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Life of Riley: having recently received the prestigious Japanese Award for the Arts, Artist Laureate Bridget Riley takes us from black and white to vibrant technicolour at Tate Britain, in an exhibition that begins and ends with her latest wall drawing composition with circles 3.

'In the beginning, in 1961, I laid aside my hands. The final execution of the work is done by someone else, because I do not want any personal handling to distract from the visual experience. And the way to make that clear, to make a statement, is to carry it to the extreme of employing another person to do the painting ...' Bridget Riley 2003.

Bridget Riley does not paint the pieces that we recognize as her finished works. But despite this, she has become one of Britain's most admired abstract painters, especially among architects and designers. Not only do her processes have much in common with the architect, with Riley removing her hand from the direct act of making, choosing instead to direct the hands of others, but also in the way her work deals with notions of space, time, rhythm, depth, structure, and surface.


Since her emergence in the early 1960s, and following her pioneering trip to Venice in 1968 where she became the Biennale's first female winner of the International Prize for Painting, Riley has had a huge influence on associated disciplines of fashion, design and advertising to the extent, on occasions, of unfortunate misappropriation. With a clear commitment to modernism, she continues to display the innovative ambition reminiscent of early protagonists of the Modern Movement, remaining as she says, 'committed to modern art, [and] its obligation to continually reinvent painting'. Just as modern architects asked, 'what is a house?', Riley's work asks 'what is a painting?', not only by inventing her own unique process, but also by questioning the very concept of hanging a painted surface in a gallery. Representation is not her aim. Neither does her work contain complex hidden meanings. Instead, by seeing painting as an invention, she bypasses the trends that focus on questions of the formal representation.

Her work does not rely on the distortion or manipulation of established formal conventions or motifs, nor does it overtly refer to the Cornish landscape that has, for so long, inspired her work. Quite simply, for an unqualified observer, her work explores the relationship between the surface and the retina, and her paintings need to be seen, not described. When you look at a Riley painting your eyes have to work, and by that I mean work hard. They are exercised in a way that you can physically feel, as much as in a way that your mind can perceive. The observer needs nothing else. No brief, no expertise, no commentary. Interaction alone is essential.

Like an architect seeking to innovate, Riley pursues an iterative process of refinement and modification. With revisions upon revisions upon revisions, she establishes rules that are made and broken in seemingly endless permutations. Order releases the potential for disorder to have the most powerful impact on the eye. Though moving and diverse, her rigorous methodology has established an unmistakable formal quality. With forms moving from repose to disturbance to repose, there is a structural logic which is at once pleasing and unsettling. No sooner do you think you have understood the compositional rules, than your eyes glaze over, sting and demand a break, only to be drawn back to the surface to see another system, grid and ripple. And, when you try to beat the paintings, by taking a step to the right to escape their optical trickery, even the most oblique views have movement and depth.


Notions of space and time are also at work in her compositions, but in a way that goes beyond the earlier time-lapse layered cubist compositions such as Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Stair (1912). With black and white as her starting point, earlier experiments with geometric compression and point movement were further developed with her shift to grey, exploiting the potential offered by the infinite numbers of greys where tonal gradients bring pace, time and space to each work.

For those who may be disappointed that Bridget Riley did not paint the final pieces herself, the exhibition, designed in collaboration with Stanton Williams Architects, does give us an insight into the skill of her own hand. In a room exclusively devoted to her preparatory work, just as an architect's sketchbook can reveal more about a building than the final drawn designs, her works on paper are seen to be truly exquisite. Revealing, in many ways, Riley as the architect behind the surface, and fulfilling her opening quote by concluding, '... but all the decisions about the work, which are the essence of judgment, I make myself. In making the decisions rejecting and accepting, altering and revising--an artist's deeper, real personality comes through.'

In 1964, when writing for The Architectural Review, Robert Melville made the following prediction, 'The indefatigable Bridget Riley was represented by another set of her ingenious black-and-white eye-irritants. It's now all too clear that she can go on changing the pattern of her heaving and twitching geometry until she's a very old lady. But, probably her only chance of developing as a painter is to drop her "cruel" formula, which obviously gives her some sort of neurotic pleasure, and take a longer look at the black-and-whites of Vasarely. Otherwise, she'll have to be written off as an eccentric' (AR June 1964). I would be very keen to know how Riley views this prediction today.

Bridget Riley, curated by Paul Moorhouse, runs at Tate Britain until 28 September 2003
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Title Annotation:Outrage
Author:Gregory, Rob
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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