Bridget Riley, Cool Edge
“More than anything else I want my paintings to exist on their own terms. That is to say they must stealthily engage and disarm you. There the paintings hang, deceptively simple – telling no tales as it were – resisting, in a well-behaved way, all attempts to be questioned, probed or stared at and then, for those with open eyes, serenely disclosing some intimations of the splendours to which pure sight alone has the key.”
Offered from the British Airways Collection, Cool edge is at once rigorous and alluring, a testament to Bridget Riley’s pioneering investigations into the optical potential of colour and the complexities of illusion and perception. Balancing colour and form and momentarily translating the ordinary into the ravishing, Riley has produced a prolific, compelling and technically pristine body of work over the course of her extraordinary career; an oeuvre that was recently the subject of the National Galleries of Scotland and Hayward Gallery's lauded Bridget Riley retrospective. Professor and art historian Robert Kudielka affirms, “Riley changes our way of looking. And she does this successfully with the aid of our sense of sight because what she asks us to do is by no means unnatural. The demands of her art are neither at war with our common perceptions of nature nor do they violate the physical characteristics of our perceptual faculties” (R. Kudielka, ‘Bridget Riley’, in: Exh. Cat., Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland (and travelling), Bridget Riley, 2019, p. 128). Executed in 1982, Cool edge belongs to an iconic series that Riley began after she visited Egypt in 1979. Following this trip, the colours in her work became brighter and more intensified; indeed, the saturated hues of violet, aquamarine, coral and yellow on the surface of Cool edge form the foundation of the artist’s ‘Egyptian palette’, an assortment of hues based on ancient Egyptian tomb paintings and local landscapes. One of the finest examples of Riley’s chromatic stripe paintings from the 1980s, Cool edge is energetically charged with vibrant tones that singularly establish the painting’s composition and structure. Many of Riley’s works from the ‘Egyptian’ series reside in the permanent collections of international institutions. Achæan (1981), a work employing a remarkably similar colour palette, is a highlight of the Tate Collection, London, while Blue About (1983/2002), a compelling work with vibrant blue and violet undertones, resides in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The effervescent quality of Cool edge rivals both examples, and its pulsating, vertical stripes embody a masterwork of pure chromatic sensation.
Through a career-long inquiry into the nuances and mechanical contingencies of colour, Riley has emerged as the undisputed leader of the Op art movement, which gained momentum in the 1960s and employed a framework of purely geometrical forms as the basis for its visual effects. Yet the artist’s negotiation of the space between the spectator and the work of art, as well as her synthesis of colour, composition and sensory unpredictability – which she formally began exploring in the early 1960s – has aligned Riley closely with the field of colour theory and phenomenology. Such concerns are elegantly embodied in the oscillating stripes of Cool edge. Art historian Richard Shiff describes, “Riley’s respect for perception allows her to enter into dialogue with her own artistic process. Her work is very precise, like that of the Op artists with whom critics once associated her; but she never experiences total control of her vision. Nor would she wish to. The effects she seeks inhabit an illusive medium” (R. Shiff, ‘Bridget Riley: The edge of animation’ in: Exh. Cat., London, Tate Britain, Bridget Riley, 2003, p. 84).
While Riley’s work of the 1980s was strongly influenced by her trip to Egypt in the winter of 1979-80, her use of colour is also based on the ‘visual life’ of her childhood by the sea in Cornwall. In her seminal 1984 text ‘The Pleasures of Sight’, the artist reminisces about the experiences which formed the very foundation of her aesthetic language: “Swimming through the oval, saucer-like reflections, dipping and flashing on the sea surface, one traced the colours back to the origins of those reflections. Some came directly from the sky and different coloured clouds, some came from the golden greens of vegetation growing on the cliffs, some from the red-orange of the seaweed on the blues and violets of adjacent rocks, and, all between, the actual hues of the water, according to its various depths and over what it was passing. The entire elusive, unstable, flicking complex subject to the changing qualities of the light itself. On a fine day, for instance, all was bespattered with the glitter of bright sunlight and its tiny pinpoints of virtually black shadow – it was as though one was swimming through a diamond” (B. Riley, ‘The Pleasures of Sight’, in: Exh. Cat., London, Arts Council of Great Britain, Working with Colour: Recent Paintings and Studies by Bridget Riley, 1984, p. 214). The very title of Cool edge, as well as the multifarious hues of blue on its surface are deeply mnemonic and recall the cool undulating waves of the sea on a summer’s day. Riley’s visual reinterpretation of landscape through colour is firmly rooted in a close investigation into the history of art, and indeed a closer look at the colour theory of the Post-Impressionists and the Fauvists. As a student, Riley examined the work of Georges Seurat and made copies of his pointillist landscapes, such as Lincolnshire Landscape and Pink Landscape, which she executed in 1959 and 1960 respectively. Yet Riley later rejected the pointillist technique of Seurat, Paul Signac and even André Derain, in favour of the artists’ meticulous distillation of colour and their balanced use of complementary hues to delineate light, shade, depth and form. Cool edge echoes this early exploration of colour, while also building upon the vigorous geometric emphasis of her earlier black and white compositions.
Riley’s oeuvre thus forms part of a long art historical tradition. Refining the vernacular of her predecessors, she powerfully combines an investigation into the interactions of light and colour with the structure and rigidity of mathematical formulation and geometry, all of which have culminated in an entirely ground-breaking artistic language.