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signed and dated 'Riley 72' (on the lower left turning edge); signed again, titled and dated again 'Arcane 1972 Riley' (on the reverse); signed again and titled again 'Arcane Riley' (on the stretcher)
acrylic emulsion on canvas
39 x 37 1/2 in. (99.1 x 95.3 cm.)
Painted in 1972
Galerie Beyeler, Basel.
Private collection, United Kingdom (acquired from the above, March 1975).
Anon. sale, Christie's, London, 27 June 2002, lot 29.
Acquired at the above sale by the late owner
R. Kudielka, A. Tommasini and N. Naish, Bridget Riley: The Complete Paintings, Volume 1 1959-1973, London, 2018, p. 378, no. BR 153 (illustrated in color, p. 379).
Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery; Sheffield, Mappin Art Gallery; Durham, DLI Museum and Arts Center; Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art; Birmingham, City Museum and Art Gallery; Letchworth, Museum and Art Gallery and Bristol, City Art Gallery and Arnolfini Gallery, Bridget Riley: Paintings and Drawings 1961-1973, April 1973-January 1974.
Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Bridget Riley, February-March 1975.
Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery; Dallas Museum of Fine Art; Purchase, Neuberger Museum; Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales; Perth, Art Gallery of Western Australia and Tokyo, National Museum of Modern Art, Bridget Riley. Works 1959-78, September 1978-March 1980.
Milan, Palazzo Reale, Arte inglese oggi 1960-1976, February-March 1976.
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Max Carter
Max Carter Vice Chairman, 20th and 21st Century Art, Americas

Lot Essay

Comprising twisted ribbons of blue, pink and green that alternate with thick bands of black, Arcane is a rare, unique work that occupies pivotal territory in Bridget Riley’s oeuvre. Painted in 1972, it belongs to a small group of paintings that marked an ambitious new chapter in her practice. In these works, Riley added a new dimension to her stripe paintings by wrapping multiple strands of color around one another within single bands. The effect, as seen here, was one of profound motion and depth, anticipating the technical complexity of the “curve” paintings that came to dominate her practice later that decade. Taking its place alongside examples held in the Museu Coleção, Berardo, Lisbon and the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Charlotte, the present work is the only one of its kind to feature exclusively black stripes in between the colored segments. Against their dark forms, Riley’s hues glow brightly, yielding luminous clouds of purple and orange that seem to hover in front of the canvas. The work was included in her major 1978 retrospective, which toured museums across America, Australia and Japan over a two year period.

By 1972, Riley was beginning to take her place on the international stage. The previous year, she had mounted her first touring retrospective, which opened at the Kunstverein Hannover and concluded at the recently-opened Hayward Gallery in London. The critic Robert Melville, writing in New Statesman, claimed that “No painter, alive or dead, has ever made us more conscious of our eyes than Bridget Riley” (R. Melville, “An Art Without Accident,” New Statesman, July 23, 1971, p. 121). The artist had risen to prominence during the previous decade as a leading exponent of Op Art, sequencing black and white geometric forms in a bid to explore the mechanics of sight. By 1966, she had made the transition to color, adopting stripes as her primary vehicle. In her early series of Cataract paintings, begun the following year, Riley was already beginning to experiment with varying the thickness of each band in undulating waves. By 1970, she had refined this device: her vertical stripes appeared to splinter into ribbons of color that curved across one another, as if wrapped around a three-dimensional cylinder.

While many of Riley’s ideas chimed with the currents of hard-edged abstraction—from the work of Victor Vasarely to Josef Albers and Ellsworth Kelly—her artistic roots ultimately stretched back much further. The Post-Impressionists, notably Georges Seurat, had fired her imagination as a young artist, instilling in her a profound sensitivity to the relationship between color, light and form. Her stripes were, in many ways, equivalent to the minuscule dots employed by the Pointillists, offering a neutral geometric vessel for examining chromatic relationships. Since her childhood in Cornwall, Riley had been fascinated by the way in which the eye and the mind process visual stimuli. She had watched the ocean sparkle before her, and observed with keen precision the movement of light and shadow across the landscape. Her practice, much like that of her Pointillist forebears, was construed in the spirit of research, seeking to understand the microscopic interactions between different hues. The Futurists, too, inspired her in this regard: their use of geometric sequencing allowed colors to be seen as if in motion, each transforming and mutating as they bent under the movement of the eye.

In Arcane, Riley’s interrogations take on a new sense of drama. The black bars, rhythmically dispersed like keys upon a piano, create a powerful sense of pulse that anchors her chromatic illusions. Her three colors, between them, seem to traverse the entire spectrum, slipping from warm to cool registers in the blink of an eye. The closer we get to unravelling Riley’s structure, the more its visceral frictions resist our gaze. While her titles were rarely descriptive in any traditional sense, the present work nonetheless seems to hint at the perceptual secrets that her art sought to unlock. “The basis of color is its instability,” explained Riley. “What you focus upon is not what you see … One looks here and color is there … Sublimed color is located where you wouldn’t think to look for it” (B. Riley in conversation with M. Gooding, “The Experience of Painting,” 1988, reproduced in R. Kudeilka, ed., The Eye’s Mind: Bridget Riley. Collected Writings 1965-1999, London, 1999, p. 121). Here, in a blazing confrontation between light and darkness, the arcane properties of sight are thrown into spectacular relief.

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