The John Tusa Interviews
Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with the artist Bridget Riley
Is Bridget Riley an artist, asked an author some years ago, or is she rather a musician, a mathematician, or a scientist? Well I don't think we'd ask that question today. No-one questions her role as an artist, only perhaps discusses just how important she is. But the fact that the question could be asked is a reminder of the puzzlement that her work once caused. Those black and white hallucinations of visual movement, those images that shimmer, buckle, jitter, heave and twist - as one writer put it - were taken by some for sophisticated optical exercises, or by others as visual expressions of 1960s psychedelia - the sort of canvas that you got high just from looking at. But then, as now, Bridget Riley resisted categorisation, avoided fashionable adoption by the lifestyle of the time, and she has continued an austere, disciplined path of exploration and expression. Superficially her work hasn't changed much. The black and white period of intense visual agitation from 1961-4, then the introduction of greys, with a touch of blue and red. Then in 1967 the launch into colour, often in straight lined forms, and finally the resolution of colour with movement - sensuous, flowing, graceful. And these landmark changes conceal and contain profound changes in her paintings. Bridget Riley has, in the view of another writer, an incessant appetite for renewal. She was the first Briton to win the Venice Biennale painting prize in 1968, and a large show opens in London later this year, in June. She's that rare being, an artist who has kept her reputation because she rejected the call of fashion. She is what she is, and the public and her contemporaries alike take her for what she has become over forty years of work.
Now you've written about the intensity of your visual impressions as you walked along the Cornish coast with your mother. Now did you regard that as normal, or were you aware at the time that your way of seeing was different from other people's?
I think that I knew it was exciting. I think that it, what I was experiencing excited me. There weren't many other children around, so that I had nothing to compare it with, but I think I probably did sense that I got an extra pleasure out of looking.
Did you talk about it to your mother? Did you say this is what I see, and did she note that it was remarkable?
No, it was a pleasure that we shared, and my sister too. It was what we chiefly did, outside...
Yes, outside reading. Life was extremely limited, certainly in today's terms, and the outside world, the visual world, was something that we turned to for relief, to go out into, to enjoy certainly, but it replaced a lot of things that were not there.
But did you even miss those things at the time, or is it only now looking back that you see that there are a lot of things which you didn't do?
No I certainly didn't miss them at the time. You couldn't help but be aware that we'd moved back in time I think, in the sense that the cottage which we were living in had no running water, no electricity, it was exceedingly simple, and it would have been, it was at the time actually poor. We lived the life of poor people in a sense, but that was in fact what was so wonderful about it, because those things make you use every small tiny thing, you know as an exercise in imagination, an area to explore. You make a great deal out of very very little. And I think that that was for me a really wonderful experience.
And that has stayed with you through your life?
Yes I think so. The confidence that this is what one can do.
Well the confidence that one can make something out of very little.
And did you at the time have any impulse, when you came back, to say I've got to capture these visual impressions on paper?
No. No I didn't. I enjoyed them for their own sake. I had no idea that they would have a purpose, or serve a turn, but much later on, when I was very disappointed with my figurative work, I did remember them, and I did weigh them against what I was able to accomplish, and I realised there was an enormous gap, and that raised a very big question for me as to how that gap could be bridged.
Did you then think that you might be a painter at all, and what was your parents' reaction when this first came on the horizon?
Alarm! The very ordinary and usual alarm of how one would make one's living. And they also thought that it would be a very difficult life.
But they didn't actively dissuade you, or try to dissuade you?
No, no. I think that they wished I would change my mind.
When you think back now, can you recover in your memory clear images of what you saw then, as a child?
Yes I can, but I think mainly, I think what has actually happened is that they have been subsumed as it were by my working practice, and that I don't any longer refer to them as such, and I don't any longer look, so to speak, in fact I don't think I ever have looked for them. But they are there, and they suddenly surprise me by being present in my work. Never in a completely coherent identifiable form.
They're part of the overall visual and creative mulch from which you draw - if mulch isn't too...
No, they are the little points of recognition. They're the clarity. They are the things that I hope that I may find in what you call the mulch.
Well I was going to say, when you said points of clarity, I thought that maybe they are also points of anchorage as well. They are points of reference are they?
