An imitation, not a copy: Richard Shiff on what Bridget Riley learned from Georges Seurat

Riley had a formative encounter with the Pointillist's work early in her career

Bridget Riley 2017

Bridget Riley 2017

The British painter Bridget Riley, who is the subject of an exhibition at the Christchurch Art Gallery in New Zealand (Bridget Riley: Cosmos, until 17 November) has long held an interest in perceptual phenomena. In this essay, which is adapted from its original publication in the gallery's Bulletin magazine, the art historian Richard Shiff explains how Georges Seuart proved to be a crucial guide.

What does Bridget Riley’s art mean? We might imagine that a wall painting titled Cosmos (2017) refers to life within a cosmos, an order that encompasses us, whether natural or divine. The designation connotes a degree of philosophical speculation, unlike the direct descriptions that Riley occasionally employs as titles, such asComposition with Circles. But whatever meaning we derive from viewing Cosmos will be no more intrinsic to it than its name. Attribution of meaning comes after the fact and requires our participation in a social discourse. Every object or event to which a culture attends acquires meaning; and Riley’s art will have the meanings we give it, which may change as our projection of history changes. Meaning, in this social and cultural sense, is hardly her concern.

At an early stage of her career, Riley wilfully stepped outside history: "While one has to accept that the role of art and its subjects do change, the practical problems do not. ... True Modern painting, I believe, should always be a beginning—its own re-invention, if you like." She has been exceptionally strict about avoiding aesthetic trends. During the 1960s, works such as Black to White Discs (1962) may have initiated a fashion for bold optical effects; but this historical consequence was inadvertent, and Riley shunned its significance. Part of, and yet apart from, her era, she aims to function as an artist, not an agent of history. To understand her attitude, we need to accept that art and history run separate courses, though the notion will seem paradoxical, especially to those convinced that a social practice like art cannot remain independent of historical forces such as economics, politics and ideological contestation.

Riley grants that the "role of art" changes. Yet this social and historical role is merely an aspect of the art that an artist creates. Riley is at the extreme end of the scale that differentiates those who self-consciously intervene in history from those who would supersede history by the force of human feeling. Her aesthetic target is perception, which opens individuals to feeling beyond the limits of their identities and histories: "Perception constitutes our awareness of what it is to be human, indeed what it is to be alive."

Bridget Riley 2017

What Riley says about art and life is more than metaphorical; people do experience art as sensory and emotional liberation. Academics debate competing theories of the human subject—its theological, anthropological, and ideological origins, and even its end in a post-human condition of fluid identities. These cultural constructs exist only within a historical, conceptual frame. To the contrary, Riley’s "human" is an organic life-form endowed with bodily senses and psychosomatic feeling. The human is us—and it includes all others.

Riley’s art engages what escapes the notice of history. I know of no other examples of abstract art that quite match hers in independence from a lineage of developing aesthetic practice, its cultural allegiances, and its strategic swerves. Many late 20th-century artists have made stripe paintings, but none reaches the degree of chromatic intensity and visual surprise that characterises Late Morning 1 (1967), Serenissima (1982) or Aria (2012), all of which generate phantom colours that we perceive along with the colours materially placed on the canvas. Riley’s art induces phenomena as her paint collaborates with light and the physics of nature. The reds, greens, and blues of Late Morning 1 give rise to an aura of yellow that appears, disappears and appears again as the field of the painting vibrates with internal energy. Other works, somewhat more complicated, also involve colours we see yet cannot locate. Along with its predecessor Vapor (1970), Vapor 2 (2009) twists three chromatic grays round each other to form vertical bands, each an amalgam of off-green, off-violet, and off-orange. Riley notes that much of the perceived colour "is not actually painted. It emerges solely through visual fusion." Critics are reduced—or perhaps elevated—to describing her art in simple admiration.

The interactions of colour do not render Riley’s stripes of greater cultural value than those of other artists, but hers differ qualitatively. She often reduces a formal composition to utter simplicity—parallel bands, a grid of discs, a systematic rotation of ellipses. The regularity leaves her movement of colour and value free to attain unforeseen complexities of nuance. So questions addressed to Late Morning 1 or Cosmos or any other Riley painting should not return to the cultural meaning of the genre: stripe painting, circle painting, abstract art, late Modernism or whichever category might seem to apply. Nor should we direct interpretation to the literary allusions or concepts a title might suggest. Riley’s metaphors—"aria", "vapour", "cosmos"—often relate to music or atmospheric conditions, along with movement, space and light. The metaphoric designations are evocative, but they only approximate what is to be perceived in viewing the paintings. A title should never short-circuit sensation. Simply put, Riley’s issue is human experience. And the central interpretive question becomes: What does her art do?

