“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.”
Robert Kudielka, ‘Bridget Riley’, in: Exh. Cat., Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland (and travelling), Bridget Riley, 2019, p. 128

Lilac Between presents a focused and exuberant demonstration of Bridget Riley's ground-breaking investigations into the optical potential of colour. Hypnotically evading perspectival resolution, the films of colour recede and advance into illusory space on the surface of the present work, extending the abstract field of vision beyond the one-dimensional picture plane.

Lilac Between belongs to an iconic series that Riley began after she visited Egypt in the winter of 1979-80. During this trip, Riley visited the Nile Valley and the Pharaoh tombs in the Valley of the Kings where she was deeply inspired by the art which adorned ancient burial sites. Riley was especially drawn to the symbolic use of six hues – red, blue, yellow, green, black and white – which represented aspects of Egyptian life. The present painting returns to this body of work, harnessing a range of intense hues – her own 'Egyptian palette' – within a formal linear arrangement. The saturated hues on the surface of Lilac Between form the foundation of the artist’s ‘Egyptian palette’, engendering a dialogue between the formal structure of the stripes and notions of weight, density, brilliance and opacity. A fine example of Riley’s chromatic stripe paintings, the present work is energetically charged with vibrant tones that singularly establish the painting’s composition and structure. Many of Riley’s works from this series reside in the permanent collections of international institutions. Achæan (1981) 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 Lilac Between rivals both examples, and its pulsating, vertical stripes embody a work of pure chromatic sensation.

Bridget Riley
Image: © Jillian Edelstein/ CameraPress
Artwork: © 2022 Bridget Riley. All rights reserved.

While Riley’s output 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, Riley 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” (Bridget Riley, “The Pleasures of Sight,” in: Exh. Cat., London, Arts Council of Great Britain, Working with Colour: Recent Paintings and Studies by Bridget Riley, London, 1984, p. 214). The deep blue hues on the surface of Lilac Between recall the cool undulating waves of the sea on a summer’s day, whilst the ambiguous hues of the late-afternoon sky before the warm orange glow of the sunset settles in. In a spectacular rhythm of blue, lilac, orange, green and white, Riley orchestrates a harmonious, melodic unity that refract and funnel a cacophony of shifting sightlines between its vertical linearity.

Georges Seurat, Bridge of Courbevoie, 1886-87
Courtauld Gallery, London
Image © : The Courtauld / Bridgeman Images

Maintaining an unparalleled relationship to the formal, ‘plastic’ concerns of painting inherited from the likes of Georges Seurat, Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian, Riley has developed a pictorial language that is remarkably unique. As a student at the Royal College of Art in London, she executed studies from the works of Seurat, who was influenced by the empiricism of Charles Henry and his theory that mathematical formulation could directly explain aesthetic results. Rejecting Seurat’s meticulous pointillist technique, she instead concentrated on his systematic distillation of colour and his balanced use of complementary hues to delineate light, shade, depth and form. Lilac Between includes echoes of this early exploration of colour, whilst also incorporating the vigorous structural emphasis of her early black and white geometric paintings. Inspired by the ‘all-over’ canvases of the Abstract Expressionists, Riley refined their multi-focal vernacular into her own visual language. Gracefully embodied in the present work, Riley combines the rigid logic of early colour theory with a complete painterly engagement with the surface of the canvas, resulting in a visual sensation that oscillates between the ‘plastic’ neutrality of the stripe and the optical brilliance of her colour palette.