Sheffield exhibition reveals how artist earned her stripes

Bridget Riley is arguably Britain's best known exponent of op art, the abstract style that incorporates optical illusion.

Thursday, 25th February 2016, 11:48 am
Updated Thursday, 25th February 2016, 11:50 am
9 Feb 2016...... Museums Sheffields Exhibitions and Display Curator Louisa Briggs installing Bridget Rileys striking painting Late Morning (1967). Also being installed will be Rileys painting Rise 1 (1968), a highlight of Sheffields visual art collection. Picture Scott Merrylees

A new exhibition at the Graves Gallery, Bridget Riley: Venice and Beyond, Paintings 1967-1972, focuses on a breakthrough moment in the development of her work – when she introduced colour.

Bridget Riley first came to prominence in the early 1960s with her striking black and white paintings and then in 1967 she began using colour and the following year created Rise 1 which has gone on to be a highlight of Sheffield’s visual art collection.

It was acquired by Sheffield galleries in 1985 when Julian Spalding was director and they were still run by the city council.

“Riley was an important British artist then but still seen as somewhat avant-garde,” explains curator Louisa Briggs. The artist personally helped to persuade the city fathers that there was more to her work than might have seemed to meet the eye.

“She created seven drawings explaining her thought processes. I have never seen anything like this for an artist to specially create something to help a gallery acquire her work.”

Those seven drawings form part of the exhibition along withother paintings from the period, some of them from Riley’s own collection.

Works on display include Late Morning, Little Diamond, Vapour and a selection of works on paper.

The artist, now 83, came to Sheffield for the exhibition opening last week.

Her name has long been synonymous with stripes. For most of her career the artist has relied on assistants to paint the pieces while she concentrates on the actual design.

The switch to colour coincided with Riley’s work being shown at the 1968 Venice Biennale, where she was to become the first British artist to win the International Prize for Painting. 

The adoption of colour moved her beyond op art, adding a rich new dimension to her exploration of visual contrast and perception.

In Riley’s own words: “Earlier I chose form, and later colour, which I believe to be more precise because it is closer to our experience of the real world. For a painter it is an ideal vehicle because it can be both a revelation and merely the surface of things.”

Louisa Briggs explains: “She talks of colour as unstable because people’s perceptions might be different and colours react against each other. In 1967 she began working with three colours and then moved on to five and it went on from there.”

Though the ultimate in abstract art, she has been inspired by nature, points out the curator.

“She visited the Mediterranean and tried to capture the shimmering light. Late Morning looks deceptively simple but she spent hours and hours creating these stripes of one colour against another. She aimed at an effect like looking at water. The more you look at it the more you see ebbing and flowing.

“Stripes might seem the most uncomplicated structure but it offers more space for colours to react.”

The exhibition runs at the Graves Gallery until June 25.