Opposing Austerity, the Revolutionary Works of Bridget Riley

Opposing Austerity, the Revolutionary Works of Bridget Riley

Bridget Riley's Op Art masterpiece, Shift, will feature in Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening sale on 11 February.
Bridget Riley's Op Art masterpiece, Shift, will feature in Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening sale on 11 February.

A n iconic example of Bridget Riley’s 1960s oeuvre, Shift is an exemplary work that highlights the artist’s status as a pioneer of Op art. The significance of Shift was recognised very early on by its inclusion within a number of landmark exhibitions, including at the Städtische Kunstgalerie, Bochum, in 1964; the Hayward Gallery, London, in 1971; and a major travelling exhibition which started at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, in 1978. Potently encapsulating the British artist’s distinctive and mesmerising pictorial style, the work has been exhibited extensively since.

The striking black and white palette of Shift is a defining hallmark of Riley’s earliest paintings: colour tones did not begin to appear in her work until 1967. The absence of chromatic hues within Shift and other major works of the period, such as Movement in Squares of 1961 (Arts Council Collection, London) and Current of 1964 (The Museum of Modern Art, New York) enables the purity of geometric form to be displayed to magnificent effect, whilst reinforcing the powerful dynamism of the composition. Indeed, 41 of Riley's black and white compositions from the 1960s reside in important museum collections around the world. Writing in 1965, Riley outlined the particular impressions she was aiming for within her painting: “The basis of my paintings is this: that in each of them a particular situation is stated. Certain elements within that situation remain constant, others precipitate the destruction of themselves by themselves. Recurrently, as a result of the cyclic movement of repose, disturbance and repose, the original situation is restored” (Bridget Riley cited in: Exh. Cat. London, Tate Britain, Bridget Riley, 2003).

Bridget Riley, Op Art British painter, with some of her works. (Photo by Romano Cagnoni/Getty Images) Romano Cagnoni/Getty Images

This sense of instability imbues Shift with an extraordinary energy, seeming to pulsate with an ever-changing whirl of black and white triangular elements that remain caught in a self-perpetuating loop of annihilation and creation. Generating an effect of strobing movement, the meticulous forms of Shift captivate the viewer with an almost sculptural force. Some 56 years after Shift was painted, Riley’s domineering impact on the art world is still felt as strongly as ever, as exemplified by her current major show at the Hayward Gallery. Within Shift a vortex of black and white triangular forms seems to twist and warp with an endlessly rotating columnar force, whilst diagonals appear to alternately oppose and complement one another as if in perpetual motion. The overall effect is one of inexorable rotation and circulation, as though the sharply depicted black shapes are struggling to escape the confines of the compositional edge.

Shift projects an astonishing sensation of constant movement: unpredictable and fascinating, the composition appears to zig-zag wildly across the canvas, demanding an intimate, yet utterly personal, form of engagement on the part of the onlooker. Riley encourages a profound, fundamental shift – as its title implies – in the very nature of sight and seeing itself, causing the eye to glimpse extraordinary outlines and shapes seemingly concealed within the wavering trilateral forms. With reference to the concept of perception in Riley’s work, Paul Moorhouse argues that: “Riley’s early paintings radically reversed the traditional relationship between the work of art and the viewer… The process of looking ‘activates’ the painting. Its formal structure is catalysed and destabilised by the viewer’s gaze. As the mind struggles to interpret the sensory information with which it is presented, it veers from one visual hypothesis to another, vainly trying to fix the image. This state of flux generates vivid perceptual experiences of movement and light, which are the defining characteristics of Riley’s early work” (Paul Moorhouse in: Exh. Cat., Sydney, Museum of Contemporary Art, Bridget Riley, Paintings and drawings 1961-2004).

Bridget Riley, Movement in Squares, 1961 Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London Image: © Arts Council Collection Artwork: © 2020 Bridget Riley. All rights reserved.

The opposing diagonals are reminiscent in form of rolling waves or undulating hills, reflecting the influence of nature and landscape that was of paramount importance to the artist’s creative development. Riley had spent her childhood living near the craggy rocks and sea in Cornwall, and the memory of light playing atop the surface of the Atlantic Ocean exerted a lasting impact on her work. Indeed, light seems to radiate out of Shift, created through the compression of the contrasting elements and monochrome scheme. The result is a painting that seems to shimmer and ripple, creating a work of intricate and multifaceted complexity.

Shift was painted during a period of intense creativity for Riley; a time in which her work was garnering increasing national and international acclaim. The early 1960s also represented a cultural and social watershed as a generation of younger artists reacted against the strictures and conventions of the 1950s, a decade still dominated by post-war austerity. Riley’s electric, innovative style of painting seemed to reflect the atmosphere of emancipation and experimentation that welcomed new rock bands alongside daringly short hemlines in fashion, and the corresponding relaxation of previously rigid social mores. Author Frances Follin notes: “As an Op artist, Riley was part of ‘new Britain’ along with the Beatles, Mary Quant and David Frost, her art aligned with the urban, scientific, socially progressive face of a new, young national identity” (Frances Follin, Embodied Visions: Bridget Riley, Op Art and the Sixties). In its celebration of an entirely innovative form of abstraction, Shift brilliantly epitomises the energy and dynamism of this time.

Contemporary Art

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