Artist BRIDGET RILEY discusses works from the collection that inspire, move or intrigue her.
United States of America, 1912–1956
Blue poles 1952
On one of my first visits to New York in the early 1960s, Barnett Newman took me to see Jackson Pollock’s Blue poles at collector Ben Heller’s apartment on the Upper West Side. I wanted very much to see it, having heard about it back in England. Heller had three large abstract expressionist paintings: one by Barnett, one by Mark Rothko and Jackson’s Blue poles. The vitality of this great painting was exhilarating, and the sheer courage of it took my breath away. I recognised the risks he had taken and admired his judgement. As I write now, I realise that my feelings were tied up with something that Eugène Delacroix identified in his doctrine of the necessary sacrifice — ‘of which beginners know nothing’ — of relinquishing the ‘best bits’, the parts most eagerly anticipated, the earlier successes. What was at stake was the dialogue with the painting.
Great Britain, born 1931
There were no direct flights in the early days of my visits to Australia, so I often stopped off at interesting places, such as Jakarta. From there I went to see Borobudur, the great Buddhist Temple, where I heard a gamelan being played — a percussive musical instrument which is delicate, sharp and requires control. That visit gave my painting its name. Gamelan is one of my first colour paintings, coming after Late morning (1967–68) and Rise (1968). In Late morning, the colour slowly accumulates a flood of light in the centre of the canvas, which parallels the movement of daylight. The quietness of Gamelan, with its softly veiled centre, takes the opposite direction. It is a three‑colour painting: blue, red and green. The strong red is progressively reined in by the green until it almost vanishes, before gradually returning to regain its strong position. This movement is countered by the constant of the blue.
No horizon 1994
I didn’t know about Howard Taylor until I was delayed in Perth for three weeks by an airline strike in the late 1970s. The British Council was organising a tour of my work, which included two stops in Australia, one of which was in Perth. The art gallery there had a new building, a new director, a wide and expectant audience, and an enthusiastic friends group, which included the artists Bryant and Tedye McDiven. They took me under their wing and introduced me to some of their friends. I was very impressed by the way that so many of the artists built their own homes and studios, siting them in the landscape. The McDivens suggested that we drive out to visit Howard, who lived on a stretch of land in the extraordinarily beautiful Western Australian outback. We found a remote house, surprisingly small and dark, every corner in use. The dark interior was very restful, and he showed me what he was making. Forms of trees or birds whose branches or wings were drawn and painted in coloured curves on flat wooden surfaces. These could be held in the hand, played with and enjoyed.
Looking now at Howard’s work in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, it was wonderful to see how surely his feeling for nature carried over into such a perfect work as No horizon, whose curve traces infinity with ease and grace, offering a curiously human sense of protection.
Study for Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp 1885
I have always loved Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp; it reminds me of walking on the cliffs in Cornwall. There, one encounters many sights of sky, sea and land, so many groupings and arrangements: nature’s power exposed at its most elemental; a conjunction of immediacy and infinity; harmonies forced by conflict; resolutions won through endurance. This offers great comfort and reassurance.
Georges Seurat carried a little painting box, which could be held in one hand and supported the panel for painting and his palette. He stood and made colour notes to take back to the studio to provide not only information but also the sensation of the thing seen — a spiritual talisman.
Around this time, Seurat was also working on his great painting, A sunday afternoon on the island of La Grande Jatte (1884–86). I can understand that walking on the cliffs at Grandcamp may have been a refreshing break and restorative. From where the artist stands, he notes the cliff filling his field of vision and breaking the sea’s high horizon line. The sunlight contributes the touches of yellow, orange and ochre while the greens and pinks account for grass and flowers. In the shaded rockface, we find deep yellows, dark rosy purples and many blues — the beautiful colours of reflected light, reminiscent perhaps of those in Claude Monet’s Haystacks 1890–91. Seurat notes the tonal contrast with the sea and intensifies it with touches of light blue, reflections of the sky above. This study is a little storehouse of observations, possibilities, contrasts — some of which will be preserved and developed in the final painting, such as the beautiful curves of the cliff ’s edge with the straight line of the horizon.