‘I think that Titian achieves his unity by building the painting up according to those very factors which would seem most likely to tear it apart. What I mean is that he works through an intuitive logic of oppositions, distinguishing and simultaneously relating every inch of the canvas in a continuous web of contrasts, echoes, reversals, repetitions and inversions without either trying to form a unifying envelope or depending upon any simple common principle’ (B. Riley)
In 1989 Bridget Riley was invited to curate the Artist’s Eye exhibition at the National Gallery in London. This series of exhibitions involved the choosing of works from the Gallery’s permanent collection that personally resonated with the chosen artist/curator. The choices that Riley made and indeed changed leading up to the exhibition gives us a unique insight to her own artistic explorations into colour, form and structure at that time. Following her trip to Egypt in 1979-80 and particularly the exotically hued tomb paintings in Luxor, her palette became brighter and bolder. Maintaining the lineal structure of carefully painted uniformity, Riley explored new colour combinations and juxtapositions that not only reflected the actual tight artistic paradigms that the ancient Egyptian artists worked within but also the consequential transformation of the image into a ‘purely pictorial event controlled by plastic considerations’. Riley explains that, ‘by plastic I mean that which hangs between the cognitive reading of an image and its perception. If one looks at the painting there is clearly a gap between the mythic illusion which one can 'read’ and the immediacy of the sensations one experiences through the sense of sight’ (B. Riley, in conversation with R. Kudielka, The Artist’s Eye: Bridget Riley, London, 1989, p. 13).
However, in the late 1980s as her hues continued to intensify, Riley searched for a more complex structure to pursue her ground-breaking optical investigations. ‘Eventually I found what I was looking for in the conjunction of the vertical and diagonal ... this conjunction was the new form. It could be seen as a patch of colour - acting almost like a brush mark. When enlarged, these formal patches became coloured planes that could take up different positions in space' (B. Riley, quoted in exhibition catalogue, Bridget Riley: Flashback, London, Hayward Gallery, 2009, p. 18). It was in 1986 that Riley began to break up the vertical stripes that had so strongly characterised her previous paintings by introducing opposing diagonal forces. The edge to edge contact between stripes had initially allowed Riley to observe the shifting identity of her ever increasingly rich and variegated use of colour through a simple economy of means, but as her palette broadened and intensified, she ultimately found this rigid format to be frustrating. Riley felt the growing complexity of her colour arrangements required a fundamental change in form to more fully explore the spatial advances and recessions afforded by her chosen hues.
An insight into this move to a more dynamic intersect of carefully juxtaposed parallelograms can be found in Riley’s choice of artists for the 1989 The Artist’s Eye exhibition. Interviewed by Robert Kudielka for the exhibition catalogue he observes that, ‘I remember that when, some time ago, you started to think about this exhibition you considered a different selection, focused on the 'perception of nature’, including paintings by Constable, Monet, Seurat and others’. To which Riley responds, ‘Yes, I did, but my own preoccupations have shifted a little and I have become more and more involved in the problems of plasticity – in that tangible quality which gives a painting its unique coherence. The artists whose work I have selected have each used colour in this particular way, as an element of construction’ (B. Riley, in conversation with R. Kudielka, The Artist’s Eye: Bridget Riley, London, 1989, p. 7). One of Riley’s most illuminating choices was Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. She is still interested in how we as the individual see and “read” a work of art but she further investigates how this seeing can give a sensory unity to these works. She explains that Titian, ‘works through an intuitive logic of oppositions, distinguishing and simultaneously relating every inch of the canvas in a continuous web of contrasts, echoes, reversals, repetitions and inversions without either trying to form a unifying envelope or depending upon any simple common principle’ (B. Riley, quoted in op. cit., p. 11). In short this is what she refers to as “building with colour”. The dramatic diagonal accents created through the contrasting blues and earth-reds, reflected in Bacchus’s possessed glance, can be found between the trees and in the clouds, culminating most intensely in the cymbal player’s dress and Ariadne’s tunic, as can the red hues running from Bacchus’s entourage into his bellowing cloak, climaxing in the blood red scarf of Ariadne.
The current work, Shadow Rhythm, was painted in the same year as the Artist’s Eye exhibition. The crystalline shapes (or 'zigs' as they are known as in her studio) dramatically shatter the picture plane into a myriad of variegated hues. It is a work that directly responds to Riley's fascination with the optical discoveries in works such as Bacchus and Ariadne. Through an entirely intuitive process, Riley has tested the particular sequences and rhythms of these colours in order to establish the picture plane from which space recedes and advances through colour combinations and juxtapositions.
Shadow Rhythm is the distillation of Riley’s encyclopaedic knowledge of art history, of colour theory and pictorial construction. From the ancient Egyptians to Cézanne, via Titian and Poussin, Riley’s paintings have always been deceptively simple, objective and considered, yet simultaneously intricate and passionate and still, after fifty years of “seeing”, unmistakably her.