Bridget Riley returns to The Walker

Old friends are staying this weekend and we embarked on a cultural perambulation this afternoon, beginning with a visit to the Bridget Riley Flashback exhibition at the Walker. It tracks her career from the early 1960s to more recent works, some of which are exhibited for the first time. In a sense, this is a return to the Walker for Bridget Riley, since it is almost 50 years since she won a John Moores Open Section prize back at the start of her career in 1963.

Bridget Riley came to symbolize the sixties, her optically vibrant paintings that generated sensations of movement, light and space epitomising the op-art of the decade (the term first appearing in a Time magazine feature in October 1964, two years after her first solo show in London). The exhibition includes eight large scale paintings, four from Riley’s personal collection. Alongside these are around 30 drawings and studies that illuminate her working methods over her five-decade-long-career. There’s also a really informative video, made by the Arts Council in 1979, in which Riley discusses and explains her techniques and you get to see how she and her assistants developed the images and created the optical effects.

A key work in the show is ‘Movement in Squares’, which was purchased by the Arts Council collection in 1962, the year after it was made.

Riley’s mature style, developed during the 1960s, was influenced by a number of sources. She studied the pointillism of Georges Seurat which introduced her to optical effects. The paintings of Victor Vasarely, who had used designs of black and white lines since the 1930s, had a strong influence on Riley’s early works; as did the Futurists. From her black-and-white paintings, Riley moved to studies in greys, and in late 1960s, she began to ‘draw with colour’. As she explains ‘you can never see colour by itself, it is always affected by other colours’.

Alongside the paintings in the exhibition are 30 drawings and studies that illuminate her working methods over her five-decade-long-career.  In her review for the Echo, Catherine Jones wrote:

In some ways the early career section is the most interesting, not simply because of the finished works on show but also the deconstruction of the artist’s thought processes evident in the sketches which accompany them. Here we see, in Riley’s own neat handwriting, her drive for momentum within her work. Thus on one set of graph-based technical drawings she pens “white slow – grey fast – black” and makes notes about tonal and structural movement.

In his review in The Guardian, Alfred Hickling makes this perceptive point:

There’s a revealing collage study that suggests a clear link to the greatest cut-and-paste artist of all time. Riley will forever be associated with Op-art, but her unerring sense of rhythm and colour makes her the closest thing we have to a contemporary Matisse.

The Walker Art Gallery also displays their own Bridget Riley painting; ‘Sea Cloud’ painted in 1981 and purchased in 1987.

The caption reads:

‘Sea Cloud’ demonstrates Bridget riley’s long-standing interest in the relationship between colours and the optical and sensual effects of regular and rhythmic hard-edged patterns.  It was inspired by underground tomb paintings at Luxor in Egypt that she visited in 1981.  She was struck by the way they created feelings of great richness and light despite their environment and the limited number of colours employed.  She used the same palette to search for similar effects. While working on these ‘Egyptian’ paintings, Riley was commissioned to decorate two corridors in the Royal Liverpool Hospital.  Her decorations no longer survive, but the scheme again employed the Luxor palette to suggest, in her own words, ‘feelings of light and sun and all the pleasurable sensations associated with them’.

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