‘When colours are twisted along the rise and fall of a curve their juxtapositions change continually. There are innumerable sequences each of which throws up a different sensation. From these I build up clusters which then flow into each other almost imperceptibly.’ 1
Riley painted her first works in colour in 1967. Early colour canvases would invariably contain no more than three colours – often, as seen here, red, blue and green – and Riley continued working within these formal limitations until Song of Orpheus, 1978, in which she used five colours for the first time. In the painting Zing, 1971, Riley introduced a twisted vertical stripe for the first time, in order to create horizontal ‘zones’ of coloured light. This effect was the result of changes in the width and position of the different colour stripes in relation to one another other. In order to develop this optical phenomena further, Riley sought a formal device which would increase the uneven interaction of colour. In 1974, she settled upon the curve form as the primary means by which to explore these colour effects and this became the main focus of her output for the next four years.
This is a preparatory work for a large, square format acrylic on canvas of the same name, which measures 159 by 159 cm (Private Collection). This large painting is comprised entirely of curving horizontal lines of red which are paired with either green or blue on a white ground - the resulting image is of undulating waves, which produce a powerful pattern of diagonal lines across the canvas. A few years later, in the painting Streak 2, 1979, Riley would incorporate twisting within the curved lines, as she had done in Zing, 1971, so that in a single pairing, for example of green and blue, the green appears above, and at other times below the blue as it crosses the picture, creating an additional complexity.
In the curve paintings we see Riley broadening and deepening her understanding of colour. In contrast to her early colour paintings which employ straight lines, the curve paintings have a more pliable, less assertive structure, which more readily recedes behind the play and movement of light. The large curve paintings have an optical vibrancy which is reflected in their celebratory and musical titles – Paean, 1973, Gala, 1974 and the Song of Orpheus series, 1978. While resolutely abstract in intention, the optical sensation is similar to the natural phenomena of light dancing on water and some of the picture titles do allude to this, for example Clepsydra, 1976 (meaning water clock) and Reef 2, 1977, which measures a spectacular 142 by 331 cm.
The present study shows just a small unit from the larger painting - as a result we are able to see the way in which the colours act upon one another more clearly. Where the double red stripe is contained by green, the red tends towards orange-red, where it is bounded by blue the red tends towards a pink-violet. It is a striking illusion and one can only decipher that these colour variations are produced by the eye itself, when one stands very close to the paper and finds that these variations stem from just one painted red.
Discussing her second large colour painting Chant 2, 1967, in conversation with E. H. Gombrich, Riley described her early discovery of the effects of juxtaposing red with blue:
‘As I worked on my studies I could see that something was beginning to happen: when the red and blue surrounded one another in stripes on the white ground they made two different violets and intermittently one saw a fugitive yellow – and I built the painting to articulate this visual energy as I called it then. I saw this as an instance of the innate character of colour when set free from any sort of task describing or depicting things. In nature one sees this sort of thing happens more or less clearly quite often. In the Mediterranean landscape there is a quite common example that anyone can observe. If in the field of vision there should be a fair amount of ochre ground or rocks of an orange or an orange red, and maybe some strong green vegetation or turquoise green in the shallows of the sea, one will then see violets particularly along any edges where the oranges and greens are seen one against another. In Cornwall a few years ago I remember a spectacular instance; looking at the sea coming in over little rocks – which was basically a few greens and a great many blue violets produced by various reflections – there was also and this important - quite a lot of dull orange brown in the seaweed floating in the water. As a result the whole water was flecked with tiny fugitive crimson points. It seems that as sight is always in action – is working all the time – whatever one looks at one cannot help but look through one’s own sight.’ 2
1. Bridget Riley, quoted in Tate Gallery guide for the exhibition, Bridget Riley, 26 June – 28 September 2003, (Room 4).
2. The artist talking to E.H. Gombrich, Bridget Riley: Dialogues on Art, Zwemmer, 1995, pp43-44
Bridget Riley was born in 1931 in London and studied at Goldsmiths College from 1949 to 1952, and the Royal College of Art, London from 1952 to 1955. Riley was made a CBE in 1974, appointed the Companion of Honour in 1999, and received the Kaiser Ring of the City of Goslar in 2003. Notable awards include the International Prize for Painting at Venice Biennale in 1968 and the Rubens Prize of the City of Siegen in 2012.
Recent exhibitions include Bridget Riley: Malerei/Painting 1980–2012 (2012) at Museum für Gegenwartskunst Siegen, Siegen; Bridget Riley: Paintings and Related Work (2010–11) at the National Gallery, London; Bridget Riley: From Life (2010) at the National Portrait Gallery, London; Bridget Riley: Flashback (2009–10), an Arts Council Collection exhibition that toured the UK; and Bridget Riley: Rétrospective (2008) at Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris.
She currently lives and works in London.
Bridget Riley, The Curve Paintings 1961-2014, is currently on display at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex. The pavilion is a world renowned example of 1930s Modernism which is situated directly on the beach overlooking the sea.