No, because they come afterwards. I work with the pictorial elements - that is to say with lines and colours and forms and spaces and rhythms - but as I actually work with these things, many of which take extremely simple forms. They may be just straight lines or squares or triangles or curves - in the relationships that I put them into sometimes something clicks, I suddenly think that this particular configuration, this particular juxtaposition, this particular group of relationships has something familiar in it, something that I do recognise, and then I try to preserve that. I weed out, like a gardener, everything that impedes it, and try to let this very small, usually very very slight little thing grow, if I possibly can, to increase its presence. And finally to set it, so to speak, in the heart of the painting.
Let's go right back to before you were beginning to paint as you do now, your first key visual impressions. I think somebody used to take you to the print room of the British Museum , and what really struck you there? Who were the painters who really attracted you?
Well it wasn't really my choice, it was the choice of my drawing master, who showed me what he thought I should look at. And they were really the great Renaissance draughtsmen. He was very fond of Degas, and Ingres, and I could share very much his feeling for Ingres. So I mean he let me guide me, I let him show me, because what I might have asked to see might not have been as rewarding.
Mm. In fact were you a good drawer of line?
I was fairly good. But more important than that was that what he actually taught me was structural thinking, in that if you draw the human figure, it's fundamentally symmetrical, and the way that it moves and disposes its weights and extends perhaps one side and contracts another, the various ways that we continually adjust our bodies, are, so to speak, very big, contain very big structural principles. And this was how he approached it. It was not actually really by making something resemble, it wasn't a question of likeness, it was a question of understanding. So in that way he taught me how to understand the conundrum of representing on a flat surface something which is an object in space.
Then you went on to the Royal College .
And there I think they more or less left you to hang and dry, so to say. I mean they didn't tell you to do anything did they?
No. I think we all felt you know that we were left to our own devices, and if we had them that was good, if we didn't, well it was rather tough on us.
How painful was it?
Well extremely painful - at least I found it so - and I think that many of us did. And you are not really able to stand on your own feet, and even though the reasoning was that you will soon have to stand on your own feet so you might as well do so now, doesn't really wash when you've got say three years of a rather special kind of environment.
So at that time you had no idea that how you might find yourself was in the kind of, shall we say, optical abstraction, abstractionism, which you finally ended up in?
No, certainly not. In fact I was never, it never occurred to me to leave the figurative world as it were.
Were they any good?
No I don't think they were particularly. I was finding my way, and I did in fact, I had understood a certain amount through drawing, a certain amount through tonal studies, but what I didn't understand at all was colour. And it was only after I had been out of the art school that I actually copied a small Seurat, and I copied it in order to follow his thought, because if you do copy an artist, and you have a close feeling for him, in fact that you need to know more about his work, there is no better way than actually to copy, because you get very close indeed to how somebody thinks.
And I suppose you actually have to unravel how particular colour effects are got, and you can't just peel the paint off, you have to work it out for yourself.
You have to work it out for yourself. You have to analyse the thinking. And he is very, as he was a very very very clear thinker, it was possible to do, to do that. And so I learned a great deal about that.
Did you ever study colour theory as such?
No, only as he used it. Because one of the things about colour theory is that it's almost useless without practice. The two, you have to practise it, you have to use colour, it's your way of discussing it, because without relationships it can, it, you can't really understand it at all, or even see it.
And then I think - I don't know whether this was before or after, but there was that great exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery of Jackson Pollock's work - you were just twenty-five - and that really bowled you over didn't it?
Oh yes that was, that was, that was a wonderful exhibition.
And what really took you about his work? Because I mean they're still shocking and revolutionary now, but in 1956 this was a very very long way from anything that was being painted on the British domestic scene.
I had begun to know some of the things that had happened in the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century. I had become familiar with the successive thoughts, the achievements of a number of the great artists. But somehow they seemed to me to be, well all the other side of the war - it all happened before the war, and backwards. But what Pollock did was that, although he was actually dead at the time of the exhibition, he was absolutely now, and he was an immensely reassuring figure, that actually something as bold, as daring as his work could actually exist in the present time, that all that had not been lost or destroyed by the war.
