Get Hypnotized by Bridget Riley at the National Galleries of Scotland

June 17, 2019

When the Edinburgh Art Festival opens in July, it will premier multiple groundbreaking surveys, including the first ever British collage survey, which traces the method back 400 years through more than 250 works. But the highlight of the festival actually opens this week: a National Galleries Bridget Riley survey, which is a true summer blockbuster.

The massive survey will include hundreds of pieces tracing the entire career of one of the most influential abstract artists living today. Tracing her career across seven decades, it will include paintings, works on paper (Riley has been making screenprints since the 1960s), and a generous amount of ephemera directly from the artist, which tracks the evolution of her methods and ideas.

Much work in the show has never been exhibited in the UK before - some of it, particularly the ephemera, has never been exhibited anywhere. Included will even be the only three-dimensional work Riley has ever made. Titled Continuum, this massive (209 x 275 x 361.8 cm) aluminum spiral allows viewers the rare chance to walk inside of a Riley painting. Riley created the original Continuum in 1963. In 2005, she recreated the no longer extant piece. That is what will be on view in this exhibition.

Born in London in 1931, Bridget Riley still lives and works there today. She first gained worldwide attention in the 1960s, through her black and white paintings that challenge perception by employing an abstract language of lines, patterns and shapes to create optical phenomena that appears kinetic or even three-dimensional. Her work was included in the 1965 exhibition The Responsive Eye, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which established Op Art as an essential part of the mid-20th Century vanguard. As this current survey demonstrates, since that debut, Riley has expanded her oeuvre far beyond the field of illusions.

Bridget Riley - Ra
Bridget Riley - Ra, 1981. Oil on canvas, 240.7 x 205.1 cm. Collection: Iwaki City Art Museum Japan. © Bridget Riley 2019. All rights reserved

The Roots of Op Art

The earliest works for which Riley is remembered were her black and white optical paintings, which she began to develop around 1960 while working as an illustrator at an advertising agency in London. But those works were not her first. They were inspired by her earlier studies of Pointillism, a technique pioneered by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac around 1886. Based on Divisionism, Pointillism relies on the ability of the human eye to blend shapes and colors from a distance. Pointillist painters place dots of color next to each other rather than mixing the colors ahead of time. The result is an optical phenomenon that makes colors seem more luminous, and sometimes makes a two-dimensional image seem to become three-dimensional, or even move.

Riley taught herself Pointillist techniques after dropping out of art school to care for her father. Rather than starting out with her well known black and white paintings, the National Galleries survey honors this aspect of her development by beginning with a selection of her early Pointillist works.

Among the paintings on view is Pink Landscape (1960), a view of an Italian countryside rendered in shades of pink, blue and yellow. It is clear that through paintings like this one, Riley was learning about color relationships, and the power of color and gradation to create the illusion of depth. Yet it is also evident from this composition in particular that she was already committed by this time to a linear compositional structure.

The simple recipe of color, gradation and line would coalesce just one year later in the groundbreaking black and white work Kiss, which features a single, black, curved form hovering above a black rectangle on a white background. The liminal space where the two forms meet appears to the eye to become grey, while the forms appear to gently shift in space.

Left Bridget Riley Blaze 1 Right Bridget Riley Over
Left: Bridget Riley - Blaze I, 1962. Emulsion on hardboard, 109.20 x 109.20 cm. Private collection, on long loan to National Galleries of Scotland 2017. © Bridget Riley 2019. All rights reserved / Right: Bridget Riley - Over, 1966. Emulsion on board, 101.50 x 101.30 cm. National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 1974. © Bridget Riley 2019. All rights reserved

Not All Black and White

In addition to Kiss, several other landmark black and white paintings from the 1960s are featured in this retrospective, including Blaze I (1962), a spiral of jagged angles, and Over (1966), an early example of how Riley uses wavy lines to evoke the sensation of movement - almost to the point of creating dizziness in the viewer. But the exhibition goes far beyond these well-trod, black and white roots.

In paintings like Ra (1981), we see how she transformed her oeuvre by going back to her Pointillist days and adding back a complete array of hues. In Ra, a simple set of colored lines placed next to each other challenges our perception, making us question whether we are seeing gradation in tone. Is the tonal shift actually part of the painting? Or is it an illusion created by the changing light as we move our eyes around the surface? Such subtle perceptual questions remind us that what we think we perceive in these paintings is not necessarily what is real.

Later works like High Sky (1991) show how Riley experiments with a diagonal structure, blending color relationships with angled lines to create the illusion that rhomboid shapes are either protruding out of or receding from illusionary space. This particular aspect of her oeuvre is also demonstrated in a special suite of 16 screenprints that Riley is selling on the occasion of this exhibition to benefit the National Galleries of Scotland. (They can be viewed and purchased online from Bridget Riley Services.)

Finally, the survey concludes with a suite of newer paintings, such as Cascando (2015), in which Riley returns to her black and white roots. By adding new shapes and compositional strategies into these mature works, she re-engages our eye with the dynamism of her early oeuvre, while also bringing a tempered sense of structure and balance to the fore.

Bridget Riley opened 15 June at the National Galleries of Scotland, and runs through 22 September 2019. The exhibition will then travel to Hayward Gallery in London. (True Riley fans may want to see both, since Riley will be creating new site-specific wall paintings especially for the Hayward exhibition.)

Written by Phillip Barcio.

Featured image: Bridget Riley - High Sky, 1991. Oil on canvas, 165 x 227 cm. Collection: Private collection. © Bridget Riley 2019. All rights reserved.

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