In the 1960s the use of her black and white Op Art images became so ubiquitous that Bridget Riley was forced to take legal action against their commercial exploitation. Her stark abstract patterns, adopted by fashion designers and graphic artists, became the iconography that defined Swinging London. But Riley has always been clear about her seriousness of purpose, distinguishing high art from decoration and illustration, saying that "I think abstract art should try to be as resourceful and as expressive as the great figurative art of the past." It may come as some surprise to learn that for her admission in 1947 to London's Goldsmith's College, Britain's leading abstract painter made a copy of Jan van Eyck's Portrait of a man (Self Portrait?) (1433) because she was taken by the "beautifully constructed head," with its distinct planes. Looking and copying - what she calls "the old way of learning" - have always been central to her work.
It was in 1961, at the age of 30, that she made the first abstract painting that launched her career. The appeal of her work cuts across generations, seducing both cognoscenti and public alike. Now the National Gallery has mounted a show that focuses on her most recent paintings while stressing the influence of and connection to particular old masters from the National Gallery collection by including works by Raphael, Mantegna and Seurat alongside her own. The serpentine forms of Raphael's St. Catherine of Alexandra (circa 1507) and the flowing rhythms of the procession in Mantegna's Introduction of the Cult of Cybele to Rome, (1505-6) provide a visual and historic key to Riley's recent large-scale works.
Riley is an articulate exponent of her own practice. Listening to her on film at The National Gallery reveals the importance, not only of the process of looking, but of the optical experiments and surprises inherent in her work. She does not deny art history but has stripped away narrative to reveal the rhythmic movement within the traditions of western painting. Although she began by making work in black, whites and grays, color soon became integrated into her structures, giving them a unique coherence. The image pulsates, expands and contracts. Colors merge, interact and make new colors, fusing and separating to build a kind of kinetic web so that they float, sink and emerge as one continues looking at a painting.
She insists that the experience of looking cannot be known, only discovered through the process of making. When looking at her paintings the eye does not know where to rest. With their repeated abstract marks and optical sensations they seem to release visual energy, to bring something into being through a process of trial and error. She works from what she knows in order to discover what she does not. "You cannot deal with thought directly outside practice as a painter," she says, "doing is essential in order to find out what form your thought takes."
For the National Gallery exhibition she has made two works directly on the walls. Composition with Circles 7 is a wall-drawing created by her and her assistants on the Sunley Gallery's longest wall. Here the overlapping, interlocking circles create shifts in perspective, distance and depth. While a version of her painting Arcadia, last seen at her 2008 retrospective at the Musée de l'art Moderne in Paris, has been recreated here on a larger scale. This reveals how shapes move over the edges of the containing rectangle, pushing out to become free and dynamic from its solid enclosure. "When I start I don't have an aim or an image in mind for how the painting is going to look," she has said. "When I started to do studies at the beginning of the 1960s, few other artists made preparatory works. Most people felt that they were not spontaneous or sufficiently informal … but I felt that - I didn't just feel, I knew … that drawing and preparatory work has always played a large part in an artist's practice." To this end collage holds a central role in her preparations.
Bridget Riley has been committed to abstract painting for more than 40 years. She believes that painting was an abstract art long before abstract art became a style and a theory. As Maurice Denis famously said in his quote that seemed to anticipate 20th-century abstraction: "It should be remembered that a picture - before being a warhorse, a nude, or an anecdote of some sort - is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order."
Bridget Riley Paintings and Related Work is at the National Gallery from 24 November 2010 to 22 May 2011
20 March/April 2011 artillery