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Bridget Riley: last of the modernists

September 28, 2009

She’s a master of abstract art, the exception to every rule – beating the big boys of high modernism at their own game

Bridget Riley at her Flashback exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery

Untouched by the times … Bridget Riley sits in front of one of her paintings at Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. Photograph: Christopher Thomond

Bridget Riley, whose exhibition Flashback opens this weekend at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, is an exception to every rule. She is an abstract painter in a nation that has always favoured the figurative, a serious modernist in a culture that has gone from backwoods conservatism to vulgar postmodernism. She seems a character from the upper reaches of British society, and yet in the late 1960s she led a radical movement to find space for artists. And – oh yes – she’s a woman who has beaten the big boys at their own game.

In the early 1960s, when Riley started making eye-fooling abstractions that appeared to actually move and warp as you looked at them, abstract art was at its zenith. But where Mark Rothko and Morris Louis demanded a poetic engagement, Riley insisted on a physical one: “action painting”, the term misleadingly applied to New York abstraction, actually did apply to her paintings.

It was natural at the time – and it is still de rigueur for academic art historians – to see Riley as “subverting” abstract art’s pretensions. But time changes perspectives. From today’s point of view, Riley’s proximity to the high modernists is surely more intriguing than her distance from them.

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Bridget Riley: last of the modernists

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