And it also affected you physically didn't it? You were so overwhelmed by the personal price that he had to pay to achieve the work, that you went home and wept.
There is a very complex and deeply distressing side, which is not just the personal tragedy, it's actually that it was quite clear that this magnificent achievement was also a dead end. And it was also quite clear that Pollock himself must have realised that. And so you know to have dared so much, achieved so much, and to have failed at the same time was - not really failed but to have met, oh, such an impasse.
Somebody can succeed and go down a road where nobody else can follow, or it's simply not worth going any further?
Both those things. No-one can go any further, and it was also inevitably like that.
And were you aware that this wasn't just something that was happening on a canvas, that this was a reflection on a human being's life?
Yes I was, but it was a reflection of a human being's life in the sense not of a personal life, but of an aspiration, of an artistic aspiration.
And I think you said that you were aware of the price he paid. I mean do you feel that you have paid a price for the single-mindedness of your own artistic vision and the way you've pursued it?
I have paid a certain price, but then we all do. But I wouldn't say that the price that I've paid claims any special attention.
Either by yourself or by anybody outside?
Back to 1961, and you start your black and white. How would you describe - now I was going to call them optically experimental works - there are so many phrases thrown at them. What's your own description of them?
Well they were, and have remained, enquiries. They were not so much experiments as finding a way of working which enabled me to enquire into the nature of work. That is how I, I was finding things out. Now everything you find out - this is the irony of painting in a sense - is of course no particular use in any other context, any other painting. It's always particular to that particular painting because the conditions are what makes it. So you can't discover something like you make a discovery, but you can explore something in its own terms for its own sake.
But you said this was a discovery, or an exploration of the work, rather than an exploration, as I thought you were going to say, of seeing.
Well at the time I took for granted seeing. It wasn't until people began to point out this was not as common, or not an approach that many people seemed to have - to me it seemed to be the only possible one, in that the artists that I admired from the past had all relied heavily on sight, on perception. It might have been in a natural form, but it was that you were dealing with a visual world, maybe your own visual world, down there on the paper or on the wall - that never seemed to me to be initially an issue.
Were you surprised when people said, what Bridget Riley is doing is making viewers look more carefully, more intensely, and to become involved - not just with the canvas, but with the space between them and the canvas?
No I was not a bit surprised, because that was what I was experiencing. So I knew quite well that what I experienced, they would experience.
That must have been rather reassuring then?
Yes, I mean and as I knew the enormous pleasure that sight and looking and the exercise of looking had given me, I thought that they would find it rewarding.
What about the people who find them - and there are still some after all, because they haven't lost their capacity to draw you in - people who found them almost disorienting and physically uncomfortable to look at?
Well I think that there is a sort of, there is a drama in them, in the sense that as, say, in a play by Shakespeare, the various characters behave according to their nature, their own inner nature, and that is usually what precipitates their destruction, their success, their failure, all the interactions in the play. And I think that the pictorial elements are very much like that. Once introduced into the picture plane, they start to behave no longer as say a triangle, no longer as a red or a blue, but as a factor in relation to the others, and that has an innate drama.
And yet it doesn't come out as a series of random adjustments...
..if you take some of your triangle pieces, they always end up with a very very powerful, dramatic, flowing shape. Now where does that element in your creation of the painting come from?
Well I think I work on two levels. That is to say that I occupy my conscious mind with things to do - lines to draw, movements to organise, rhythms to invent. In fact I keep myself occupied. But that allows other things to happen which I'm not controlling, and I think that the more that I exercise my conscious mind, the more open the other things may find that they can come through.
So you are taken by surprise by how any particular painting comes out?
Oh yes I am, for that very reason.
So although it looks like one very very carefully, and is very precise and very controlled and very articulate, how it behaves is something quite else.
So I suppose discipline and the ability to allow yourself freedom, and not a rationally permissive freedom so to say, it just emerges?
That's right, that's right, yes, yes. And I think this is, is a very old practice.
I think that the sort of attention lavished on painting the particular saints and their accoutrements, all the various symbols and necessary things, in a religious painting, occupied the artist but allowed all the other things to happen.
Does this mean that in your work you have a lot of false starts? That is that, well you just begin and then you find that what is coming through doesn't allow you to produce the mixture of order and spontaneity I suppose that you look for?