Courbevoie to Cosmos

At a relatively early stage in her self-directed aesthetic education, Riley posed the question of "doing" to the art of Georges Seurat (1859–91). She had no interest in placing herself in a historical lineage or taking up unanswered questions left by this early Modernist master. She merely sought a suitable candidate to provide her with advanced instruction. In 1959, with the encouragement of her friend Maurice de Sausmarez (1915–69), Riley set about to copy Seurat’s Bridge at Courbevoie (1886–87). Her experience was indirect, but intense nevertheless. Although Seurat’s painting was available for viewing in London, she chose to study a reproduction from a book as her working model. She refers to her result as a "transcription" of Seurat, "intuitive with the clues provided by him".

Courtauld Institute of Art

If we resort to a precise technical vocabulary, her transcription was not a "copy" but an "imitation". The purpose of copying is to make as precise a replica as possible, whereas imitation pertains to an action or process, not its product. For the purposes of imitation, a reproduction works as well as an original as the source. Alone in her studio, concentrating on the information contained in a low-resolution printed illustration, Riley acted out Seurat’s method, his use of discrete strokes or points of relatively saturated hues. Her aim was to comprehend his mental attitude, to think and see as he did. "I followed his mind—not his method", she says, adding: "Imitating a work is simply one of the best ways of internalising its artistic logic." Her sensitivity to the aura of yellow that arises in Late Morning 1 may have had its initial awakening in her probing of Seurat’s sensory mind.

The original Bridge at Courbevoie has modest dimensions of 46 by 55 centimetres; its diminutive reproduction, Riley’s source, measures 18 by 22 centimetres. As the support for her copy, she chose a canvas beyond both, measuring 76 by 96 centimetres (very close to the proportions of the reproduction, slightly elongated in relation to Seurat’s painting). Because she was using a format of greater scale, we might expect Riley to have enlarged proportionately the divisionist marks of her model. Instead, her marks are fewer and disproportionately scaled up (though still decidedly divisionist in character). She effectively magnified the traces of Seurat’s visual thinking, the better to inspect them as elements independent of his subject matter. To establish a foundation, she began with a palette of her own choosing, based on the primaries, but heightened in tonal value: pale blues, which she applied first, followed by pale pinks, followed by pale yellows. Concentrating on expanding the range of colour, she added several brilliant points of red in the left foreground area of green grass, even though such colours were not visible in the printed source. Riley knew that spots of red existed elsewhere in Seurat’s actual painting, so they were a fair topic of enquiry.

The crudeness of the book illustration may have afforded an advantage—leeway for the play of her aesthetic imagination and explorative intuition. Her reds dance rhythmically across the surface, as Seurat’s do in places, but this effect is more pronounced in Riley’s version, especially in the area of the distant shoreline and foliage. She was anticipating her abstract-art self, counteracting Seurat even as she gathered information from him, extracting bits of colour-play from his painting, reworking them as intensified optical experience. She recognized that every red, every green, every other hue lives its transitory life within human perception. With regard to "pictorial elements" of all kinds, from Seurat’s points to her own expansive discs, she later said: "I have to find out what they can and cannot do." Not long after making the Courbevoie copy, she painted a divisionist invention that she titled Pink Landscape (1960). The experience led her to realize that her method ought to generate "the thing seen" rather than "the thing painted"—the inverse of Seurat’s procedure. By manipulating a set of pictorial elements in a certain way, a configuration worth painting would be discovered.

Perhaps my analysis of Riley’s early work takes this turn from representational naturalism to inventive human perception because I am aware of her appreciation of Seurat as she expressed it after years of investigating abstract forms. The wonder of Seurat’s art, she has said, is its capacity to reveal what "we cannot quite see". Her succinct statement implies that we perceive only tenuously what an artist fully committed to perception puts directly before our attention and feeling—"an experience just beyond our visual grasp ... the im-perceptible." As if to extend Seurat’s project, she examines situations in which customary exercises of sensation fail. She deals with features of experience that leave no cultural record, enter no history, and assume no "meaning". For an artist, Riley says, "those fleeting sensations which pass unrecognised by the intellect are just as important as those which become conscious." We must increase our perceptual capacity in order to encounter aspects of existence—of the cosmos—that await our acknowledgement. Riley has defined the elusive talent of painting as opening "a small gap of pure perception ... before conceptualization takes over." Concepts put a lid on perception and contain it. Exceptional artists are not those who create alternative worlds, but those who awaken a dormant potential within: Seurat "arouses the somnambulist element in perception." At Courbevoie and elsewhere, he took the lid off. By her imitation, Riley did the same.

Richard Shiff is the Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair in Art at the University of Texas at Austin