Reading 38

“Modern Art”

The following passage is adapted from a memoir by British abstract artist Bridget Riley. (© 2009 by Bridget Riley).

  1. For me, drawing is an inquiry,
  2. a way of finding out – the first
  3. thing that I discover is that I
  4. do not know. This is alarming
  5. even to the point of
  6. momentary panic. Only
  7. experience reassures me that
  8. this encounter with my own
  9. ignorance is my chosen and
  10. particular task, and provided
  11. I can make the required
  12. effort the rewards may
  13. reach the unimaginable. It
  14. is as though there is an eye
  15. at the end of my pencil,
  16. which tries, independently
  17. of my personal general-
  18. purpose eye, to penetrate a
  19. kind of obscuring veil or
  20. thickness. To break down
  21. this deadening opacity, to
  22. elicit some particle of clarity
  23. or insight, is what I want to
  24. do.
  25. The strange thing is that
  26. the information I am
  27. looking for is, of course,
  28. there all the time and as
  29. present to one’s naked eye,
  30. so to speak, as it ever will
  31. be. But to get the essentials
  32. down there on my sheet of
  33. paper so that I can recover
  34. and see again what I have
  35. just seen, that is what I
  36. have to push towards.
  37. What it amounts to is
  38. that while drawing I
  39. am watching and
  40. simultaneously
  41. recording myself
  42. looking, discovering
  43. things that on the one
  44. hand are staring me in
  45. the face and on the
  46. other I have not yet
  47. really seen. It is this effort
  48. ‘to clarify’ that makes drawing
  49. particularly useful and it is in
  50. this way that I assimilate
  51. experience and find new
  52. ground.
  53. For the last 50 years, it
  54. has been my belief that
  55. as a modern artist you
  56. should make a
  57. contribution to the art
  58. of your time, if only a
  59. small one. When I was
  60. young, the situation was
  61. very different. Abstract
  62. painting hung like a
  63. mirage in the desert.
  64. The door had been
  65. pushed open by a small
  66. number of visionary
  67. artists – mainly
  68. Mondrian, Kandinsky,
  69. and Malevich. Although
  70. traveling by different routes,
  71. each had arrived at what was
  72. virtually a common core.
  73. Having discarded the figure
  74. and nature, what remained?
  75. Color as color itself, those
  76. simple shapes and forms
  77. that geometry and writing
  78. provided, and the material
  79. facts.
  80. Perhaps the time I had
  81. spent drawing allowed me
  82. to trust the eye at the end
  83. of my pencil. One evening
  84. on my way to the studio, I
  85. thought of drawing a square.
  86. Everyone knows what a
  87. square looks like and how
  88. to make one in geometric
  89. terms. It is a monumental,
  90. highly conceptualized form:
  91. stable and symmetrical,
  92. equal angles, equal sides. I
  93. drew the first few squares.
  94. No discoveries there. Was
  95. there anything to be found
  96. in a square? But as I drew,
  97. things began to change.
  98. Quite suddenly something
  99. was happening down there
  100. on the paper that I had not
  101. anticipated. I continued;
  102. I went on drawing; I pushed
  103. ahead, both intuitively and
  104. consciously. The squares
  105. began to lose their original
  106. form. They were taking on
  107. a new pictorial identity. I
  108. drew the whole of
  109. “Movement in Squares”
  110. without a pause and then,
  111. to see more clearly what
  112. was there, I painted each
  113. alternate space black. When
  114. I stepped back, I was elated
  115. by what I saw.
  116. The way of working I had
  117. found was both new and
  118. yet familiar. If my subject
  119. had been the human figure
  120. instead of a geometric form,
  121. I would have been looking
  122. for the ways in which the
  123. balance shifted. I would
  124. have found a twist or turn,
  125. which gave life and
  126. movement. I chose other
  127. geometric forms – the
  128. circle, the triangle, the
  129. oval, the curve – and
  130. found that through
  131. drawing I could analyze
  132. and study them. What
  133. could a triangle, for
  134. example, do and, equally
  135. important, not do? 
  136. I searched for a new form
  137. that would be unlike any I
  138. had used before: a form
  139. that did not have the
  140. familiar identity of squares,
  141. triangles, ovals etc.
  142. Eventually, I found what I
  143. was looking for in the
  144. conjunction of the vertical
  145. and the diagonal. This
  146. conjunction was the new
  147. form. It could be seen as a
  148. patch of color. When
  149. enlarged, these formal
  150. patches became colored
  151. planes that could take up
  152. different positions in
  153. space. A whole new field of
  154. relationships opened up.
  155. Now drawing with color
  156. became central to my
  157. activity. I found I had to
  158. establish a common plane
  159. from which and to which
  160. the spatial advances and
  161. recessions of color would
  162. relate. This could not be
  163. predetermined – it had to
  164. be found afresh each time.
  165. It can sometimes happen
  166. that, when confronted by
  167. what seems to be a wall,
  168. which one cannot get
  169. either through or round,
  170. a kind of radical
  171. reorientation is called for.
  172. If this is to succeed, it
  173. nearly always means
  174. relinquishing some cherished
  175. notion or something that you
  176. have relied on. This
  177. destructive side to
  178. creative life is essential
  179. to an artist’s survival.