Bridget Riley: New Paintings, Wall Paintings, Gouaches

Bridget Riley has been creating abstract paintings for 50 years – and her latest work is as tantalising as ever, says Tom Lubbock

It is roughly 100 years since abstract painting started, and for some people it has had its day. In the middle of the 20th century it ruled the world. It was the inevitable and final state of art. But then, inevitably, it proved not so final. We could look at abstraction from the outside, and see it as something rather odd. Why this solemnity about shapes and colours? Why this obsession with purity?

But it isn't all over. It is nearly 50 years since Bridget Riley started painting abstract, and her allegiance to the revolution created by Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich and Rodchenko has never flagged or shown doubts. She has been one of the great renewers of abstraction. Since she first arrived with her eye-popping Op works, her painting has gone through several transformations. It's always been an impersonal art, but equally very open to emotions. And now you might think – Riley was born in 1931 – she is due for a "late style". Or is this it?

The recent wall paintings and paintings now showing at the Timothy Taylor Gallery are in the style she developed only about 10 years ago – "new curves" she calls it. (The previous curves were presumably the waves and ripples of the late 1970s.) But if these are "late" works, they don't have the remoteness and austerity that are sometimes associated with the term. The curves allow into her works an unprecedented flow of energy. The effect is almost youthful.

The two murals, for example, are boundless pieces. Though they have roughly a landscape format, and landscape colours too – blue, green, corn, pale orange - they break out of the picture's normal rectangle, to float as an irregular form on the surrounding wall. Their titles are Arcadia 2 and Arcadia 3. I'm never sure about Riley's titles. They're often so inventive and so beautiful, one's likely to give them too much weight. But in this case, Arcadia seems pretty straightforward. These fields of dancing forms aren't damagingly skewed by the thought of a rustic idyll.

Arcadia then – and not on the other hand Et in Arcadia Ego, that motto of mortality that's found in some 17th-century paintings. In those scenes, innocent shepherds stumble upon a skull or a tomb, inscribed with those warning words. Death too lurks among idylls.

Of course you'd never find that kind of title on a Riley; simply too much story would be implied. Riley has certainly drawn inspiration from the procedures of the old masters, but their stories have not been her interest. Still, this isn't just my whimsical word-play. In so far as Riley has any subjects, the subject of mortality is something you can meet in her art. You meet it in the form, or rather in the question, of limits. Where are the limits in her art?

In one way, Riley has been devoted to limitation – in her creative means. She quotes Stravinsky. "My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint, diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self of the chains that shackle the spirit."

Riley's constraint consists in the narrow repertoire of forms that characteristically she uses at any point in her work. Take the "new curves" pictures – and it's telling that she is happy to give them such a name. How many artists would be so self-conscious and explicit about a change of style? But Riley knows what she's doing, and declares it. The decision to introduce a new element, to alter the repertoire radically, is deliberate.

The elements of the "new curves" pictures are nameable, too. They are various types of sharp edge. There is no wobbliness, no blur. A picture is constructed out of curved edges – regular curves, compass drawn, swelling either to the left or the right – also verticals, horizontals, and diagonals that always slant to the right. These means are perspicuous and few. You can grasp them clearly as they intersect, pick up on one another, or form outlined shapes – almonds, thorns, kites, twisted ribbons.

But these edges are obviously not made by lines. They are created by the pictures' colours – again, only a handful of colours in each picture – colours that establish forms or seem to spread across them. You get the impression of planes interleaving, superimposed, transparent. And as you look, the structure complicates. At a certain point you start not to be able to follow it.

Ever since her first Op works, there's been a suspicion of tricksiness. It arises partly from the fact that her painting isn't at all physically expressive (therefore cerebral). The body, with its impulses and flukes, and the unpredictable and fluid substance of paint, aren't involved. Her materials are defined shapes. Their assembly is carefully controlled through a kind of collage. The paint is flat, and uniform, and latterly put on by assistants. It looks like a cool operation. Is it a kind of game?

There is certainly puzzlement, bafflement at work. The eye isn't being dazzled, as in the Op works, but it is being confused. It's caught in a battle between the graspable and the ungraspable. There are the recognisable, identifiable elements, and then there is the ensemble into which they are made, and in which they are increasingly inextricable. The forms interleave, go transparent, and they also align, echo, repeat, reverse. Keep looking and more and more of these relationships appear. You often wonder if Riley herself has got her eye on, and her mind round, all that's going on; whether she has seen and adjusted and approved every possible involvement.

At any rate, there comes a stage in the drama between elements and ensemble when ensemble simply wins. There's no point in trying to alternate your attention between the two. Literally you can keep an eye on the bounding curves and the shapes they make. They are perfectly clear when isolated. But the picture's object is to transcend them. And the moment you relax a strict focus, and let your eye stray, you're likely to be lost in an interplay so dense and multiplex that the elements just dissolve.

The meaning of Riley's paintings is not in what they depict (they depict nothing) or even in their associations (however much the colours and the titles of the Arcadia murals may suggest something outdoorsy). It's in the kind of experience she offers the eye. And in these pictures, she offers an experience of endlessness. It's brilliantly achieved. There are no containers or stopping places, and when there seem to be, they turn out to be decoys. Your attention scans and swims continuously, limitlessly.

We see so many artworks that can be consumed – and quite rightly consumed – in a couple of minutes that we should be grateful when some come along that ask for any amount of time. Endlessness is potentially endless. And yet I'm not sure that I believe in it, seductive though it is. With all the visual discipline of Riley's making, the vision is a kind of fantasy. It's not how the world goes. The shepherds suddenly bump into something. Their idyll is interrupted by a sense of limits. But these paintings, whether or not they may be called Arcadia, don't encounter or recognise any limits. They go on forever. It's strange to say that an abstract work is untrue, but so it is.



Bridget Riley: 'New Paintings, Wall Paintings, Gouaches' is at Timothy Taylor Gallery, London W1 (020 7409 3344) to 19 December (closed Monday), free

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'