A major retrospective of Bridget Riley’s work has opened at London’s Hayward Gallery, nearly five decades after her first UK solo exhibition Bridget Riley: Paintings and Drawings 1951-71, was mounted at the gallery in 1971, cementing the artist’s long-standing relationship with the Hayward.
The exhibition includes more than 200 works spanning 70 years of her artistic output, from her figurative origins to her eventual place as one of the world’s most important figures in art, with abstraction at the heart of her practice. Riley is best known for her graphic, monochrome geometric forms, but this survey seeks to place those works in a much wider context.
She was a central figure to the Op Art movement, a phrase coined by a journalist at Time magazine in the early sixties to describe the activities of a group of artists whose work tested the limits of what it was possible to achieve through painting and photography. Namely, creating the illusion of shape, form and movement on the surface of a flat picture plane – at which, Bridget Riley is a master. These inquiries began much earlier than the 60s, of course, both at the Bauhaus and in the works of the Futurists and Constructivists from the 1920s onwards; but it was with artists such as Riley and Victor Vasarely that these bold, innovative new endeavours were formalised with a name.
“Being an artist does mean knowing something about oneself. The way in which you do that is through working.”
Comparisons have been periodically drawn with other women artists working at the same time, albeit in different geographic locations, but against the backdrop of a male-dominated art world; though aside from exploring the repetition of patterns, grids and the painstaking application of ordered marks, the similarities with artists such as Yayoi Kusama and Agnes Martin are brief. It is true that these themes have long-fascinated Riley, though the very essence of her work remains inimitable and distinctive.
What sets the Hayward exhibition apart from those that have preceded it, is the concentrated focus on her total output – from the very beginnings of her practice, to the present day, with works such as Kiss (1961), Blaze 1 (1962) and Rajasthan (2012) charting the evolution of her career.
To see an extremely accomplished 1959 copy of Georges Seurat’s Le Pont de Courbevoie alongside Riley’s own Pink Landscape, created a year later, reinforces the importance of Impressionism to the works she would go on to make. The artist describes Pink Landscape as a ‘hinge’ between her studies in to pointillism and her later abstract works for which she is best known. A trip to Italy proved formative to Riley, and it could be argued this revelation was the genesis for her later experimentation:
“The sheer volume of light seemed to shatter everything in sight. I wanted to make a painting showing the disintegration of this landscape under the fierce sun.”
The Seurat study is not merely an homage, but a meticulous facsimile of an artist seeking to understand her craft from the inside out, and the progression of her story is told through this exhibition. From the visually dazzling black-and-white works of the 1960s, through to the colourful studies she began in the mid-90s and continues to the present day.
Coinciding with the exhibition, Sotheby’s is delighted to be offering an important work on paper by Riley, May 28 (Revised Version Of May 27) Bassacs ’94, as part of the upcoming Modern & Post-War British Art auction in London on the 20th November. Similar in period to many of the works on display at the Hayward, May 28 (Revised Version Of May 27) Bassacs ’94 displays Riley’s masterful understanding of colour, and appears here at auction for the very first time.
The work will be offered alongside important paintings, sculptures and works on paper by some of the century’s most celebrated and recognised British artists – including Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, as well as many of Riley’s close contemporaries such as Allen Jones, Peter Blake and Joe Tilson.
Though it seems obviously to say, this is an exhibition about looking – and walking through it, the viewer is transported in to the mind of Bridget Riley as she questions and investigates our ocular perception of the world around us. Whilst there have been previous shows that bring together the various elements of Riley’s work, the dynamism and vigour of the artist’s working process has seldom been expressed in such volumes before now. A truly visual celebration of seeing, thinking and being compelled to look again.
Sotheby's is a proud sponsor of this exhibition.