‘Every painting has its own character – its own ‘light’; it may be a fresh shining sparkle or a saturated yellow glow, or even a dusky mid-tone. But none of these qualities can be precisely nailed down any more than those of real daylight. They are unavoidably elusive’ (Riley, quoted in ‘Into Colour: In Conversation with Robert Kudielke,’ in P. Moorhouse (ed.), exhibition catalogue, Bridget Riley, London, Tate Gallery, 2003, p. 210).
‘I saw that the basis of colour is its instability. Instead of searching for a firm foundation, I realised I had one in the very opposite. That was solid ground again, so to speak, and by accepting this paradox I could begin to work with the fleeting, the elusive, with those things which disappear when you actually apply your attention hard and fast – and so a whole new area of activity, of perception opened up for me’ (Riley, quoted in P. Moorhouse, ‘A Dialogue with Sensation: The Art of Bridget Riley,’ in P. Moorhouse (ed.), exhibition catalogue, Bridget Riley, London, Tate Gallery, 2003, p. 18).
Presenting the viewer with a cascade of vibrant, saturated ribbons of colour, Bridget Riley’s Red Return demonstrates the artist’s profound knowledge of the intricacy and complexity of chromatic relationships, and her continued fascination with the subject of colour. Here, a sequence of deceptively simple brightly-hued bars are woven together to create a powerfully complex interplay of colour and light that strikes the viewer’s eye and transforms the canvas into a rippling array of different tones. Riley had first introduced colour in to her compositions in the mid-1960s, departing from the stark, black-and-white explorations of visual phenomena that had marked the early stages of her career. As Riley recalls, this shift in focus brought with it new obstacles: ‘The challenge of colour had to be met on its own terms. Just as I had enquired earlier into the square and other geometric forms freed from their conceptual roles, I now felt I had to enquire into colour as another pictorial player – in many ways the least emancipated and possibly the most complex of all’ (B. Riley, ‘Work,’ in exhibition catalogue, Bridget Riley: Flashback, London, 2009, p. 17). In the works that followed, fields of bright, saturated bands of colour became her principle subject, with which Riley created complex, changing patterns of sensation that centred on the contingent, and often unstable, nature of colour.
Discussing this new direction in her work, Riley wrote: ‘Colour is the proper means for what I want to do because it is prone to inflections and inductions existing only through relationship; malleable yet tough and resilient. I do not select single colours but rather pairs, triads or groups of colour which taken together act as generators of what can be seen through or via the painting. By which I mean that the colours are organised on the canvas so that the eye can travel over the surface in a way parallel to the way it moves over nature. It should feel caressed and soothed, experience frictions and ruptures, glide and drift. Vision can be arrested, tripped up or pulled back in order to float free again. It encounters reflections, echoes and fugitive flickers which when traced evaporate. One moment there will be nothing to look at and the next second the canvas suddenly seems to refill, to be crowded with visual events’ (B. Riley, ‘The Pleasures of Sight’, in P. Moorhouse (ed.), exhibition catalogue, Bridget Riley, London, Tate Gallery, p. 214). Pursuing these effects, Riley placed slim ribbons of rich colour flush alongside one another in various pairings in her compositions, causing their colours to spark as their individual chromatic qualities shift and change under the influence of their neighbouring hues. In layering these strips of colour alongside one another, Riley drew attention to the fact that colour can never be considered an independent value, perceived autonomously by the viewer. Rather, they are influenced by a series of interwoven chromatic relationships, where each colour was shown to contribute to the definition and understanding of the hue either side of it. To accentuate this effect, Riley adopted oil rather than acrylic in her paintings, allowing a greater saturation and density of colour to emerge in her canvases.
Riley’s choice of stripes as a vehicle for these chromatic displays was driven by the need for a more neutral form, which could maximise the effects of colour. Explaining this shift in focus, the artist wrote: ‘At that time, it seemed to me that form and colour were incompatible, that they destroyed one another. If I wanted to make colour a central issue, I had to give up the complexities of form with which I had been working. In the straight line I had one of the most fundamental forms. The line has direction and length, it lends itself to simple repetition and by its regularity it simultaneously supports and counteracts the fugitive, fleeting character of colour. Although Seurat’s dot is comparable in its simplicity, my line has fractionally more going for it’ (Riley, op. cit.). The stripes allowed an uninterrupted contact between colours, the straight edges of each band of colour directly abutting those of the next and enhancing the interaction between the two hues. This boundary between individual stripes enabled a subtle transition from colour to colour, which generates a new visual energy as the eye encounters a greater number of colour interactions as it moves across the picture plane.
The coloured stripes dominated Riley’s paintings during the opening years of the 1980s, characterised by a distinctive, limited chromatic sequence, inspired by the colours the artist had encountered during a trip to Egypt. In 1985, the motif gave way to other formal experiments with colour, and these linear forms did not resurface again until 2009. Revisiting the theme, Riley began to create stripe paintings that were marked by a warmer, almost sensuous colour palette, in which varying red-based tones dominated. In Red Return this can be seen in the radiant interplay of rose, coral, vermilion, magenta, flame orange, and even pink-hued lilacs that populate the canvas, which combine to create a rich balance of red based chromatic strings, imbuing the painting with an intense warmth. Interspersed amongst these pinkish-tones, a series of vibrant blue and green stripes offer a striking visual contrast, their presence adding alternative stresses and nuances to the interplay of colour to create a gentle, undulating rhythm across the ribbons of colour.