ARTS / New pattern to the ever-changing life of Riley: Artist of the Year

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IT WAS scarcely a good 12 months, yet the art-world still managed to keep smiling. For people who actually make art, what's happening now isn't really so unusual. Haven't all contemporary painters and sculptors known long periods, if not lifetimes, of being broke?

Dealers have been closing their galleries but are still buying and selling from their homes. When the recession ends this may remain the pattern, so dealing in avant-garde art is in danger of becoming a private activity. This year, though, the public was well served by the big art museums. Mantegna, Sisley and Sickert at the Royal Academy; Rembrandt, Manet and Munch at the National Gallery; Magritte at the Hayward; Dix at the Tate and Gris at the Whitechapel: all these were historical exhibitions of the first importance, and we were lucky to see them.

Contemporary art wasn't visible enough, though the Whitechapel Open - always a barometer of new developments - was exceptionally lively. A pity that there is to be no Open next year. The more official institutions failed badly when they tried to show new art. 'Doubletake', at the Hayward Gallery, was a limp and incoherent anthology of neo-conceptualism. The Tate Gallery's Turner prize was a public-relations disaster, doing nothing but harm to the cause it is supposed to promote. The ICA had a good year and hosted the most promising debut exhibition by the young Edinburgh minimalist painter Callum Innes.

Other notable abstract painting shows came from Therese Oulton at the Marlborough and Rosa Lee at the Todd Gallery. The best photography exhibition was the massive Photography in Russia at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford. Art book of the year was Virginia Spate's Monet (Thames & Hudson, pounds 38) which managed to say something new about a famous artist. Best sculpture shows were by John Gibbons at Flowers East and Phillip King, who had a splendid retrospective at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

King appeared as an artist who had progressed far beyond his Sixties beginnings. So also with Bridget Riley, who showed recent paintings at the Hayward. In this show we saw the development of a complete change of style. First there were some quite familiar-looking stripe paintings. Then one or two canvases developed a golden glow. Next, the old optical dazzle was banished, and paintings were constructed from irregular blocks. They started to look like new versions of 1920s abstraction. And in the final two rooms of the show the transformation was complete. Lozenges of many colours climbed toward the top of the painting. They were not in patterns but had evidently been strictly arranged. Yet the effect was actually one of liberation rather than restraint. A beautiful and courageous show by an artist we ought to cherish. Happy New Year to her.

(Photograph omitted)

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