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Bridget Riley’s artwork is here to give your eyeballs a workout

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Bridget Riley

Bridget Riley has produced some of the most visually arresting art of the past century. Ahead of her retrospective, Rhiannon Cosslett investigates her eye-bending legacy.

It’s impossible to stand in front of a Bridget Riley painting and not be aware of your eyes. “Focusing isn’t just an optical activity, it’s also a mental one,” said the legendary British artist, in an essay in The Eye’s Mind – a book of her collected writings, republished at the end of this month.

The book coincides with a major retrospective of her work at the Hayward Gallery in London. Bridget Riley, which is the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of her work, will span the 88-year-old’s entire career, from her figurative painting of the 1940s through to the abstract paintings she continues to produce today. She is, however, best known for her eye- and mind-bending black and white paintings, which came to be defined as op-art (optical art), a visual symbol of the 1960s.

But Riley has always rejected the op-art label. “Riley’s interest in those perceptional effects didn’t come from what would eventually be put into a category of psychedelic op-art,” says the exhibition’s curator, Dr Cliff Lauson. “For her, they came from a long history of painting and of looking at the great art of the past.”

Bridget Riley in 1963 with one of her signature black and white paintings.
Bridget Riley in 1963 with one of her signature black and white paintings.

The effect of a Riley painting is disorientating: the lines appear to shift and dance before your eyes. “In general, my paintings are multifocal. You can’t call it unfocused space, but not being fixed to a single focus is very much of our time,” Riley has said.

Her meticulously precise work is often called scientific, though it is not a word that she would choose. Rather she approaches it with what she calls a creative spirit of inquiry. The science behind why her works provoke the eye the way they do is subject to debate, but some studies suggest the “optical illusion” effects of her paintings are produced not in the brain but because of miniscule involuntary eye movements called microaccades.

Though known as an icon of the 60s, Riley continues to make art today, and the works on display will span seven decades. Her relationship with the Hayward began when she was granted a major exhibition there in 1971. It was around this time Riley shifted to experimenting with the optical effects of colour as well as black and white.

After a commission from the Royal Liverpool Hospital in 1983, she began painting on walls and the Hayward will feature several of these works. “These are designed to be painted directly onto the walls of the gallery, so there is this amazing dance of colour, and a different scale than the canvases,” says Lauson.

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Lauson advises taking a friend, because no person perceives a Riley work in quite the same way. “You and your friend can stand in front of a particular picture and have a great conversation about what it is you’re seeing. Unlike any other artist, Riley’s work invites us to become aware of how we see and super aware of our eyes.”

Here we select four paintings that show how her work has evolved over time. Prepare to flex your eye muscles.

PINK LANDSCAPE, 1960

Pink Landscape, 1960.
Pink Landscape, 1960.

Pink Landscape is one of several works around this period where Riley is teaching herself, learning from the great artists of the past, such as Georges Seurat (1859-1891), a post-impressionist who was interested in conveying fields of vision through paint gestures. “Here she’s looking at what Seurat was doing and then finding her own way through, understanding how to use paint to emulate a kind of vision,” says Lauson.

“It’s about the mixing of paint colours, but then it’s really closely linked to the perception of how we see colour and space and understand representation,” continues Lauson. “So if you look really close, there are hundreds and hundreds of little dots applied, and as one gains distance, the dots of solid colour combine into mixed colours. This can vary by the size of the dots and how close they are together. It can create a picture as you obtain a distance from in front of the painting.”

MOVEMENT IN SQUARES, 1961

Movement in Squares, 1961.
Movement in Squares, 1961.

Painted merely a year after Pink Landscape, here Riley has found her style, breaking into a mode of abstraction. In Movement In Squares we can see the beginnings of her interest in visual disruption and disorientation. Her black and white paintings are some of her most famous, because they are so visually striking in the way they are choreographed. “You’re drawn in, the eye falls right into the picture or into the wall and beyond. It has the effect of plunging into space,” says Lauson.

“She’s interested at this time in working through different forms and compositions. There is lots of experimentation going on in the studio and it’s resulting in these different ways of playing with perception, of shaping your vision. “With the work through the 60s and of course beyond, there’s a sense of [Riley] trying something, and then she sharpens and hones it until it’s super visually effective.”

RA, 1981

RA, 1981.
RA, 1981.

Ra, named after the sun god in Ancient Egypt, followed an influential trip to Egypt, where Riley was inspired by the colours in architectural drawings there. In the 1970s, she moved into using colour in a similar way to her black and white paintings. “The way she works with colours is always interested not in one colour or another colour, but in a tight grouping of colours. For her, it’s about really fine-tuning how these colours respond to one another. The friction or frisson between them,” says Lauson.

“Colour is somewhat relative and if you put one colour next to another, it looks a little different than if you put it against a white background. This is a big part of her project.”

Riley will have spent much time working out how the position of the coloured lines affects perception, moving them back and forth. “She’s really finely attenuated not just the colours but also the composition, the thickness of the stripes,” explains Lauson. “That has to do with viewing distance and how the colours play off each other.”

RAJASTHAN, 2012

Rajasthan, 2012.
Rajasthan, 2012.

For Riley, wall painting began in the 80s. The Royal Liverpool Hospital commissions were touchstones and from then on, Lauson says, “the compositions sort of leapt off the canvases and onto the walls and in doing so directly involved the surrounding architecture”.

Riley has also been working with curves for a couple of decades – the curve, Riley has said, is like a kind of embrace – and Rajasthan, designed to be painted directly onto the walls of the gallery, unites these two themes. Comparisons have been drawn with the work of Matisse.

“I love that you can stand in front of it and it surrounds you,” says Lauson. “There’s only the frame of the building. You have the colours dancing in space, essentially. It floats on the architecture. It looks amazing. It’s like an endless horizon.”

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Bridget Riley; Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London SE1; 23 October-26 January 2020; £18; southbankcentre.co.uk

Artwork: Bridget Riley, Pink Landscape, 1960 © Bridget Riley 2019. All rights reserved; Bridget Riley, RA, 1981 © Bridget Riley 2019. All rights reserved; Bridget Riley, Rajasthan, 2012 Installation View, Bridget Riley, David Zwirner, New York, 2015 © Bridget Riley 2019. Bridget Riley, Movement in Squares, 1961 Arts Council Collections, Southbank Centre, London. © Bridget Riley 2019. All rights reserved. 

All rights reserved courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner Photo by Tim Nighswander.

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