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Bridget Riley: Good Optics

A retrospective in London directs our eyes to Bridget Riley’s innovations in vision.

Bridget Riley, High Sky, 1991.

Bridget Riley, High Sky, 1991. © Bridget Riley 2019, All Rights Reserved

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Those who feel confident that they understand Bridget Riley may be taken aback by two works on view in the Riley retrospective now at the Hayward Gallery in London’s Southbank Centre (through January 26). One is a copy of George Seurat’s 1886 Divisionist painting Le Pont de Courbevoie (in the Courtauld Institute in London) that Riley made in 1959, when she was a young artist just starting out on her career. The other is an original work, Pink Landscape (1960), that is very much in Seurat’s style. Why was the English painter, who within two years would burst onto the scene as fully-formed master of “optical” hard-edged abstraction, so focused on a representational artist from nearly a century before?

Riley’s copy of Le Pont de Courbevoie is not a literal one. She took the tiny dashes or lozenges of color that comprise the image and enlarged them somewhat, so that her version exaggerates the so-called “pointillist” effect. Its coarser structure calls attention to the way Seurat decomposed and recomposed the scene using contrasting colors placed adjacent to each other—a strategy that, according to 19th-century color theory, would intensify the luminosity the eye perceives. In Riley’s version, the image starts to comes apart, resembling what one might see on an early color TV when the “snow” takes over. Seen another way, it’s Seurat under a microscope. Pink Landscape is a rural vista in Tuscany, with hills, houses, trees, and sea and sky in the far distance, made up of Divisionist pixels of the magnified type that Riley had used in her Pont de Courbevoie. While still a representational work, it is heading toward abstraction, not only in terms of the way it handles form but in terms of color: The shimmering effect of Divisionism is heightened to the point at which it takes over the painting.

With this background in mind, it becomes easier to understand what Riley was doing when she stunned the art world in 1962 with her first solo show, at Gallery One in London. Movement in Squares (1961), which is on view at the Hayward, gets rid of all non-essentials. It’s pure black and white, a checkerboard in which, as your eye moves from left to right, the squares start to contract, into ever-narrower rectangles, then start to expand again. The viewer experiences this as literal movement—the composition seems to ripple and bulge, and at the point where the rectangles are thinnest, there’s a sort of quiver or shimmer taking place. Like the neo-Divisionist work she’d been doing, Riley’s new work was examining the nature of vision, breaking it down, pushing it to its limits and beyond, challenging to viewer to think hard about seeing.

Born in London in 1931, the daughter of a printing-company owner, Riley was raised in Lincolnshire and evacuated to the coast of Cornwall during World War II. There, long before she saw a Seurat, living in a remote place with very few distractions, her eyes were drawn to the shore, where rocks, sand, and sea meet. “This was a tremendous excitement,” she recalled, “the dots, the dashes, the friction, the prickle, the smooth depths, the great tranquility, the opacity that stimulates you to look.” This precocious visual experience prefigures much of what she did later on, when she became an artist.

In 1965, Riley was prominently featured in the exhibition “The Responsive Eye” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The show, which garnered huge amounts of media attention, gave her fame but contributed to some fairly glaring misunderstandings that unfortunately persisted for years. The “Op art” label given by journalists to the works on view was associated with the term “Pop art,” then also taking hold in the popular mind in the U.S., with the implication that this was an easy, no-thought, instant gratification type of art, titillation for the eye, nothing but glorified optical illusions. And then there was the even more unfortunate fact that Riley’s paintings were ripped off by commercial entities that, in the absence of copyright protections, put them on dresses, wallpaper, album covers, and much more. Undeterred, Riley persevered in her visual and intellectual aims. Her technique, established early on, was notable; she would make numerous sketches and draft detailed instructions for her assistants, who would then execute the finished product. For Riley, this workshop method was essential rather than a luxury; placing herself at this remove from the object helped ensure objectivity and precision. The Hayward show makes a point of highlighting Riley’s work process by displaying drawings, studies, and other preparatory materials such as, for example, Study for Turn (1964), in which pencilled guide-lines and numbered boxes are clearly visible.

The retrospective at the Hayward (curated in collaboration with the National Gallery of Scotland) takes in all phases of Riley’s work. In the later ’60s she brought color into her work, at first tentatively, with subtle colors like the blues and reds in Cataract 3 (1967). Her black and white pieces often suggested color, or caused the eye to believe it had seen color; now the color was explicit, but in a way that made it seem as if it could easily dissolve back into black and white. The palette of her “stripe” paintings opened up in the ’70s, while still adhering to the principle of placing complementary colors adjacent to each other to create the dynamic tension she was after. A trip to Egypt in 1981 inspired her to emulate the colors the ancient Egyptians used in their wall paintings, as works like Ra (1981) demonstrate.

At the end of the ’80s and throughout the ’90s, Riley shifted gears by abandoning stripes and exploring the dynamic possibilities of parallelograms in very bright hues, as in High Sky (1991). In the 2000s, her abstractions have loosened up to the extent that the shapes go beyond the building blocks of plane geometry. Works such as Painting With Verticals (2006) share something with Matisse’s colored-paper cutouts. They have a light and joyful quality that bespeaks a life spent in the successful and happy pursuit of a singular vision.

By John Dorfman

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: October 2019

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