Right up to, and in some ways including, the stripe paintings I used to build up to sensation, accumulating tension until it released a perceptual experience that flooded the whole as it were. Now I try to take sensation and build, with the relationships it demands, a plastic fabric which has no other raison d’etre except to accommodate the sensation it solicits
In the winter of 1979-80 Riley travelled to Egypt. During this trip she visited the Nile Valley and the tombs of the later Pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings. She was astonished by the art she found in these ancient burial places carved out of rock and located deep in the earth. In particular she realised that the five colours used in tomb decoration were an affirmation of life, recurring in all aspects of the Egyptians’ everyday existence.
On her return to London, Riley began to explore the possibility of recreating from memory the colours which so fascinated her. A selection of the stripe paintings she made as a result, from 1980 to 1985, is shown in this room. These works are an important watershed in Riley’s career. Though limited in number, the admission of a range of intense colours – Riley’s ‘Egyptian palette’- meant that once again she needed a formal structure that was simpler than the complex curves she had been using. For this reason she returned to the more neutral stripe. Her first instinct was that the new colours could be deployed according to her usual procedure of building up to visual sensation so that it leads inexorably to complex perceptual experiences. Almost from the outset, however, she found instead that a freer arrangement was possible.
As a result, her involvement with abstract relations of form and colour grew. These ‘plastic’ issues, as she calls them, would at one time have been seen by Riley as outmoded. Now she engaged with these issues with a renewed sense of their importance, seeing them as constituting the ‘real problems of painting’. In the works she now made, the relation of colour stripes suggests a range of qualities: weight, density, brilliance, opacity, open space and shallow recession. Moreover, the works proceeded according to principles that resemble musical composition. Individual colours are drawn into relationships and these passages are variously contrasted, recapitulated and transformed.