In view of the consistency of Riley’s development as painter, the loose but steady trickle of her prints offers the chance of momentary glimpses into the tension between the dynamism of her medium and its formal articulation, which she regards as being essential to her work: ‘It is not a one-way relationship of taming the wild, but can also be the reverse. I am supported by the medium but at the risk of being overwhelmed by it – the medium both carries you and threatens to carry you away.’ In this context the absence of paintings related to a print motif is as telling as the opposite – the lack of prints during a strong passage of painting. For instance, in the late 1960s Riley explored the chromatic relationships of orange, violet and green coloured greys in curvilinear formations, horizontal and vertical. The subtle fluctuation of the subdued colours created a soft, almost velvety visual field; but the tonal pitch seemed to be too low and the greyed hues tonally too closely linked to develop this subtle sensation into a painting. Interestingly, 50 years later a similar colour bracket of low-keyed orange, violet and green, reappeared in a new group of paintings and prints titled Intervals (2019). Although the early curvilinear studies seemed to work only on an intimate scale they eventually led to three prints titled Coloured Greys (1972), one of which won the Ohara Art Museum prize at The 8th International Biennial Exhibition of Prints, held in Tokyo and Kyoto in 1972–73.
The reverse decision, that a pictorial theme is not suitable for being rephrased in the print medium, occurs as well. In 1986 Riley started on a series of paintings with highly complex rhomboid structures that were to occupy her pictorial interests for more than ten years. There are, however, only two large prints, Early Light (1987) and To Midsummer (1989), which reflect the pictorial preoccupations of this period, although in an early, formative stage. As work in this group continued, the formal breakdown, combined with a steadily increasing palette, produced vigorous curvilinear colour movements incompatible with the limited scale of a print. Nevertheless, en route to these pictorial events there were preliminary stages that disclose the underlying vertical metre carrying solid blocks of colour. The perfect poise of these studies lent itself to two independent prints, Fête (1989) and June (1992/2002).
But just at the point when one thinks that one has grasped the criterion governing Riley’s judgement in printmaking – its limited capacity to unleash and contain the visual forces essential to her work – this rationale is turned upside down. Towards the end of her work with rhomboids, around 1997, she started to introduce a curvilinear element into these dense structures. It took her two years to bring about this transformation. The preliminary studies disclose a slow, exacting progress: first, only a one-sided crescent shape was introduced, accompanied by a considerable reduction of colours – and then she risked the full swing of the pendulum… The result was dramatic: a fast, almost uncontrollable rhythm broke out that barred any further development. To slow this down, Riley enlarged the size and volume of the structure in the subsequent curvilinear paintings. But the prints Echo (1998), Sylvan (2000) and Carnival (2000) show that in small portions a certain amount of the wild can be quite enjoyable.
Extract of essay ‘Bridget Riley’s Prints’ by Robert Kudielka, from Bridget Riley: The Complete Prints.
Bridget Riley: Prints 1962–2020 is at the Cristea Roberts Gallery from 11 September – 17 October 2020.