23 October 2019 - 26 January 2020
This autumn London’s exhibitions are full of immersive experiences. You can climb inside Antony Gormley’s giant scribble, you can feel your way through a corridor of neon fog at Olafur Eliasson, you can pose at the bar of Vienna’s Cabaret Fledermaus at the Barbican.
Bridget Riley’s show opens with Continuum (1963/2005), the only 3D work the artist ever made. You enter one at a time into a curving snail’s shell where the walls spiral and swirl around you, encircling you with continuous painted line. The effect is dizzying and claustrophobic, and it’s almost a relief to discover that Riley didn’t pursue this route, sticking to 2D. ‘The viewer found himself actually ‘in’ the work where all I wanted was visual absorption,’ she comments.
And visual absorption comes in spades: there’s our favourite space in the show, the Black-and-White room where Riley’s iconic 1960’s optical paintings play games with our eyes. The canvases are playing tricks and children on half term stand enthralled, eye-balling the strange illusion of Blaze 1 (1963), Pause (1961) and the calm of Kiss (1961). In Riley’s work there’s no need for bodily immersion, it’s all about the eye and the very act of looking.
Upstairs there’s a whole gallery of wonderful Curves, where colour comes into the picture. In Cataract 3 (1967) the surface swims with waves that ripple hypnotically. Then muted colours make way for the bold, and there’s an increase in scale with more recent monumental canvases, Two Greens and a Blue (2000) as well as murals specially created for the show.
They are walls that Bridget Riley knows very well. The Hayward Gallery, that opened in 1968 has played a pivotal role in her career. It was the site of her first large-scale UK exhibition in 1971 that launched her into the fray, her second solo exhibition in 1992, and now this, a major retrospective for one of the nation’s top living artists for whose work the brutalist concrete interiors provide the perfect setting.
The joy of a retrospective is that we’re able to chart an artist’s development across an entire lifetime, and here this exhibition excels. There’s an entire room dedicated to her earliest beginnings – there are drawings from when she was an art student at Goldsmiths, there’s her copy of Seurat’s The Bridge at Courbevoie, and her studies of Henri Matisse and Paul Klee whose idea of ‘taking a line for a walk’ greatly appealed to her.
And there are pictures from every stage in her prolific career, including that non-starter, Continuum. But its inclusion is key, exposing the artist as a playful powerhouse who continues to experiment with illusion well into her eighth decade. Bridget Riley is all about getting us to look and to really experience with our eyes and this show gives the full, dazzling picture.