News Column

The right stripes: Bridget Riley does it her way

June 13, 2014

Maev Kennedy



More than a decade after her last major show in London, Dame Bridget Riley agreed to a show covering a half century of her career but including new paintings, because she loved the gallery building. Then she virtually dismantled it.

Renowned for her perfectionism, the 83-year-old artist went through three floors of David Zwirner's tall elegant Georgian building in Mayfair with the enthusiasm of a television home improvements team tackling a suburban semi. New walls were built, windows blocked up, the entire lighting scheme replaced. "She is completely amazing, she did everything. She hung the entire show, made models of how everything should be, did the lighting, the lot. She has such an eye, and she knew exactly what she wanted," Zwirner said, sounding slightly dazed.

The final blow for him came towards the end of the exhibition design: Riley needed a room to hang rarely exhibited works on paper, and preparatory drawings on squared or graph paper - as pristine and immaculate as any of the canvases. Zwirner's elegant third floor office was the perfect space, so out went his desk, chair, computer, files, phones, the lot, leaving an empty square white room and the marks on the floorboards where he tends to tip his chair or pace up and down when thinking.

"It was an honour," he said firmly.

"She is so wonderful and London hasn't had an exhibition of her work in so long, I see it as a gift to the city."

Riley is still best known for her early black and white paintings, and is often called an exponent of "op art", a term coined in the 1960s when the style was borrowed by fashion designers such as Mary Quant. Riley found the term offensive, says art historian Richard Shiff, an expert on her work. "She was always an original, never just a member of any group, and if people called her an op artist it left her open for people to say, 'oh, nobody's doing op art any more' so they would have had no reason to look at Bridget Riley any more. But there is always a reason to look at Bridget Riley, and understand the excellence of her work."

Her largest work was unveiled this year: a 56-metre mural on the 10th floor of St Mary's hospital in London, joining two others on the 8th and 9th floors which she completed more than 20 years ago: their purpose, she said, was "to lift the spirits and to remind one of life outside the hospital".

All the works in the new exhibition are stripe paintings, ranging from the modestly scaled black and white of Horizontal Vibrations made in 1961, to the glowing colours of six huge new canvases completed this year.

Shiff relishes the slight irregularities he detects in the earliest paintings before she began getting studio assistants to execute her work. "But to her, using the assistants was an improvement - she didn't want to see any imperfection from the hand of the artist." Although the paintings initially seem so strict and severe, Schiff sees not just the colours she has actually placed on the canvases, but what he calls "phantom colours" achieved by the contrast between the stripes.

He also sees some surprising influences of painters she admires. "You might not walk in off the street and immediately think she has been looking at the work of Renoir. But it's all there in the colour. Look at one inch of a CEzanne, and you'll find these colours." Zwirner hopes the exhibition will mark a lasting relationship between his gallery and Riley, even if that means losing his office again: "We will do whatever she asks us to do. She deserves no less."

Bridget Riley, the Stripe Paintings 1961-2014, David Zwirner Gallery London, free, until 25 July Photograph: Felix Clay for the Guardian



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Source: Guardian (UK)


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