Yes, and my rejection rate as it were is huge. I, you see I have to proceed by trial and error - there's no other way - so that of course I have to throw away a lot. Or I don't throw it away because sometimes I find that if I look at it again I may find there is something - not that I can do with that, but that it will open another little bit of thought.
Do you sometimes get almost to the end of a painting, and you think, no that hasn't worked, or no it's not going to work?
And then, well I abandon it.
Do you throw it away?
I, oh, it depends at what stage it is. I might put it in the garage!
Is the garage full?
I'd like to have a look at that!
Now when you were moving on from the black and white phase, and suddenly people were saying, Bridget Riley has gone into grey, and red and blue. Now how much of a change was that for you?
Well if one thinks that, which I did, that black and white are the greatest colour contrasts, then after a while this of course is not satisfactory, because I found that my sort of structures were binary as it were - they were either/or, either/or, either/or - and there was no place for colour, there was no place for anything else. And that seemed to me to be wrong. I had locked myself into a situation which couldn't allow a movement. So then I did try some colour but couldn't find a place for it. But then I realised that grey actually hung between black and white, and that while you can say you can refer to black and to white, once you refer to grey, you use the word grey, you have in your mind an infinite variety of shades. So that the character of grey is an infinite variety of shades. And so I felt that I was using the true nature of grey as it were, if I could find an infinite variety and control that variety, to show its character.
And did you feel that that was revolutionary at the time? I mean it's, quite clearly it was an intense piece of rational argument that you conducted with yourself, but was there a certain emotional permission that you had to give yourself?
Maybe, but it goes on the whole time that you work. That is to say that every time you make a small advance, or you change something, you also lose something, and you know that, you know, there will be a price. You can't keep adding without losing something, so that it's, it goes like that.
Mm. And then 1967 you really went for colour. Again, was that personally some sort of moment of artistic - not artistic trauma, but a real stepping across a particular line?
Well I was very excited, but it grew in a way out of the gradations of grey, because the first full colour painting that I did used a gradation from blue to green, as a companion to red and white, so in a sense I was recreating some of the things I'd done in greys, but this time, well a similar kind of structuring in, in, in, in colour.
You were unlocking the ingredients of grey?
Yes. Yes in a way. Re-phrasing them.
Yes. You know one of the things that strikes me about the words that you use when you talk about painting - and you haven't used them so far, but in your writings - and you talk about colours resonating. You say they create a necessary dialogue between eyes and image, and those two words, I suddenly thought, 'resonate' and 'dialogue', how very interesting that these are words of sound, and particularly 'resonate'. Now is music an element somewhere in the way that you work, or the way that you think?
Yes it is, yes it is, but the dialogue I think, the word 'dialogue' has a wider meaning, in that I think that it's what we all do, or we can have access to, if we are working in an intellectual field, that you do something and then you know you get told in fact what, or you hear, if you listen, what you should do next. And there are some forms of so-called art which exclude a dialogue, which I think is very very very, it must be very hard indeed for the, for the maker. But I believe it's an essential part of making. It allows you to listen, and then you may be able to speak.
Just to stick with the music though, the obvious association - it's very obvious but I'll say it - with your Cornish experiences, is that it sounds like Debussy's 'La Mer'. Now is that a piece which means anything particular to you?
No not really. My musical interest is extremely simple - that is to say I'm not very well informed about music, I don't know a great deal about it, I don't listen to it in concerts, I'm not a concertgoer. But what I do hear in it is structuring, and so it's really, it is Viennese classicism which is the most telling for me, because that is Haydn and Mozart, you can hear them echo, repeat, invert, modulate, you can hear all these wonderful things, and that has a place, I believe in that kind of structure.
And then of course delivering amazing surprises within the most overtly strict of structures.
Exactly. Exactly, exactly. And I think that if one thinks of what music actually is, you know a variety of sounds, you know some wind, some string, some drums, and all these various amazing varieties, which are organised according to really strict structure, and the two, that complements them, and helps them to be heard, helps them to play literally their real character. So the drum is really a drum, you know, if it's properly placed within beats and bars. And so that it was that you need not be afraid of a very strict structure in dealing with sensory matters, because it can enhance them and support them.
