Bridget Riley turns 80 this year, a fact easy to forget when looking at the surging energy and contemporaneity of her pictures. She is a remarkable artist who, although imposing severe formal restraints on her work, manages continually to surprise us with the richness of her invention. Perhaps it is because of the self-limitations she endures that her imagination is compelled to delve so deeply in the narrow field she has made her own. And its very modernity is an aspect of the way her vision is directly and inspirationally linked to the art of the past. The free display in the Sunley Room at the NG, sponsored by Bloomberg, demonstrates this very effectively.

The exhibition begins with Riley’s own work in company with Old Masters. In the vestibule area Raphael’s ‘St Catherine of Alexandria’ hangs with Mantegna’s ‘Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome’. In this context, the Raphael is about two things: the beguiling serpentine line of the Saint’s posture and the blue and yellow colour scheme; the Mantegna is a grisaille frieze of interlocking pattern in a shallow space emulating sculpture, what Riley calls ‘the extraordinarily protracted horizontals and verticals of his format’.

Finally, there are three superb oil sketches by Seurat for his masterpiece ‘Bathers at Asnières’ (1884). These are about colour and composition, Seurat being the grand master of divisionism or pointillism, the neo-impressionist analytical method of conveying an exactly controlled brightness of colour. Where the finished painting is tightly structured, these looser studies deposit greens, blues and whites on a red ochre ground to impressively sensual effect.

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On the opposite wall is what appears at first glance to be another Old Master, Van Eyck’s ‘Man with a Red Turban’, but is actually Riley’s copy of the painting made in 1947 as part of her portfolio when she applied to Goldsmiths College. Further along is a mature Riley painting from 1965, entitled ‘Arrest 3’, which bounds off the wall into three dimensions like an undulant sea, the optical energy of the wavy stripes creating opposing runnels in shallow space which appear to meet in a rippling arrowhead two thirds of the way down the canvas. This is classic early Riley: full of unexpected and powerful movement, surprising and beautiful.

As you approach the main room, the next picture you encounter is ‘Black to White Discs’ (1962), a square silver spot painting on its point. To its right are four recent gouache-on-paper studies of ways in which to break the rectangle and make forms emerge from its stave like musical notes. This is how Riley works today: putting her ideas down in impeccably structured studies which her studio assistants will later scale up to make larger paintings. To see how this works, move into the main body of the Sunley Room: here is a vast wall drawing, extending the whole height and length of the main wall, entitled ‘Composition with Circles 7’.

Opposite is a more modestly sized though more flamboyant painting done directly on to the wall called ‘Arcadia 1’. Also in this area of the gallery is a vivid oil-on-linen painting from 2010, ‘Blue (La Réserve)’. Elsewhere are an earlier vertical-stripe painting, ‘Saraband’ (1985), and the luscious, flame-like ‘Red with Red 1’ (2007). Quite a parade.

Riley’s work is about rhythm, colour, interval: her immaculate structures and stately measures expound a diagonal, horizontal or vertical momentum, dancing most recently through scimitar curves and blade-like forms. She believes that painting’s central concerns do not change from century to century, hence the continuity underlined in this exhibition. She values tradition and the traditional skills of drawing and looking at great art for inspiration, whether Raphael, Mondrian or Cézanne. As she says, ‘Abstract art should try to be as resourceful and as expressive as the great figurative art of the past.’

Riley’s involvement with drawing is confirmed by an exhibition round the corner at the National Portrait Gallery, called Bridget Riley: From Life in Room 32 (extended until 20 March). As a student, she determined to go back to the beginning and learn, and as a consequence she spent three years at Goldsmiths mostly drawing (1949–52), encouraged by the life-drawing tutor Sam Rabin, a fine painter in his own right. He also encouraged her to study in the print room of the British Museum, where she looked closely at the great Renaissance artists. ‘What I learned,’ she now says, ‘gave me the means to embark on my own work with confidence, and to this day this particular knowledge forms the basis of everything I do in the studio.’ Drawing gave her the necessary exercise in looking and organising information, and the means of bringing eye, hand and mind into fruitful relationship. These early portrait drawings mark a fascinating chapter in her development.

Riley’s advice to students ought to be emblazoned above the portals of every art school in the land: ‘Look at the great painters; don’t be frightened of them, they’ve seen more clearly, experienced more deeply and are more explicit. Weaker artists are confused. Read the best, look at the best. Don’t rely on your contemporaries, look at the past.’ If such sentiments are heeded, there’s hope yet for the artists of tomorrow.

For those who like their abstraction a bit wilder, I hereby give advance notice of an exhibition of works on paper by William Gear (1915–97), a Scotsman with an international reputation and a real feeling for colour, who showed with the Cobra group. Paintings in gouache or mixed media on paper from his last three decades will be shown at the Fosse Gallery, Stow-on-the-Wold, 6–26 February, at prices ranging from £495 to £2,000.

Gear was particularly good at bright and jagged structures based on the observed forms of nature, and was also, like Riley, interested in the optical patterns of light. He worked with more intuitive, fragmentary imagery, playing off dark against light with striking colour combinations. Gear thought of himself as a European with Scottish roots, and his work stands up well against his international contemporaries. In England, Gear, rather like Roger Hilton, has not been given his due, whereas less inventive artists such as Terry Frost and Patrick Heron have received too much attention. It’s time this imbalance was righted. This small but potent show of Gear’s later work provides a clue as to his breadth of achievement, while a centenary display of Hilton’s paintings is on view at the Newlyn Art Gallery in Cornwall until 2 May. Both artists repay the closest contemplation. Recommended.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Bridget Riley, Exhibitions, Op-art