Hesitate is a painting on a rectangular board the features even rows of circular and elliptical shapes. The top row is composed of circles, giving way to subsequent rows of increasingly flat ovals, before expanding back into rows of circles in the lower half of the painting. The slimmest ovals, situated a third of the way down the work, form a compressed band three rows deep. The shapes are painted in grey tones, beginning in a pale silvery shade in the top left corner of the work. The grey darkens with each row along a diagonal axis to become almost black, before fading back to pale silver and then darkening once again in the bottom right hand corner of the painting. This combination of shifting tone and changing shapes gives the viewer the impression of motion in the painting, as if two horizontal abutting cylinders are receding into the painting, or as if a wave is oscillating across its surface.

Riley began to paint pure geometric abstract canvases in 1961. Her first works were painted in a black and white palette and were concerned with variations in shape rather than tone. This period of the artist’s op art practice is represented in Tate’s collection by Fall 1963 (Tate T00616). In 1964 Riley introduced variations in tone into her work, composing a series of paintings, including Hesitate, from a full palette of grey. Curator Paul Moorhouse observed that this imbued Riley’s works with increased subtlety:

By adopting a graduated palette of coloured greys Riley had also, in effect, denied black and white. In this respect, Riley’s infiltration of grey is a significant broadening of her visual argument, a development from the sense of absolutes advanced by earlier black and white contrasts. It is achieved through an embracing of tonal values which introduce an element of visual qualification. This is a movement, as it were, from an unqualifiable position to one that says ‘possibly’.
(Quoted in Riley 1999, p.17.)

In preparation for creating each painting in the grey series the artist made a full-size cartoon in gouache on paper, although in some cases these were not completed. The paintings were then made using emulsion applied to a hardboard panel that had been cut and assembled commercially. To prepare this panel the circles were drawn first using a compass; a template was used for the fuller ellipses, and the slimmer ones were drawn freehand. There was no mechanical process for selecting the colours, with the shades of grey being judged by eye. The orientation of this work is indicated by an arrow and the word ‘TOP’, which is drawn onto the back of the board.

Hesitate is one of six works painted in 1964 which share the same formal constraints: painted on similar sized boards, they are each composed of circles and ellipses in the palette of grey. Riley regarded each of these paintings as a whole, a ‘field’ in which the individual parts are not perceived by the viewer. Therefore the overall size of each painting is decisive when determining the placing of the compressed band, the contraction creating a visual effect which depends on an awareness of different parts of the painting at the same time. The closest companion to Hesitate is Pause 1964 (private collection) which has its compressed section in a vertical line rather than a horizontal one. For Riley this rotated axis altered the perception of the works. According to an entry on the work in a 1988 Tate catalogue, ‘She described “Pause” … with its vertical fold, as associated with the human figure, and “Hesitate” in contrast as like a landscape’. (The Tate Gallery 1984–86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982–84, p.257.)

Works in Tate’s collection from this series of grey paintings include Deny II 1967 (Tate T02030) as well as Hesitate. Each of the works in the series have titles that imply emotional tension – a reflection on the increased nuance in Riley’s paintings after the introduction of tone. As the artist stated: ‘I wanted something which operated on more levels, was capable of more development, had a more “grey’d” quality, like the indeterminate nature of reality’ (Riley 1999, p.17). The recurrent tightening of the ellipses in Riley’s 1964 paintings also creates the sensation of a temporary disturbance, which is resolved by a return to the stable circle. This disruption of the regular sequence creates an unsettling experience for the viewer, one that has an emotional resonance and suggests, in Riley’s words, ‘stabilities and instabilities, certainties and uncertainties’ (Riley 1999, p.125).

Further reading
The Tate Gallery 1984–86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982–84, London 1988, pp.256–7, reproduced.
Bridget Riley, ‘The Experience of Painting’, in The Eye’s Mind: Collected Writings 1965–1999, ed. by Robert Kudeika, London 1999, pp.89–90.
Paul Moorhouse (ed.), Bridget Riley, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2003.

Phoebe James
March 2016