Bridget Riley tells Lorne Jackson about her art, pop culture, psychedelia and shaping the future.
On being introduced to the painter Bridget Riley, I admit to suffering a slight sense of disappointment. Not because of any intellectual shortcomings from the artist. Her bird-blink eyes drilled into me with curiosity and good humour.
She’s generous with her time and opinions, too. Flashback, a retrospective of her work – which opened at Birmingham’s Waterhall Gallery at the start of the month – was being set up when we met. Yet Riley was willing to take a break from the hustle and bustle to give me a tour of her work.
Then came the disappointment.
She didn’t let me use a dictaphone to record our conversation.
Instead, I was forced to rely on those ancient tools of the journalistic trade, notepad and Biro.
Cause for regret, indeed.
Not merely because I was forced to exercise my hand muscles. Bridget talks fast.
The undermining of my expectations arose from the fact that Bridget was wary of my little recording gizmo.
I’d assumed she would embrace the newfangled. After all, isn’t she the High Priestess of New Fanglement? The mother of our modcon world?
Bridget Louise Riley was one of the prime movers and shakers who turned Britain from sedate into psychedelic.
A world populated by squares was destroyed by Bridget’s rival army of squares ... on canvas.
In the early ‘60s she discovered her signature style – working with geometric patterns to create hypnotic effects.
Bridget’s first great work, Movement in Squares, from 1961, looks like a chess board that is being throttled.
It’s a painting of black and white squares that become crushed into narrow rectangles near the centre of the canvas. The images create an optical illusion of distance, making the viewer see a corridor leading deep into the picture. Gazing upon this famous image, I decided it was Bridget’s doorway into the ‘60s.
With this work, she beckoned the fusty world of fifties England to follow her into a new, more glamorous universe.
Was this how Bridget felt, when the UK’s pendulum of predictability became more of a swinger?
Her eyes twinkle in recollection. “The early sixties was a very exciting time,” she nods. “I felt like something was ‘becoming’. Beginning at last. Before then, there had been 15 years of austerity in Britain.
‘‘Too much rationing, and everything in short supply. But now we felt we could change the world ourselves, or at least make a beginning. “As Obama would say, ‘Yes we can!’ That was the feeling my friends and I had.”
Riley became one of the most prominent artists of that dazzling decade, spoken of in the same admiring tones as Andy Warhol, or Peter Blake (who studied with her at the Royal College of Art).
She was one of the leaders of the movement that came to be known as Op Art, because of its disorientating optical effect on the viewer.
It’s not difficult to understand how this fed into the evolving sixties aesthetic.
Riley’s first shapes are as black and white as the early Beatles, in their sober suits.
The artist’s style would later evolve from black and white to colour. Then the paintings became like lava lamps, or psychedelic movies made by acid-dropping directors.
Even though her work easily fitted into the pop culture of the era, Bridget kept her distance.
“I’ve always shied away from celebrity,” she says. “I much prefer to stand back from what I do, so that people can see the work, not the person.”
She wasn’t impressed by the psychedelic movement. “It seemed less creative than other things that were going on. Rather obvious in its intentions.”
One of the most interesting inclusions in the retrospective is a selection of Bridget’s sketches and studies for her paintings.
I was surprised to see graph paper with crisscross lines, etched with coloured pens. Even more curious are the diagrams she created using coloured strips of paper, which can slide along, or be otherwise rearranged, to aid the artist in devising a new work.
Wouldn’t it be easier to plan her work on a computer?
Riley shakes her head vigorously. Again, the modcon mummy shows herself to be wary of the treats of our technological age.
“The human mind interests me more than the workings inside a computer,” she says. “I love the work. It’s not a chore for me. Working quicker on a computer wouldn’t be a saving, it would be a loss. Working as I do allows me to learn more things about myself and the art.”
Some critics would counter that there is nothing to learn in a Bridget Riley painting. She merely produces pretty patterns – shimmering surfaces signifying nothing.
The novelist Will Self has bought some of her work and it hangs in his home. But in a newspaper article a couple of years ago he was dismissive of any pretensions to label Riley a fine artist.
Self said she was a decorative artist, like William Morris. A skilled artisan.
Morris, of course, produced beautiful, hand-crafted wallpaper.
So is this all Riley amounts to? Perhaps she didn’t break down any wall with her work; just papered over the cracks with pretty patterns.
No doubt the debate about her significance will continue. But what ever your opinion on its significance, once thing is certain. It is most definitely striking.
While watching her work being hung, I overheard one voice exclaiming of a colourful, stripey picture, “It’s like being attacked by a giant deck-chair!”
Riley, herself, is more serious about her intent.
“What I’m doing isn’t really like sculpture,” she says. “With sculpture you are chipping away at something, until the vision is revealed. What I’m doing is more like building something up. With my work, I believe the thing is in there, if I can just find a way of unlocking it. That’s the journey for me, and I’m always surprised by what I find.”
* Bridget Riley: Flashback is showing at the Waterhall Gallery of Modern Art, Birmingham until 23 May. Admission is free.