study b. 15/10185 the format is still vertical and tightly linear but the introduction of the diagonal releases a new dynamism. Now the eye can begin to move around the picture not simply across it, or up and down. By breaking the forms and disrupting the colour a new energy is released, events, local incidents and contrasts between deep and shallow space start to emerge. In October 84, revision b (1986) this is taken a stage further the colours are limited to green, turquoise, orange, yellow and blue but there is a larger scale and an increased power in the diagonal.

The possibilities increase, in June 27 a, Bassacs (1988) the forms are fuller and the range of colours greater neutrals such as olive, stone and pink appear; black and white are used as colours in their own right; and instead of a single blue, a green or a red, Riley introduces families of colours, presenting variations on a single hue.

In November 13, 1989, the families of colours expand to include yellows, red-violets and greens. the rhythms vary from quick to slow and the yellow appears to filter from abundance on the right to an occasional appearance on the left. It is now not just one colour that is set against another but one side of the picture, which is placed in relation to the other.

For the viewer the resulting experience is particularly active: the eye move around, engages here, takes time there, and returns to the same point without repeating the experience, the colours assume new identities: bold one moment, reticent the next, they fill the picture with life.

The organization becomes more complex. In July 1992, Bassacs colour is heightened, the light is fresh and the space open - with an air of out-of-doors. A culmination is reached with 31 july, 1994 where an unprecedented richness of colour combines with variations in the width of the columns. Shortly afterwards Riley took another step forward, through which the forms attained a new clarity. in Revision (a), July 11, Bassacs, 1995 there are no longer families of colours. Instead Riley explores red-green harmonies, using blue as an accent colour the result is surprisingly simple despite the refinement of the movement, the eye travels at different speeds. It springs from top right to bottom left in quick darts and paces from top left to bottom right in deep steps. In such recent studies Riley reverses her process: where once she built unity out of contrast, she now draws contrast from harmony.

The rigors of the approach and the economy of means - the use of verticals, the regulation of width and the continued use of 45 degree angles - make the density of the work ail the more remarkable, but however economic it may be, a picture by Riley is never `starved', indeed the sensations she achieves recall the "indescribable expressive capacity" Rilke identified in Cézanne which "suddenly after many unavailing attempts, came about, was there, succeeded. All his means were released and dissolved in succeeding: you'd almost think no means were used at all."

The hazards that accompany such an approach are profound. They are not confined to the artist but are also shared by the viewer we may ail stand before the same picture, see the same image and experience the same sensations, but for each of us the impact is peculiarly personal and miraculously different.

As this exhibition shows, Riley is not concerned with capturing a single sensation, her concerns go deeper each picture is a distillation, a multi-layered realm of sensation and experience. Each is predicated on the belief that a pictorial world - a space built by colour - is still a viable and rewarding subject for a painter today restless, stimulating, dynamic: these expansive works breath life through colour.

1. The English translations of Rilke are taken from Rainer Maria Rilke, "Letters on Cézanne, (edited by Clara Nike), translated by Joel Agee, from international publishing corporation, New York, 1985.

I am grateful to Bridget Riley for information on her pictures gained from conversations and studio visits during 1995 and 1996.

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