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When Bridget Riley's black and white abstract paintings were first seen in the early 1960s they were the visual equivalent of battery acid on the tongue, buzzing with the electricity of a new era. Nothing would stay still; lines undulated across the canvas like sound waves and dots disappeared into the middle distance. The patterns were fierce and urgent, and viewers were transfixed. Riley, it seemed, had an almost maniacal desire to pulverize the boundaries between the viewer and the painting, and she did it by attacking the audience's vision.
By 1971 those monochromes had been left behind in favour of colour, and spiky patterns of reds, greens and yellows left the skirmish to break out of the confines of the canvas. Thin lines of blue or green twisted, buckled, vanished and re-appeared again like mercury in a dish. With the introduction of colour, Riley's abstracts became alchemy and audiences have been chasing that intangible quality in her paintings ever since.
The new exhibition at Kettle's Yard in Cambridge 'Bridget Riley: colour, stripes, planes and curves', is a collection of paintings and studies made by Riley since the mid 1980s, and it is no coincidence that colour comes first in the title. For this really is a show about colour and how Riley has devoted the better part of 40 years to studying it. Perhaps the catalyst for the show is to be found in the catalogue, in a discussion between Riley and the director Michael Harrison in which she talks about a trip with her sister to Egypt. There she discovered the ‘sturdy, strong group of colours with infinite flexibility’ used by the ancient Egyptians on everything from buildings to cookware. These colours became her palette, and explains why even her most subtle canvases have an un-European sensibility and seem to flicker and blaze with the brilliant heat of a dying ember.
There is a lyricism to this exhibition, in part due to Riley's continual reappraisal of past paintings. Burnished Sky (1985) features green and blue lines fighting for dominance in a predominantly flesh-toned canvas, as if echoing the infamous painting by Matisse of his wife with a lurid green stripe down her face. In Rose Rose 5 painted 24 years later, similar flesh tones emerge, but the colours are more subdued, less confrontational. Not only has the colour become softer, the paintings have also lost that rough edge. Gone are the tiny shadows from imperfections in the canvas as Riley's obsessive search for perfection has resulted in surfaces so smooth the light slides off them like oil on water. Her larger canvases are nicely supported with preparatory drawings and collages, revealing an intensive working process that suggests her starting point is one colour, which is then, essentially, mutilated.
Anyone who has ever tried to interview Riley will know she is an intensely private individual who rarely speaks to the press these days, so her candid conversation with Harrison in the catalogue is something of a bonus. Together with her thoughts about Impressionism and how she credits Seurat as being the father of Abstract art, she talks about a trip to Venice in 1960 which led her to discover Boccioni and how he left an indelible mark on her canvases in those repeating curves. Being now in her eighties, Riley has reached what the artist and critic Patrick Heron used to call his 'anecdotage', when the minutiae of her long life – as a student with radical teacher Sam Rabin at Goldsmiths and of the art historian David Sylvester dropping round to her studio to see whether or not she had 'done a Matisse' – is a fascinating record of social art history.
Yet, as always, it is the personal memories that reveal the most. Harrison reminds the artist that she once said it was her mother who taught her how to look, and Riley recollects her time in Cornwall as a child evacuee, watching the changing colours of the sea and the dapples and reflections from pools inside caves. It is as if Riley, in her paintings, has been trying to capture that impression ever since.
Media credit: Courtesy Karsten Schubert, London