Ahead of Hayward Gallery's major Bridget Riley retrospective, which opens this month, Conservator Rachel Carey-Thomas discusses Riley’s seminal Arts Council Collection work, Movement in Squares, 1961, revealing the intricate processes and methodical approach involved in cleaning this iconic painting.
Movement in Squares is one of Riley’s first fully abstract paintings and is therefore a hugely significant work. The version owned by the Arts Council was preceded by several other iterations, giving us an insight into how she honed and refined the concept and its execution.
The Arts Council acquired the definitive version in 1962 – the year after it had been painted - from Riley’s first solo show at Gallery One. Apparently this show was the outcome of a chance encounter with Gallery One director Victor Musgrave, which happened when Riley sought shelter from a rainstorm in the gallery’s entrance!
Although Riley has maintained a meticulous archive, the type of paint used for these very early abstract works is undocumented. We know that from the late 1960s she was using acrylics for their useful handling properties but Riley talks of using house paint to create her earliest black and white paintings and, in particular, a well-known brand named Ripolin, also used by Picasso.
From a conservator’s perspective, the uncertainty over what medium was used meant that my work would be guided by the results of tests to identify the properties of the paint and the effect of different cleaning agents.