Ablaze with fiery tones, Cupid’s Quiver is a vivid large-scale work that demonstrates Bridget Riley’s progressive expansion of her iconic ‘Egyptian palette’. Executed in 1985, it marks the grand culmination of her celebrated stripe paintings after more than two decades: the following year, the artist would begin her series of diagonal rhomboids, or ‘zigs’, that shattered her thin ribbons of colour into prismatic chaos. Riley’s Egyptian palette was inspired by a trip to Cairo in the winter of 1979-80, where she observed the rich spectrum of red, blue, yellow, turquoise and green that dominated the tombs of the Pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings. Over the following years, she would gradually expand upon these five hues, introducing an ever-more nuanced range of tones. The present work belongs to a small group of paintings from 1985 that make enhanced use of red: that year, Riley had attended an exhibition of Renoir’s work at the Hayward Gallery in London, and was particularly captivated by his use of the colour. Here, the cool rigour of the Egyptian palette is infused with a newfound sense of sun-kissed warmth, gesturing – perhaps – to the amorous implications of the work’s title.
Riley had first adopted the stripe as a vehicle for her investigations in the 1960s. As the 1970s progressed, she became increasingly infatuated with curved structures, bending her slim bands of colour into undulating patterns. Her return to the vertical stripe in 1980 coincided with the new inspiration she had found in Egypt: as Paul Moorhouse explains, ‘Riley was astonished by the art she found in these ancient burial sites carved out of rock and located deep in the earth. These sacred places were dedicated to the dead, yet the tomb decoration was a vivid evocation of life and light ... As she began to explore this new, so-called “Egyptian palette”, it was clear that radical structural changes to her work would be required. Though limited in number, the admission of a range of intense colours needed a formal vehicle that was simpler than the curve she had been using for the last six years. For this reason, she had now returned to the more neutral stripe’ (P. Moorhouse, ‘A Dialogue with Sensation: the Art of Bridget Riley,’ in Bridget Riley, exh. cat., Tate, Britain, London, 2003, p. 22).
The stripe paintings created between 1980 and 1985 thus marked an important new chapter in Riley’s oeuvre. While her previous experiments with the form had served a purely optical agenda, the Egyptian palette prompted a new engagement with its possibilities. While in Egypt, Riley had been fascinated by the ways in which the colours of the tombs seemed to infiltrate the very fabric of everyday life: from decorative arts to utilitarian objects. Working from memory back in her London studio, her investigations took on new meaning – she was no longer dealing with the mechanics of perception in an abstract sense, but rather engaging with a real visual experience that had left a lasting impression upon her eye and mind. This new sensory awareness arguably reached a crescendo in works such as the present: the organisation of colours is more free, supple and sensuous than ever before, illuminated as if by some ancient source. Light ripples fluidly across the surface, diving in and out of the shadows like rays of sun filtering through an underground cavern. As it had for Renoir before her, glimpses of red serve to inject Riley’s composition with a visceral immediacy, eloquently capturing the heated glow of remembrance.