‘When played through a series of arabesques the curve is wonderfully fluid, supple and strong. It can twist and bend, flow and sway, sometimes with the diagonal, sometimes against, so that the tempo is either accelerated or held back, delayed’
With its undulating surface pattern stretching nearly three metres in width, Buff is a mesmerising large-scale work from Bridget Riley’s later series of curve paintings. In a vibrant five-toned palette of green, blue, pink, yellow and ‘buff’, the artist weaves a plane of intersecting arabesques, fractured by equally-spaced diagonal lines. Painted in 2003, the work demonstrates the complex pictorial structure that Riley adopted in 1997, and would explore on increasingly grand scales throughout the 2000s. These canvases developed the geometric principals of her earlier ‘Rhomboid’ paintings, which spliced vertical stripes into slanting ‘zigs’ or parallelograms. In the curve paintings, Riley introduced a new level of complexity by using a fluid shape as her base geometry. Though the artist had used curvilinear forms throughout her oeuvre, here they are marshalled by an underlying grid, thus creating a hypnotic push-and-pull between order and chaos. Riley was inspired by Jackson Pollock’s 1943 Mural, created for Peggy Guggenheim, which conjures a procession of human figures moving from left to right across the canvas. In the present work, the diagonals imbue the composition with sinuous, forward motion, shattering the arc of the curves like cresting waves, falling leaves or rippling sand dunes. For Riley, whose optical investigations are deeply tied to the rhythms of the natural world, these works represent some of her most entrancing. A monumental double canvas from the same year, Evoë 3, is held in the collection of Tate, London.
A major exponent of Op Art, with a practice stretching back to the 1960s, Riley is fascinated by the retinal and psychological effects of colour. By sequencing an ever- changing set of hues through a variety of geometric patterns, she seeks to explore their inherent physical energies, relishing the way in which their qualities change when juxtaposed with different chromatic values. Drawing inspiration from artists such as Georges Seurat, Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, the Italian Futurists and the Abstract Expressionists, Riley views colour as both a visual and an emotional phenomenon. By choosing forms that resonate with – though do not explicitly represent – nature, she seeks to shed light on the way we perceive the world. ‘The sensations [the curve paintings] generate belong to all of us’, she explains; ‘those sensations of shine and shimmer are amongst our most common visual experiences. By recognising that what I had brought about in a purely abstract context was something that, in ordinary life, we share, though mostly unconsciously, it therefore became valid’ (B. Riley, quoted in ‘Bridget Riley in Conversation with Lynne Cooke’, Bridget Riley, exh. cat., Musée d’Art moderne la Ville de Paris, Paris, 2008, p. 147). Riley’s reference to ‘shine’ and ‘shimmer’ offers an alternative interpretation of the present work’s title, which – as well as referring to a colour – invokes the act of polishing. Indeed, the colours appear to flicker and dance in sparkling formations, evoking the play of light upon a gleaming surface.