Abstract Critical

Bridget Riley: Colour-Form vs Coloured Forms

Written by James Finch

Installation view of Bridget Riley The Stripe Paintings 1961-2014, London, 2014

Installation view of Bridget Riley The Stripe Paintings 1961-2014, London, 2014

‘Form and colour seem to be fundamentally incompatible—they destroy each other… colour energies need a virtually neutral vehicle if they are to develop uninhibitedly. The repeated stripe seems to meet these conditions’. By the time Bridget Riley said this in 1972, many of the pictures in her current exhibition at David Zwirner had already been painted. This show follows the development of the stripe in Riley’s work for over sixty years. Throughout her career stripe patterns, with their implications of form sacrificed for colour, have recurred alongside monochrome spatial experiments such as Breathe (1965), and an equally methodical exploration of the stripe’s nemesis, the curve.

‘The artist’s first major survey in London since her 2003 retrospective at Tate Britain’, the exhibition of fifteen paintings, in addition to a handful of preparatory studies, fortunately resists a chronological structure. Instead the passage from one picture to the next is always a collision of palettes, structures, priorities and effects. The installation shots on the gallery website nearly all show two works – they give a sense of the opposing forces at work in the spaces between these paintings, striving for territory.

Installation view of Bridget Riley The Stripe Paintings 1961-2014, London, 2014

Installation view of Bridget Riley The Stripe Paintings 1961-2014, London, 2014

Of course, that’s not entirely how I viewed them— entering the first room, the huge Prairie (2003-1971) flooded my field of vision with its candy-coloured diagonal stripes (anomalous amongst the horizontal and vertical stripes of the rest of the exhibition). I immediately experienced a vibration, an embodied sound, a particular pitch and frequency triggered by the painting. This sensation changed immediately when I turned to the much more recent Arioso (Blue) (2013). I rarely have synaesthetic experiences, but I could’ve sung these paintings.

Bridget Riley Arioso (Blue), 2013 Oil on linen 59 1/8 x 101 1/4 inches (150 x 257.2 cm) © Bridget Riley 2014. All rights reserved. Courtesy David Zwirner, London

Bridget Riley Arioso (Blue), 2013 Oil on linen 59 1/8 x 101 1/4 inches (150 x 257.2 cm) © Bridget Riley 2014. All rights reserved. Courtesy David Zwirner, London

Various musical analogies have been drawn with Riley’s paintings. The artist herself has explained the classical compositional principles underlying certain works, and agreed with Maurice de Sausmarez on a parallel with serialist composition; David Sylvester, on the other hand, likened her early work to experiencing music by John Cage and LaMonte Young. Early minimalism (such as the Steve Reich of Piano Phase) seems closest for me, its repetition and variation matching the hypnotic texture of Riley’s works of the same period. But at the same time, I sympathise with Sylvester, who in a 1967 interview was incredulous when Riley denied feeling any pain when looking at her own works (Sylvester had the early Horizontal Vibration, exhibited here, in his house). After all, minimalism, however soothing initially, is always heading in the direction of frustration and other more uncomfortable emotions, as Satie well knew when he named an infamously repetitive piano piece Vexations (a work whose belated premiere Cage performed in). This makes the punning title of Riley’s collected writings, ‘The Eye’s Mind’, all the more ironic, because this exhibition concludes with two paintings from the late 1960s which the eyes really do mind. Looking at the centre of Late Morning (Horizontal) (1969), shapes seem to play around the edges of the canvas as if it were a curved mirror (the gallery’s installation shot of this work, sideways on, catches these overtones wonderfully), and the uneven paint texture seems to create its own blurred movement. And then Late Morning I (1967) is like a closing theremin squeal, setting imaginary shapes dancing on the walls around.

Bridget Riley, Late Morning (Horizontal), 1969, Acrylic on linen, 82 5/8 x 177 1/8 inches (210 x 450 cm), Private collection © Bridget Riley 2014. All rights reserved. Courtesy David Zwirner, London

Bridget Riley, Late Morning (Horizontal), 1969, Acrylic on linen, 82 5/8 x 177 1/8 inches (210 x 450 cm), Private collection © Bridget Riley 2014. All rights reserved. Courtesy David Zwirner, London

So in a sense, the dominant impression left by this exhibition is one of changes of tempo, aggressive and placid works juxtaposed. And that visceral sensation doesn’t diminish — a third viewing in, the feeling was still that of a theme park ride that churns the stomach however much you know what’s coming. All of these paintings seem to generate a force field, and once I’ve established a viewing position, approaching them feels like trying to break through a barrier. And in doing so, I both cut off myself off from the overtones of adjacent works, and move from seeing the work as a whole to focusing on specific parts. Riley herself seems to have little interest in the paint itself, entrusting the execution of her canvases to assistants and preferring to discuss matters of colour and design (she once said ‘to leave traces of tick-tackery around is a form of inverted craft snobbery’). But as I approach the canvases, I notice drawn lines, slight tremors on the lines and varying application of paint, traces of the object as opposed to the image. And I take almost illicit pleasure in feeling that I’m looking where I shouldn’t be.

