Bridget Riley: Paintings and Related Work

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National Gallery, until 22 May 2011, admission free


Bridget Riley: Arrest 3, 1965 Acrylic on linen, 175 x 192 cm Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow © Bridget Riley, 2010. All rights reserved. Courtesy Karsten Schubert, London.

Bridget Riley, one of Britain's most successful artists, has selected for this exhibition paintings from the National Gallery's collection to go alongside her own works. They include works by Italian Renaissance artists Mantegna and Raphael, and three studies by the French post-impressionist Georges Seurat. Riley, unlike some earlier modernists, has no wish to reject the past or the gallery. But the emphasis here is less on the historical and more on the formal, and we are invited to make comparisons between the compositions of these artworks.

For Riley, painting is first and foremost about the analysis of such things as the relations of line, colour, shape and space. This is true not only of her own abstract works but also those of earlier artists. Riley writes about a study on show here by Seurat for his great painting Bathers at Asnières.

There is no mention of the social and political engagement of the painting, with its depiction of workers at rest and factories in the background. For her, the bather in the study is a formal element that "acquires strong patches of blue". So it is with the religious paintings she analyses in an accompanying film.

Riley's own works demonstrate this approach in their creation, where shapes and colours vary from one version to the next. It is possible to play a kind of game with this, noting for instance how the circles in an early painting from 1962 are taken up and allowed to multiply in a huge contemporary adjacent wall drawing (executed by her retinue of assistants - there is a division of labour in the Riley studio).

You may enjoy these complex associations. But go and look at the Seurat before you leave and consider how much Riley may leave out of the picture.