Bridget Riley awarded 2012 Sikkens Prize

At 81, Bridget Riley is one of the grand dames of the art world, a consummate artist best known for her intensely engrossing geometric paintings. As one of the leading figures in op art, she took static aestheticism of the canvas and gave it movement, language and life.
She’s having quite a year. In the summer, she was presented with the prestigious Rubens Prize of the City of Siegen, an award that is given to a living European painter every five years.
And now, as the honeyed autumnal leaves dance in the wind, Riley has been bestowed with the 2012 Sikkens Prize, which recognises artists that have made a momentous contribution to the use of colour throughout their careers.
“The purity, subtlety and precision of her use of colour [has] led to a sensational oeuvre from which a new generation of artists is drawing inspiration,” the eponymous foundation of the award commented. “At the same time she has demonstrated her ability to appeal to a broad public with her abstract work.”
It’s remarkable in so many ways. She is the first woman to have picked up the Dutch award, as well as the first Briton. But, more interestingly, she is a fascinating choice, given her long-time love affair with monochrome.
She is best known for the paintings she produced in the sixties. They were hypnotic, confusing and visually disturbing patterns that rocked – and still do – the senses in a very appropriately psychedelic way.
Colour came towards the end of the decade. It could have ended ugly, a flirtation with a form that didn’t make sense – think Henri Cartier-Bresson without black and white – but Riley’s embrace was nothing short of soulful.
Who can take their eyes away from the relatively recent Shadow Play (1990) – diagonal bands of symphonic non-verbal poetry, like coloured candy, the kind you rapaciously indulge in?
In a rare interview with the Guardian, she recounted the protracted and unexpected steps she found herself taking towards colour when she started copying Georges Seurat’s pointillist Bridge at Courbevoie (1886-87).
This perfunctory process was edifying, helping her understand the complexity – and beauty – of the way colours interact when placed in the company of one another. But, it was still a long way from her using it as a material.
“I made studies, and later, a painting,” she remembered. “I was quite pleased, in fact, with what I’d been able to do, but it had nothing to do with what I had actually experienced in front of this landscape.
“So I decided to start again to find a new beginning – to start from the themes themselves, that is to say, shapes, lines, and so on. That led to my making a black-and-white painting and seeing what it would do: and it moved.”
Ironically, through an experiment with colour, she found purpose in the minimalist hues of black and white, but not figurative, nor post-impressionistic. It was in restrictive abstract compositions that she felt most comfortable. This was her epiphany.
Riley would have another divine moment in 1967, when she began to properly invest in colour, after which she never looked back. Half a century later, her non-monochrome adventures have resulted in two wonderfully diverse worlds, polar opposites, yet of the same cloth. They exist to offer a spiritual experience, not one that should be mulled over, she has said. Thinking is overrated – let the eyes have their day.
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