Installation view of Bridget Riley The Stripe Paintings 1961-2014, London, 2014

Installation view of Bridget Riley The Stripe Paintings 1961-2014, London, 2014

The problem with organising an exhibition of the stripe paintings alone is that one is struck most strongly by the format, not the colours, and may not immediately realise that the point of the format is to provide the greatest amount of contact between colours. Riley avowed that ‘I want to create a colour-form, not coloured forms’ but by isolating one aspect of her output, I was left thinking lots about form and little about colour. The first time I visited, another gallery-goer muttered ‘monomania, isn’t it? The other person I think of is Mondrian…it’s the same thing’. The other person I thought of was the jerk in the film queue in Annie Hall and I half-expected Riley to turn up, Marshall McLuhan-like, and point out he knew nothing, neither of her work nor Mondrian’s. But of course in exhibiting the stripe paintings together, Zwirner are hardly discouraging such reactions.

Bridget Riley, Horizontal Vibration, 1961, Emulsion on board, 17 1/2 x 55 1/2 inches (44.5 x 141 cm), Private collection © Bridget Riley 2014. All rights reserved. Courtesy David Zwirner, London

Bridget Riley, Horizontal Vibration, 1961, Emulsion on board, 17 1/2 x 55 1/2 inches (44.5 x 141 cm), Private collection © Bridget Riley 2014. All rights reserved. Courtesy David Zwirner, London

The same goes for the inclusion of the very early Horizontal Vibration (1961) in the exhibition. I was thrilled to see this painting, but despite being a stripe painting it made little sense in the context of the exhibition. The only monochrome painting present, it is also smaller and more formally varied (from a period when Riley rarely used stripes), and alongside more recent works it gave the impression of having been compressed from a larger size, leaving sections where the stripes have been squashed together. Because this exhibition, as I’ve probably made clear by now, isn’t just about stripes, it’s about their colours, and while Horizontal Vibration would be fascinating as a preface or postscript, leaving it in the middle of the show is a distraction from the ‘colour-form’ that is the more interesting theme of the show.

Bridget Riley, Après Midi, 1981, Oil on linen, 91 x 77 3/4 inches (231 x 197.5 cm), Private collection © Bridget Riley 2014. All rights reserved. Courtesy David Zwirner, London

Bridget Riley, Après Midi, 1981, Oil on linen, 91 x 77 3/4 inches (231 x 197.5 cm), Private collection © Bridget Riley 2014. All rights reserved. Courtesy David Zwirner, London

But those earlier works which I’ve mostly discussed so far make up only half of this exhibition, and Riley’s subsequent work, such as Apres Midi (1981) and Serenissima (1982) provides more scope for the viewer to appreciate colour chords and contrasts. The exhibition was presumably organised to frame a suite of Riley’s newest works, ‘including several paintings that have never been exhibited before’, and as such we would do well to pay close attention to these, even if they risk being drowned out by the impact of the sixties paintings. There is a depth, what Patrick Heron described as ‘space in colour’, to these pictures, interspersed with the older paintings that function like palate cleansers. Comparatively serene, with uniform chunky stripes, earthy colours, flawless texture, the recent paintings seem to undulate back and forth at a different pace, less tense, more enjoyable.

Bridget Riley, Serenissima, 1982, Oil on linen, 85 3/8 x 74 5/8 inches (216.8 x 189.5 cm), Private collection © Bridget Riley 2014. All rights reserved. Courtesy David Zwirner, London

Bridget Riley, Serenissima, 1982, Oil on linen, 85 3/8 x 74 5/8 inches (216.8 x 189.5 cm), Private collection © Bridget Riley 2014. All rights reserved. Courtesy David Zwirner, London

One of the most eloquent and perceptive of artists, Riley’s words sometimes seem to render any further commentary superfluous. I would even venture that her writings do more to make us look closer than her paintings do, whether at Titian and Seurat, or leaves and trees. But what makes these paintings artworks and not scientific demonstrations is that they always exceed any account of them. And while I’m still not sure that the repeated stripe has ever proved to be the ‘colour-form’ Riley intended, few painters have created work which does more to make the gallery an arena in which the spectator acts. This may not be how she intends for her works to be enjoyed, but I hope it’s not invalid.

Bridget Riley: The Stripe Paintings 1961-2014, David Zwirner, London, June 13 – July 25, 2014.

  1. chris edwick said…

    Remove the hand made brush mark from painting and what’s left can only be pattern; the pleasant but ultimately banal arrangement of colour that can’t mean more than decoration.I appreciate there are many who can pontificate elaborately about their experiences in front of mere pattern. It’s a sad reflection of our time. This isn’t painting;its arranging. It remains dull, i.e. bad art, even if it was all very groovy in post painterly Greenbergian 1965. The young Stella new it was only a momentary mistake and moved quickly on from those absurd 1960 black paintings…he knew immediately that what you see has actually got to be more than what you see…Scully got it too and moved on to hand painting with eventually, spectacular results.

