She's a dedicated follower of abstraction

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The Independent Culture
Bridget Riley's most comprehensive retrospective for 25 years opened in the Lake District on Tuesday. From her zany Sixties Op Art designs to her more recent colour-stripe paintings, Riley has remained a steadfast advocate of abstraction. Forty of her eye-bogglingly hypnotic canvases now fill Abbot Hall gallery in Kendal, which is a surprisingly sympathetic venue for her work, as she has a particular love of the natural world. The gallery, chosen as the show's venue by Riley, has previously attracted such artistic heavyweights as the figurative painters Lucian Freud and David Hockney; now Riley has filled the galleries with abstract colour and light. She talked to David Thompson about continuing to be an abstract painter, in a world increasingly dominated by new media.

DT: Your latest work, a huge wall-painting, was made for a state- of-the-art international exhibition, "White Noise", at the Kunsthalle, Berne. As the only painter represented in the show, did you feel like you were being put on trial?

BR: I did feel challenged. And at first I thought I simply couldn't do this sort of thing - a temporary presentation (the work doesn't exist any longer) with a group of young artists all into video, installation media and so on. My work is essentially easel-painting, even when it's large, and I wondered how on earth it was going to relate to theirs in such a context. Added to which, it was to be on the famous main wall of the Kunsthalle and by far the largest thing I'd ever done. On both counts I was put on my mettle, and what I wanted to assert was the presence of painting, of abstract painting in particular, in the context of today's art. Actually I suspect that was what the museum director intended all along by inviting me.

DT: So, how did you go about it?

BR: I didn't attempt colour. I took the simple form of the circle as a basic unit, and by repeating it in different ways over the whole wall, sometimes touching, sometimes overlapping, I tried to show what it could do, what it could make happen, without undergoing any variation in itself. I'd found out how to try this partly from having worked on the Mondrian exhibition at the Tate last year. Mondrian has always been my lodestar, but I was deeply re-affected by his extremely sophisticated renunciation of detail. In his Composition with Grid of 1918, which is so restrained in some ways that I suspect there were visitors to that exhibition who hardly noticed it, there's something simultaneously constant and yet varied, in the evenness of his grid, of lines thickening and thinning, of planes emerging and receding. Whenever you looked and found one, it disappeared as soon as you'd seen it. I tried to do that with circles, and the exciting thing was to find that this sensation - this sort of inconstancy within stasis which happens in colour and is very important in my painting - could not only be explored in black and white, but could be realised on such a scale. And from the feedback I got, most visitors were very responsive to what I'd tried to do. They saw there was an order but not a system. At one moment you would see a particular group of circles occupying certain planes in space, only to dissolve almost immediately and give rise to a different constellation. Anyone could see what was happening on the wall there. The piece was intelligible and it felt exhilarating.

DT: As always, you describe looking as a very active process, something that involves not just seeing but very consciously watching, and indeed working out what another artist has done. Do you think people need to, or are able to enter into the painter's mind in order to get the message, need to empathise that closely with the creative process, or do you think this is something specially relevant to your particular kind of perceptual painting?

BR: Oh no, it's not just me. I paint the way I do because I fervently believe that good painting, works of art that engage and go on engaging and rewarding your interest repeatedly, succeed because of the way they're constructed, built, composed. They always do and always must and always have done, not because of what's thought of as the "subject". In other words, it's not what, it's how that makes all the difference. And that's true of whatever medium you're working in - in music or words just as much as in the visual arts. And a lot of people's difficulties with abstract art usually begin, perhaps, right there. Think of Matisse's The Snail in the Tate - it's almost unbelievable that his monumental collage, recognised as one of the pillars of abstraction, should have had its inspiration in a real, modest snail. It stands quite independently of any such reference -- a perfectly constructed and overwhelmingly grand pictorial statement. Matisse builds up the slow but powerful momentum like some vast piece of visual engineering. You can ignore the "snail" completely if you want, yet there it is, unfolding in a kind of cosmic radial movement. And against this, the supporting frame of rectangles firmly states "house". Most extraordinary of all is the black rectangle at the top combining both stability and activity. It's so quintessentially "snail" you feel it almost capable of putting out its horns.

DT: These values of structuring, building, composing the art-work which you so emphasise in painting - do you feel that artists lose sight of these when they concentrate on aspects of image-making which are not abstract in some way ?

BR: Yes and no. It does seem to me that most of the art of this century has been about "making"; that the means by which or the way in which a work of art is brought into existence has become an integral part of the way in which we experience it, and the logical idiom in which to explore that is abstraction. It doesn't make painting any easier, to free yourself from representation - though there have been too many "abstract" painters by far who have acted on that presumption - but it does clarify that "making" is what you're about. Conversely, it's just as difficult to paint a figure or a landscape today as to compose an abstract, though possibly less ambitious and less interesting. What really thrilled me recently, though, was to realise that all those structural procedures I'd arrived at when first exploring abstraction myself, clearly could and can support quite different creative disciplines, and nothing to do with abstraction. This happened when I visited, initially through curiosity I must admit, the Bruce Nauman show at the Hayward. I'd heard it was a noisy exhibition (and it was) and the last thing I expected was to find a personal way into, or rapport with, his particular world of installations, video-pieces, amplified sound and violent figurative imagery. It was a shock because I was excited to find I was in my own country, in familiar territory. Why? The motor driving the whole show was structural principles I'd used myself - repetition of basic units, mirroring, reversal, fast and slow speeds, constancy within change, accumulated tension by such means and then its release, grid structures, and then in his sound-sequences the kind of alternation of volume and tempo, coupled with staggered entries like round-song that can make me listen for hours to Monteverdi.

DT: Tell me about your retrospective in Kendal.

BR: I don't think that artists can properly assess what they have been doing retrospectively. You know your own weaknesses, and possibly your strengths, better than anyone else, but as to what you've actually accomplished, that's far more difficult to know. One usually works in a sort of positive state of desperation, working against failure, perhaps even stimulated by the pressure of possible failure. Sometimes you make a little progress. And just occasionally something you've done really takes you by surprise, even something you may have done a long time ago. That is a thrilling moment.

'Bridget Riley: Works 1961-1998', Kendal Abbot Hall Art Gallery (01539 722464), to 31 January.