A scintillating optical panorama stretching over two metres in width, Gaillard (1989) is a majestic work from Bridget Riley’s distinctive group of ‘Rhomboid’ paintings. Rendered in the largest format deployed throughout the series, it offers a shimmering cascade of colour, articulated through bold diagonal rhythms. One of Britain’s greatest living artists, Riley was recently the subject of a major retrospective organised by the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, which completed its tour in January 2020 at the Hayward Gallery, London. Since the 1960s, she has pursued a meticulous enquiry into what she describes as ‘the pleasures of sight’, rigorously sequencing a variety of palettes through different geometric structures. Included in the artist’s touring retrospective at the Kunsthalle Nuremberg in 1992, the present painting takes its place within an extensive cycle of works that occupied her practice between 1986 and 1997. Marking a departure from the thin stripes and curves that defined her earliest chromatic experiments, the rhomboids – or ‘zigs’, as they came to be known – introduced a new degree of complexity to her work, allowing each segment to interact with four colours rather than two. Though Riley eschews representation, her works are deeply connected to her own visual memories: the present work’s title captures her love of France – where she has a studio – referring to a small town in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. Other works from the series are held in institutions worldwide, including Tate, London, the Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Siegen and the Neues Museum, Nuremberg.
Riley came to prominence at the vanguard of Op Art, and achieved international recognition after being included in the seminal exhibition The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1965. Her early studies of light and nature – influenced greatly by the work of Georges Seurat – gave way to a practice devoted to illuminating their mysteries. Beginning in black and white, before bursting through to colour in the mid-1960s, Riley sought to explore the interaction between chromatic values, using a variety of geometric shapes as vehicles for her optical investigations. Across her oeuvre, she teases out the physical energies inherent in different tonalities, relishing the rhythmic push-and-pull generated through juxtaposition of competing hues. Following a trip to Egypt in the winter of 1979-80, where she was entranced by the vibrant colours used in underground burial chambers, she began to work with a small selection of hues known collectively as her ‘Egyptian palette’. By the time of the ‘Rhomboid’ series, however, she had expanded her repertoire to encompass more than one hundred carefully-mixed tones, grouped into unique colour brackets for each individual painting. The small slanted lozenge form demanded a new three-stage working method, which involved fracturing a two-toned ground both vertically and diagonally. As ever, Riley would plan these compositions meticulously through a series of drawings and mock-ups, or ‘cartoons’. Robert Kudielka has likened her decision-making process to that of a musician selecting a key: an observation borne out in the near-sonorous vibrations of each cell.
Riley’s practice is fundamentally rooted in her experience of the world around her. Raised in Cornwall, she developed a keen sensitivity to natural phenomena: the play of light on the water, for example, or the rustle of wind in the dunes. Over the years, she cultivated a rich, analytical awareness of the ways in which various artists had sought to capture such enigmas, including Claude Monet, Henri Matisse and the Italian Futurists. In 1989, the year of the present work, Riley was invited to take part in the National Gallery’s exhibition series The Artist’s Eye, for which she curated a selection of works from their collection. Significantly, her selection focused on artworks organised according to diagonal structures: among them Veronese’s Adoration of the Magi (1573) and Rubens’ Minerva Protects Pax from Mars (1629-30), as well as paintings by Titian, El Greco, Poussin and Cézanne. ‘Cézanne and the great Venetians knew that the diagonal thrust helps to activate the slow backward and forward pulse of colour’, she explained in the exhibition catalogue. Rubens, she elaborated, ‘[builds] up a grid or lattice around which he can twist or through which he can pour his colours ... Making use of his lattice he twines a long curving garland of yellows down and across the painting’ (B. Riley, quoted in ‘The Colour Connection’ (1989), reproduced in R. Kudielka (ed.), The Eye’s Mind: Bridget Riley Collected Writings 1965-1999, London 1999, p.160). It is a statement that might almost apply to the present work, and a testament to the perceptive scrutiny that defines Riley’s practice.