DAVID ZWIRNER | JUNE 13 – JULY 25, 2014
Bridget Riley is one of the last living Modern artists. At the age of 83, her curiosity for the visible and for the art of the past keeps engaging her in new work, without loss of urgency. In her hometown of London, five new stripe works are on view alongside paintings she created over more than a 50-year span. The new works are, for Riley, related to Renoir, one of the protomodern masters she esteems and whose sensual palette of fleshy pinks she studied. The new works have a great deal of red and reddish colors and are intersected, each in different ways, by green, blue, or dark yellow stripes. They are full in color, and don’t feature black and white, a hallmark of her earlier paintings. How significant is it that all the works in this mini-retrospective share a layering of stripes, either horizontal, vertical, or diagonal? Is this less than a formal similarity?
The earliest work, the modestly sized “Horizontal Vibration,” dates back to 1961, and is the only painting in just black and white. It is also the only work that Riley painted with her own hand. The later, colorful paintings were executed by assistants, following designs by the artist made after her extensive experiments with colored paper strips. The work evolves from trial and error. The absence of a personal handwriting or brushstroke allows the artist distance and space to focus on what, for her, is the heart of the matter: looking, combining colors, and creating the right rhythm in a painting.
At the core of color, Riley has noted, lies a paradox—“you can never see color by itself,” she wrote in 2009, “it is always affected by other colors.” Standing in front of Riley’s canvases, colors start to move and mix, the perception of a red or blue is always altered by the two stripes that frame it. Riley presents us a world in which every element is connected to another. But she doesn’t name this world; there are no forms to be recognized, no figuration that refers to the familiar. The only threads of memory or recognition come through color. “I have seen this already, even though I don’t know where,” I thought to myself while looking at “Lilac Painting 5.” Riley started the painting in 1983 and finished it in 2008, periodically making adjustments. There is actually no lilac painted on this canvas. Rather, lilac is the effect that blue, orange, and white produce together. The title refers to the phantom color that appears while looking at the work—the mixing of painted colors in perception.
There are different ways to look at these stripe paintings. One is to dissect and examine, to try to understand how they are composed. The contrast of red and green in the center of “Late Morning 1” (1967), for instance, creates a yellowish glow on the white stripes. On the margins of the painting, however, the white is pure and unadulterated, as there is no red-green contrast to disturb it. So again, white is not independent, but co-defined by the framing colors. Another way to look is to zoom out from such details to the whole composition and surrender to the field of colors and the overall impression it creates. Then the works show their dynamics; they start to move and cannot be regarded as finished images. Just as a view from a window of a group of trees in a park would never produce the exact same image, these paintings are fluid and variable.
The reward of looking at this work for an extended time is the revelation of each painting’s individuality. Their similar “stripeness” is just a formal resemblance, not the essence. The stripes turn out to be perfect agents to transmit sensations, create rhythm, and stream colors—from smooth and mellow transitions over red modulations to hard contrasts that produce a phantom color. Engaged in such a way of seeing, it is impossible to think of a Riley painting as a single image. In fact ,there are a multitude of images contained in every one of her canvases. The works could be best described with a term that is usually reserved for movies: they are motion pictures.
Jurriaan Benschop is a Berlin-based writer and art critic.