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Bridget Riley: The Curve Paintings 1961 – 2014

De La Warr Pavilion, June 13 to September 16, 2015

Review by Judith Duquemin

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

Memorable about visiting the exhibition: “Bridget Riley: The Curve Paintings 1961 – 2014”, at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on Sea, was its venue and location, as the theme and composition of the exhibition were complemented by the streamlined Art Deco architecture of the pavilion and its close proximity to the sea.

De la Warr Pavilion. Photo by Judith Duquemin

I was fortunate to have viewed this exhibition on a temperate, sunny, cloudless, summer’s day, in full view of the sea and the adjacent coastline. The occasion amounted to a visual feast of natural and constructed curvilinear colour and light sensations, in and beyond the gallery. Reminiscent of Riley’s childhood experiences of growing up in the natural beauty of the Cornish countryside, I imagine this is how she would like it.

Rajasthan © 2015 Bridget Riley. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London   Photo: Nigel Green

In an interview with Robert Kudielka, Riley justified her use of the curve by saying: “…one cannot tackle the instability and infinite variety of colour relationships without relying on some sort of formal backbone…in the mid-1970s I started to use the curve again, this time as a rhythmic vehicle for colour. This was different from the earlier paintings like Cataract. By using twisted curves I could bunch up colour sensations in a way that went further than the lateral groupings…  When colours are twisted along the rise and fall of a curve their juxtapositions change continually. There are innumerable sequences, each of which throws up a different sensation. From these I build up clusters which then flow one into another almost imperceptibly…my formal scaffolding is buried to such an extent that it becomes subservient to the ‘action’ of the  colour” (Kudielka, R., Robert Kudielka on Bridget Riley: Essays and interviews since 1972, Riding House, London, 2014, p, 84).

The curve is adopted as a device to explore colour through painting. Riley was not the only artist addressing the curve in the 1970s. The American artist Ellsworth Kelly had produced a series of arcs, for example White Curve (1974), and Curve XXI (1978). Riley and Kelly shared an interest in manipulating colour and shape, using basic geometry to explore visual relationships between figure and ground, with each resorting to scaled drawings and paper models in the lead-up to the final work.

The intention driving Riley’s work is her interest in the subject of visual perception. In her early, highly informative writings, she said: “The desire to be a painter may spring from any or several sources. One might be stirred by other paintings…or one may be prompted by a wish for self-expression, a longing to convey something deeply felt. It may come from a need to make an artifact, to build or fabricate, to shape and organize so as to bring a new entity into existence, or even simply from the pleasure of painting itself. All these reasons may play a part but in my case there was an additional one – and that was sight” (Riley, B., The Eye’s Mind  Bridget Riley Collected Writings 1965 – 1999, Kudielka, R., (Ed.) Thames and Hudson in association with the Serpentine Gallery and De Montford University, London, 1999, p.30).

Visual perception is the way we think about or understand someone or something, using our sense of vision.

The visual complexity characteristic of Riley’s paintings is the result of many hours dedicated to studio research. The examples of visual experiments, housed together in one section of the gallery, made viewing the paintings much more meaningful. For this reason the exhibition was as much about demonstrating process over time, as it was about producing visual outcomes. As an antipodean artist accustomed to viewing artworks by international artists as reproduced images, the ground studies were, in my opinion, a highlight of the exhibition.

Riley explains the importance of creating ground studies in the overall realization of a work. She says: “I have to build up a bank of visual information first - about colours, forms, proportions, directions etc. This is the essential basis to my work…  The studies I make have a different purpose. At the beginning I try to be as unselective as possible – to allow things to happen, later gradually tightening up until all aspects have been drawn together…I proceed by trial and error – exploring and slowly establishing a particular situation. Obviously many studies will be discarded en route to a painting, though they may still be interesting as visual statements” (Riley, B, ‘The Eye’s Mind: Bridget Riley Collected Writings, 1965 – 1999, Kudielka, R., (Ed.), Thames and Hudson Ltd., in association with the Serpentine Gallery and De Montfort University, London 1999, p. 80).

From the optimistic, optical works of the 1960s to the enlivening, wavy, linear compositions of the 70s and 80s, and more recently the curvilinear works that employ shapes which have become visually unhinged from their substructure, the curatorial team at the De la Warr Pavilion have managed to force the viewer to abandon all reliance on popularised interpretations of Bridget Riley’s work.

Judith Duquemin 2015.

Red with Red 1/Rêve  © 2015 Bridget Riley. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London   Photo: Nigel Green

Works on Paper © 2015 Bridget Riley. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London   Photo: Nigel Green

The exhibition surveyed a period of Riley’s painting practice built around the motif of the curve, one of many motifs explored by her throughout her career. It featured significant works such as: Study for ‘Kiss’ (1961) an early square, flat, minimalist, gouache on paper work; Rêve (1999), an oil on linen painting which marked the beginning of the series of curvilinear works; the blue, pink and green paintings of the 1970s and 1980s; and a favourite entitled Rajasthan (2012), a large-scale, 2.2m x 4.2m paint on plaster wall-work, facing the sea.  Rajasthan. which refers to the state in NW India, formerly composed of many princely states, combines large life-size curvilinear shapes with a colour palette of red, grey, orange and turquoise. All of the 29 works exhibited include an arrangement of ‘ground studies’, as tracings, experimental collages and drawings on graph paper.

Rêve © 1999 Bridget Riley. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London  

Cataract 2 © 1967 Bridget Riley. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London