Norwood-born painter Bridget Riley originally rose to fame with her Op Art work. Involving juxtaposed black-and-white forms, and creating a disorienting physical effect on the eye, it was a genre adopted by advertisers in the 1960s and so is – arguably – almost inextricably linked with the social and cultural changes of that time.
It’s tempting to expect that this Hayward Gallery retrospective – the largest of her work, to date – will be a nostalgia-fest revisiting the Beatles, mini-skirts and other well-worn features of that much-hyped neophiliac era. Instead, what we get from Riley is a decades-long pictorial essay in how to look at paintings – and what we get from them.
Passing speedily through Riley’s early years’ work at Goldsmith’s College from 1949 to 1952, the exhibition highlights the importance to her of the French artist Georges Seurat (1859-1891). Her study of the way he used colour to generate light has been a lifelong influence on her exploration of the way we see in art.
Her work is, collectively, a use of regular forms which draw us in to different emotions and meanings. Perspectives can suddenly change, inducing a sense of pleasurable vertigo. Her Movement in Squares (1961) shows her black-and-white work giving a sense of movement and repose continuously following each other.
Riley’s use of colours, for instance in the diamond shapes of Justinian (1988) show how these forms interact. Curves like the leaping flames of a fire in Rajasthan (2012, main pic above) illustrate how a rhythmic sense can be developed from their use.
All painting, of whatever style, should stimulate some sort of reflection. With Riley’s work we have to both let ourselves be swept along by its power, but also stand back and see what it is trying to say. Go yourself and explore new ways of seeing.
Main image: Stephen Wright