Bridget Riley, room guide, room 2: Black and White 1961–66

I feel that I let the energy out of the forms, the elements, via the relationships

This room covers the period 1961-1967: an intensely creative phase which saw the rapid evolution of Riley’s distinctive style and her attainment of international recognition. Throughout this period, Riley’s exclusion of colour enabled her to concentrate on creating a formal vocabulary of shapes in which the contrast of black and white, later mediated by grey, was paramount.

Movement in Squares 1961 stands at the beginning of these developments and contains the seeds of the works that followed. Visual disruption is the key principle throughout. Riley explained: ‘a certain situation is stated. Certain elements with that situation remain constant, others precipitate the destruction of themselves by themselves. Recurrently as a result of the cyclic movement of repose, disturbance and repose, the original situation is restated.’ In Movement in Squares, a sequence of shapes - squares in this case – proceeds from left to right. Their height remains constant while their width is diminished. This structural contraction creates the sensation of a temporary disturbance that is resolved by a partial return to the stable square. Disrupting a regular progression in this way has an emotional resonance. Riley saw her intention as making a statement about ‘stabilities and instabilities, certainties and uncertainties.’

The progress of Riley’s work was spurred on by a growing awareness of the visual energies latent in the shapes she was using. She gave reign to the way the structures she was creating tended to destabilise, dissolving – as in Blaze I 1962 and Descending 1965 – into intense, unsettling perceptual experiences. The paintings convey their emotional content through what Riley has described as the ‘medium’ of perception, by connecting directly with the viewer’s physical and psychological responses. Towards the end of this period, Riley introduced warm and cold greys and tonal progression, producing increasingly subtle images which paved the way for her subsequent introduction of colour. Cataract 3 1967 is a transitional work combining vermilion and turquoise with a surrounding envelope of greys. This transition from greys to colour was completed in Chant 2 1967, Riley’s first essay in pure colour.