Let's talk actually about the physical bit of working. Do you work every day?
I would love to.
Then people like me come along and distract you!
Well it does, it does happen nice though it is!
But, as it were, apart from that, are you a regular worker?
Yes, I have formed a working habit as it were, and I feel very very much at a loss if I am unable to work for some reason.
And do you work long days?
Not as long now as I used to, but I do still work quite long days - about four or five hours - and then I'm usually done.
Physically or creatively tired?
Well yes, it's the concentration which is tiring.
Mm. And I think one of the most important things that you feel that you do, and like doing, is mixing the colours. Is that right?
I certainly like doing that. That is a very nice, very nice physical activity - stirring and adding and you know testing and so on and so forth. But it's not so much, it's not the hard part.
But of course the interesting thing is you mix the colours, but you don't paint your paintings, your assistants do that.
So at what stage do you hand over a painting to your assistants? How finished is it?
Well it has, it varies. It has varied all the way through in that I don't have a technique which can be applied to all my work. It depends entirely on whatever problem I'm trying to deal with. So that for instance I might, or did, approach making a painting like 'Blaze', I thought about how I could articulate a circular structure with a diagonal movement, and that led me to doing certain things - making a cartoon, a paper cartoon which was a collage, pricking it through onto the board, drawing it up, and then at that point I passed it over to someone to complete. That would be in 1963, say. Now, using collage in a completely different way, but still collage, I need my shapes prepared. I use cut paper shapes which are all related. They grow out of one form and combinations of forms.
You cut with scissors?
Cut with scissors. Now those are done for me, to my instructions you know, as to how many I need and which types of forms and so on. So I then set off to my East End studio with those, and work by myself in relating them. Then I may find that a number of images come up, and I make tracings of them as I go, so that I have actually recall, so at the end of say three days or something I may have, if it's gone well, four separate tracings which tell me various points and stages that I have reached. Those are painted out for me. And I look at those, and I maybe go on again, or maybe I work on one of them further. That gives me a wider range of possibilities.
So it is a process of stages. It's not that you hand something over and say to your assistants, paint that, deliver that.
No, no, it's enormously to do with stages. In fact I'm sometimes teased by them when they find that it's revision C of revision A of revision of a drawing from the previous year, and this little trail of revisions are all noted down. They give me a body of work which I can explore.
It's a very straightforward and logical way of setting about it.
Do your assistant ever make suggestions and say, look you can solve this problem by doing this or by using this colour?
No no no. They're very very good indeed. It's an unwritten law that they say nothing, and they know quite well that it would be extremely distracting if they did give an opinion, so they don't.
They must love you a lot.
(LAUGHS) Well, they only work half the week!
Do you work on only one painting at a time? I mean given the intensity of the problems that you're solving, it might sound that you did.
No, no, because of this layering of preparation really, I work on several fronts. But then I get more involved, obviously at a certain, that is really crucially involved at certain points. And then that will be a more sustained period of work, but it may not still lead where I hope it will, in terms of actually arriving at a possible thing to paint.
But always abstraction...
...and you've never for a moment even contemplated departing from abstraction?
Well, no, I haven't, but then I'm not sure that my understanding of abstraction is what... it's something which - it's a funny word which means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
Well what is your understanding?
Well I think possibly that judging by the time when it first emerged, that it was an attempt to get to the roots, the core, the basis of painting in order to rebuild it. I don't think this necessarily precluded it taking any forms that resembled nature, but it meant starting from the elements, starting from the realities of the actual thing, and finding out what could be done, and so in that way it's very open-ended, and I may do things that other people might think are not really abstract.
Really? But your definition of the abstract would be that it's line, it's shape, it's colour, and that you are starting with those absolutely fundamental ingredients?
Yes, it's a frame of mind. I mean obviously the lines and the colours and so on are not in themselves particular, because they can be used to depict as well as to make the sort of painting that I do, but it's an approach to them.
But it doesn't just mean, if just is the word, producing patterns, or producing...
No, so the emotional element, I think perhaps some people misunderstand the amount of emotional weight that abstract paintings such as yours can carry.
