Bridget Riley on her work
The desire to be a painter may spring from any of several sources. One might be stirred by other paintings seen in an art gallery or a private house – or one may be prompted by a wish for self-expression, a longing to convey something deeply felt. It may come from a need to make an artefact, to build or fabricate, to shape and organise so as to bring a new entity into existence, or simply from the pleasure of painting itself. All these reasons may play a part but in my case there was an additional one – and that was sight. The pleasures of sight have one characteristic in common – they take you by surprise. They are sudden, swift and unexpected. If one tries to prolong them, recapture them or bring them about wilfully their purity and freshness is lost. They are essentially enigmatic and elusive. One can stare at a landscape, for example, which a moment ago seemed vibrant and find it inert and dull – so one cannot say that this lively quality of sight is simply ‘out there in nature’, or easily available to be commanded as wished. Nor is it a state of mind which, once acquired, can bend the most stubborn and unrewarding aspect of external reality to its own purposes. It is neither the one nor the other but a perfect balance between the two, between the inner and the outer. This balance is a sort of convergence which releases a particular alchemy, momentarily turning the commonplace into the ravishing.
Conversation, 1992, Oil on linen, 92 x 126cm
I had to make something which had this essential quality of precipitating itself as ‘surprise’ and, simultaneously, there was no way of knowing with what one was dealing until it existed; so that in order to see one had to paint and through that activity found what could be seen.
It sometimes amazes me when people say ‘How do you work?’ because in fact it is all in the painting, it is absolutely self-evident. If someone is interested enough to look at the painting he will find out all there is to know. Nothing is hidden, other than a few structural lines maybe which I do not want to be visible.
The computer may be excellent at manipulating a given set of data or information, it may even, once it has been instructed, generate variations on my paintings ad infinitum. But it cannot initiate those very particular kinds of dramatic structures which I wanted in my black-and-white paintings in the 1960s. A computer simply does not understand what I called to myself the ‘sense of inevitability’; and its mind would go blank when faced with the task of constructing a visual order which produces and accommodates disorder without yielding to it – as I did in Movement in Squares.
When I started, around 1960, forms such as triangles, squares, circles, rhomboids, etc. were no longer burdened by the heavy load of associations and symbolic overtones which they had carried in the Twenties and Thirties as Constructivist motifs. They were simple forms without any pretensions, in a condition for working with. Just ‘to hand’.
I might for example choose a unit, say an oval, and I ‘pace’ this unit, as I call it. I put it through its paces, I push it to the fullest extent where it loses, or almost loses, its ovalness, its oval characteristics. I see, so to speak, what an oval will do.
I want the spectator to experience the power of these elements. For instance, I called one painting Static in the sense of a field of static electricity. It is visual prickles. But I don’t find that a painful physical thing. It’s a quality: as velvet is smooth, so this is a sparkling texture – visually. The key to this, I think, is in the actual stuff I am dealing with – the elements themselves. People frequently experience visual events in nature which are far more violent, and even blinding, than anything I have done on canvas. A glittering expanse of sea or a shimmering tree is far more disturbing. The hub of the matter seems to be what is expected and what can therefore be accommodated. People would be very shocked indeed if the world itself was as dead in its appearance as they seem to expect a painting to be.
The Ivy Painting, 1998, 28.5 x 44.75 ins
In my recent colour work I have been using stripes, either parallel or twisting around each other, because they are unassertive forms. Form and colour seem to be fundamentally incompatible – they destroy each other. In my earlier work, when I was developing complex forms, the energies of the medium could only be fully released by simplifying colour to a black-and-white contrast (with occasional grey sequences). Conversely colour energies need a virtually neutral vehicle if they are to develop uninhibitedly. The repeated stripe seems to meet these conditions.
The ovals in Deny still contain visual energy, as separate entities, rather like the pointillist marks of Seurat did. But a long thin line, essentially ‘edge’, without a large volume to carry, is the ideal element to work with this elusive relationship between colour and light. In the same way that I had to sacrifice distinctive forms in order to release the energy of colour-light, it was necessary to increase the scale of the event to prevent focused looking. The reasoning of my black and white work could not be extended into colour because it depended on a contradiction between stability and disruption. I had to find a new basis and for a long time this eluded me, which was extremely blind of me, because I had already copied Seurat, and that should have taught me certain things. But I had to wait about seven or eight years before I re-understood what I had actually been through. 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. 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.
My paintings are, of course, concerned with generating visual sensations, but certainly not to the exclusion of emotion. One of my aims is that these two responses should be experienced as one and the same.
In everyday language abstraction refers to the process by which one draws a generalised notion or formula from the particularities of real experience. Abstraction in this sense is the result of an intellectual effort that everyone makes in order to cope with everyday experience … But in visual art this is not the meaning of abstraction, although it has often been confused with it … Klee was the first artist to point out that for the painter the meaning of abstraction lay in the opposite direction to the intellectual effort of abstracting: it is not an end, but the beginning. Every painter starts with elements – lines, colours, forms – which are essentially abstract in relation to the pictorial experience that can be created with them. It seems to me that a kind of formal thinking is capable of providing an equivalent to that missing universal vehicle. Properly treated, formalism is not an empty thing but a potentially very powerful answer to this spiritual challenge.
Spirituality in art is never a question of a direct intention projected autonomously onto a work but one of response. As an artist your response is freely made; it cannot be forced. If you look at the great art from the past you will see that its spirit does not lie in any sort of cognitive structure or vision but in an appreciation of life and its celebration: not only the joyful or ecstatic but also the shocking or terrifying aspects. An artist feels a need ‘to do something’ about the very fact of being alive, rather like a bird feels the need to sing.
One has to distinguish between subject matter and content. They are completely different things. The subject of a work which rates as a work of art, whether it’s a poem, a piece of music, or a painting, has been treated in such a way that it appears literally as subject matter, something on which and with which the artist has worked, and it is this involvement – this response – which creates the content. Habitually people expect to recognise in a painting something already known in a literal sense. I wanted to bring about some fresh way of seeing again what had already almost certainly been experienced, but which had been either dismissed or buried by the passage of time; that thrill of pleasure which sight itself reveals. I think paintings should have titles, they can be a small bridge by which the spectator can enter into the painting. I usually draw on memory, memories of sensations in the past which have some sort of correspondence with those in the painting. Even if the painting is burnt the next day, even if you later put a knife through it, I think that it is important to make it as perfectly and thoroughly as one can, because it’s a gesture, a votive something, so it must be done for its own sake, as something in itself: that has nothing to do with value, nothing at all. Value is another matter which other people can decide and is neither here nor there to you as an artist in making the thing.
Blue About, 1983/2002, Oil on linen, 5′ 11 x 58 ¾ ins