In Black and White
If you like graphics that make your eyes hurt, I strongly recommend you go and see the Bridget Riley exhibition on at London’s Hayward Gallery until 26 January 2020. Why do they make your eyes hurt? Because some of her black-and-white pictures, such as Movement in Squares, seem to move as you look at them, and can make you feel quite dizzy. Just by changing the size of black squares, she creates an optical illusion that the picture is disappearing into itself. It is all very clever, if you can bear to stare at it for any length of time…
The fact that some of her pictures make you feel uncomfortable, is no accident. During Riley’s black-and-white period (in the 1960s), according to an interview with Riley, these pictures are based on “a cycle of repose, disturbance and repose”.
There is far more to Riley’s work than graphical illusions. Riley has been exploring the way we see since the 1950s, and this exhibition shows work from before she began abstract work in 1947 to paintings created in 2019. Her most recent works focus on spots painted in muted shades of purple, orange, green and turquoise. Unlike the dizzy illusions in black and white, these pictures are relaxing, a relief after some of the rooms at the show.
Riley has been accused of only doing one type of art, sticking to a limited range of techniques, shapes and colours. But this exhibition shows how Riley started with accurate life drawing and colourful homages to other artists, in particular Georges Seurat. You can see how she then moved from Seurat’s breaking down images into dots of colour, towards something even more abstract and striking. And very much her own.
Why I love Riley is that her art seems straightforward and almost simple, but the more you look at it, the more intricate it is and the more it moves you. Like many geniuses, she packages complex and difficult ideas into neat packages that make them more accessible. And like many geniuses she started a trend that has been much copied, and which is still going strong.
For more about Bridget Riley’s life and work, there is a short profile of her you can listen to here.