    As for getting assistants to make them…I’ll just slowly count to ten….and slide them into the bin with Hirsts spot paintings.

    It’s the hand mark of brushwork whether its van Gogh or Scully that invigorates and humanises painting and it’s only this that instils it with a living, breathing, meaning.

    • NR said…

      Agreed.

      Banal, trivial, sterile, pointless. This is art all right, but the mediocre kind, which has very little to offer but demands the world from the viewer. In fact, the two has tightly correlated. The less the works has to offer the more the viewer has to step in to fill the void.

      Visual art is self-sufficient and it is very telling when the artist feels the need to persuade viewers of work’s worth through pages of written text. In them the artist is just confessing to his own defeat.

    • JB said…

      I disagree. The reductionism that color requires to function as independently as it can must occur without the illusionism of space that complex compositional arrangements MUST rely upon. You may think that this is a dead end approach, but that does not mean that a dead end is without benefit. It often highlights the thresholds that we must traverse in any type of painting. To say that this is “bad painting” I think just represents a rather amateurish take on formalism ignoring what benefits such reductionism can bring. To put up those types of barriers would lead to stasis in the arts.

      • NR said…

        No.

        When Suprematism or even Free jazz were charting new territory, both came back with the discovery that there is indeed a breaking point beyond which very little of interest lies. Both were helpful, useful in the historic and didactic sense they produced an enlarged map of what’s thought to be possible.

        Nothing of the sort can be said of these works.

        The aesthetic value of these works is dangerously close to that of hotel lobby wall coating which we don’t consider meriting even 10 seconds of our attention let alone appreciation in the form of money. I wonder if the author would be able to pontificate on the intellectual virtues of a similar sized piece of genuine wallpaper. The author might. What he wouldn’t be able to do with a straight face is to discourse on its aesthetic virtues.

        Art that has no aesthetic value is failed art and it is quite telling the subject has been avoided altogether.

        In visual art, there is nothing short of or beyond form.

  2. Robin Greenwood said…

    I have a reasonable amount of respect for Bridget Riley and the way she conducts herself, but little time for her work, which, when it is not unpleasantly eyeball-bashing, is tasteful and banal. The few theories she has on art that I have come across are antithetical to just about everything I believe in, particularly her ideas about imposing the geometry of her own work on to a reading of figurative art from the past. To me, her paintings have no form, coloured or not. That said, it remains interesting to me to try to understand why I don’t get anything out of her work, and why it does in fact come close to epitomizing the traits I most dislike in quite a lot of abstract painting. My conviction is that her work is overwhelmingly about two-dimensional design and composition, and is not spatial. That confirms a recent idea that colour in painting is barely spatial, if at all, and that robust space in painting, figurative or abstract, depends upon other factors. In abstract painting – perhaps to a lesser degree in figurative painting, but maybe more than we think – the creation of space depends upon the duality of, on the one hand, how the painting is made or built, i.e. the nature of the facture, both overt and subliminal, and on the other, the structural or formal architecture. Riley eschews all of these factors, favouring a complete absence of facture (it matters not at all which stripe was painted first or last) and a formulaic two-dimensional structure, usually stripes or chevrons. Her supporters will no doubt say such stripping back to “essentials” is a large part of her achievement, but to me it is painting denuded of almost all value and meaning for the sake of a very limited kind of appeal to modernist style.

    Looking at an old RA catalogue today I came across this painting, “St Peter Healing St Agatha” c.1614, by Giovanni Lanfranco, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lanfranco,_Giovanni_-_St_Peter_Healing_St_Agatha_-_c._1614.jpg , which forcefully made me realise that even in the early seventeenth century there were some painters who were more interested in engaging with the plastic exploration of real space, and others who settled for whatever souped-up 2-D compositional thing was doing the rounds at the time. Like, say, this: http://www.wikiart.org/en/annibale-carracci/sleeping-venus

    When all you art historians have stopped laughing at my crap analysis, and the rest of you have got over your annoyance at me writing a comment that has no compliments and little relevance to Bridget Riley, I do want to say (again) that stripes, spots, patterns, geometry, all that stuff, is just dead in the water. Abstract painting needs the spatial ambition and invention (and maybe even the chiaroscuro?) of the Lanfranco. Some people go for that, and some don’t.

  3. John Pollard said…

    Robert, I’m surprised after talking about the importance of “originality” you are taken by………………’stripes’! And a “repetition of colours”?

    • Robert Linsley said…

      It’s true there are many stripe painters, and also true that it can be hard to distinguish between them. Originality means difference, but there is also the difference that makes a difference (to quote someone else!). Riley is distinctive enough in her later works that I think we can cut her some slack with the stripes.

      There’s a lot to say about originality, meaning there’s a lot to say about how to go about making art, but sometimes I think what’s the point? Just get on with it.

  4. Robert Linsley said…

    Each band has its own spatial uncertainty, but what I found to be a good entry to these works is that the stripes come in bundles or clumps and so the picture surface undulates in a larger rhythm than the individual stripe, if that is clear. And the repetition of colours across the surface is also nice.