Well I think that to a quite a reassuring degree, people feel it. I think they do. And I think that possibly these means, which I think also is the part of the expressive power of music, is that we do experience these basic things like fast, slow, reversal, counterpoint, in our physical actions, in our psychological and emotional lives, and we know that. We can recognise like a pulse.
Now, you see, why should I feel that rhythm is something which belongs to music? I suppose perhaps because I'm more rooted in music than in the visual arts, but it is a fundamental part of the visual arts isn't it?
Yes it is, absolutely. Look at Poussin.
Well look at Matisse and his cutouts.
Look at Matisse, absolutely. Time and time again, it's a way of binding things, making a unity, one of the many.
And when you do your cutouts, do you find yourself ever thinking, looking back to echoes of Matisse, or even thinking, Matisse did this, and feeling quite happy that you're involved in an analogous activity?
Not really. I mean in the sense that I love and admire him, and have always, but when these shapes I'm using now first started to come up on my drawing board, I was at the time thinking of Cezanne. So I was quite surprised to see these, and I did actually hesitate. I thought, well, I know what they will say, but it can't be helped.
You used an interesting phrase just then, you said that these shapes came up on my drawing board.
Explore that for me.
Well I had, I was drawing a curver linear grid. That isn't a contradiction in terms, by grid I mean a sort of quasi-repetitive structure, but using curves, which I have been longing to do for quite a while and found very difficult to find a way of doing it. Then eventually I did find a way of doing it, and I saw that what I was drawing had many readings. It could be read like a sort of transparent thing, and it had, you could eliminate certain aspects of the forms, leave others, so that you had a layered range of possibilities, by suppressing some things and emphasising others. It was all latent. But some of those shapes had this strange Matissean look.
How important is that sense of connection? I mean you're a devotee of Klee - how important to you is this sense of a historical line?
It's not a historical line. In fact I would say that the artists that I love, or perhaps the artists that have been helpful to me - and they're not necessarily the same thing - I try to remove them from their historical position and just see them as painters. I suppose I look at them in a critical way, with love and respect, but I look at them to see what they've done in certain situations, how they've made certain spaces, how they've made certain recessions, how they've actually worked.
So this is why when you look at a Vermeer, you don't look at Vermeer in his historical context, but how he uses mass and uses, tackles volume?
Yes, yes. Yes precisely. And I think that incidentally one of the sort of distractions which has come about by some rather not very good perhaps art history and the teaching of art history, has been the concentration on historical positions, on historical sequence, on historical, whatever you might call it - lines or structures or God knows what - at the expense of the work of art itself, at the expense of how it's made, of what we see. And also this emphasis on historical position has now become part of the artistic ambition, which is the greatest irony, unbelievable, because for all those people it wasn't.
But of course you managed to break free a long, long time ago from that particular narrow bit of pigeonholing of art.
First of all I mean I had been actually working for about five years before that mantle descended on me.
But you've never allowed it to stick have you?
No I haven't. I mean it hasn't bothered me, because it was a funny sort of thing.
Where do you think though, in the irritating way that art historians will do, that they will place you historically?
I've truly no idea.
And you don't care?
Well not, I mean I know that with the artists that I have watched and seen that, you know they try to make them fit here and there, and of course we're all very multiple creatures - that is to say we've got allegiances and dependencies in a number of pots as it were. Very few of us are simple, straightforward somethings. So I don't really know what they'll do with me.
Would you recognise though as a description which I think has been made of you that you are very un-British in your austerity and single-mindedness?
Well possibly. I mean I can see that that might, I can see that that could be said, and I think that probably it had its roots in a loathing that I had at the beginning of the sixties, as many of us did, of art enjoying a kind of amateur status. And the little treasures that were sort of, you know, badly made canvases, all of that kind of ticky tacky business, you know, which really was so irritating.
There's a final thought - austerity's a very peculiar word to use about you because looking just at the canvases in this room, which I won't try to describe, but austere they're not, they're sensuous, they're full of life, they're full of fun, so austerity is not really you is it?
No, I don't think it is. I think that I have to be strict with, and to some extent severe with my own discipline in order to let things happen, in order to let things free, let... in order to free things you know, so that in fact it has a purpose, it's not austerity for austerity's sake.
Bridget Riley, thank you very much.
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