‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.