18 Aug, 2009

Abstract comeback

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Unseen pieces from the abstract artist and seminal works from the 60s to tour country

Bridget Riley’s restless, rigorous works have fascinated art lovers since, in the 1960s, she first created her abstract, op-art-inflected paintings that beguile the eye with their sense of flickering movement and space.

Now audiences around the country will be able to see, for the first time in the UK, four major recent works lent by Riley herself, alongside seminal paintings from the 1960s and a number of works on paper. Among the last group are three “colour study” pieces from 1967, which have never before left Riley’s studio and which she has now donated to the Arts Council collection.

Among the earlier works is her Movement in Squares, bought by the Arts Council collection in 1962, a year after it was made. “It was her breakthrough work,” said Caroline Douglas, director of the collection. “It set her on the direction she was to take for the next 40 years.”

The exhibition will be accompanied by a new essay by Riley, in which she describes the process that brought her to this mode of abstract painting.

“One evening on my way to the studio,” she writes, “I thought of drawing a square. Everyone knows what a square looks like and how to make one in geometric terms … I drew the first few squares. No discoveries there. Was there anything to be found in a square?

“But as I drew, things began to change. Quite suddenly something was happening down there on the paper that I had not anticipated. I continued, I went on drawing; I pushed ahead, both intuitively and consciously.

“The squares began to lose their original form. They were taking on a new pictorial identity. I drew the whole of Movement in Squares without a pause and then, to see more clearly what was there, I painted each alternate space black. When I stepped back, I was surprised and elated by what I saw.”

The recent works that Riley is to lend to the exhibition include Painting With Verticals I (2006). The extent to which her artistic concerns have both developed and stayed consistent are evident: there is a more complex play of verticals, diagonals and curves; and she has moved away from monochrome to use a warm palette of pinks and browns.

According to Douglas, the 78-year-old Riley is “one of the most important painters working today. Her career is of such a distinguished length and consistency, and she provides a bridge almost to a pre-modern moment in a way, since her concerns in painting are anchored in Cézanne and Seurat.

“She has spent a career pushing the medium, and herself; she has never wavered in her sense of purpose.”

The exhibition is the first in a series under the collective title Flashback, which, organised by the Hayward Gallery in London and drawn largely from the Arts Council collection (which it administrates), will tour museums in England.

Each exhibition will unite major recent works by an artist with important early pieces, often bought by Arts Council England at key moments in an artist’s young career. The next show in the series will focus on the sculptor Anish Kapoor.

Part of the purpose of the series of touring exhibitions, said Douglas, is to “celebrate our regional collections, especially when the question of local authorities selling works of art hangs in the air.

“These collections, which you can see for free, are of immeasurable value. For the person who sees a Mondrian in their lunch hour in Norwich, and then goes on to be an artist, that effect cannot be measured.”

Exhibition opens at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (25 September – 13 December 2009) and tours to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (6 February – 23 May 2010), Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery (5 June – 5 September) and Southampton City Art Gallery (17 September – 5 December).

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