Bridget Riley at ninety looks magnificent in her survey exhibition at Yale. Courtney Martin, the director of the Yale Center for British Art, has made good use of the Louis Kahn building. She has hung the black-and-white paintings of the early 1960s in the compressed galleries of the third floor, thus adding to their power to transfix the viewer’s gaze, and given the brilliantly colored paintings from 1967 onwards the flowing spaces of the second floor, allowing them to breathe and float. The division perfectly mirrors an artistic career spread over seven decades.
The early black-and-white paintings won Riley immediate fame and a superficial sobriquet as the leading Op Art artist, a term she has lived down and outpainted. The reputation came in part from her intense desire to arrest and hold the viewer’s attention. The repetitive monochrome compositions, tightly and intricately composed, had a dizzying, even migraine-inducing effect – what the curator John Elderfield once described as “a highly, even alarmingly, mobile visual field”. Riley herself has referred to “stabilities and stabilities” in her paintings. In 1965, William Seitz, then curator of paintings and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, selected Riley’s painting “Current” for the cover of the catalog for the museum’s exhibition The Responsive Eye. It brought her worldwide fame.
The descending waves of black-and-white stripes in “Current” go beyond the “alarming” or “unstable”: it is as if a tsunami, a flow of unstoppable forces, has been released, held back only by the fragile frame of painting. This calmitous and traumatic visual sensation abounds in these classic early Rileys. The blandly titled “Movement in Squares” starts with a checkerboard sequence of black and white squares, then all of a sudden the squares diminish, recede into the fictive space of the painting, dragging the viewer’s eye with them, a suffocating experience, until the squares re-emerge and continue their checkerboard sequence.
Riley’s path to these black-and-white paintings had not been an easy one, punctured by both a breakdown and a break-up. They are dogged by a sense of trauma. It is all too easy to lose one’s visual grip in “Shuttle 2”, as the eye traverses the painting’s uneven, tilted passageways and knife-edged ridges. The threat is that the viewer will be forcibly ejected from the world of the painting. We sense that we are getting along by the skin of our teeth. We can just stop ourselves from being swallowed by the vortex of “Blaze 4” as it curls and circles downward to its over-bright plughole.
I am not so sure how long we could exist in the world of “Exposure”, the epic fifteen-foot painting that launches the entire show. How could we stand or withstand the endless surging movement that sweeps from corner to corner? The beauty and lyricism of its rhythmic progression do not disguise our fear of being swallowed by this flow of natural forces.
Riley emancipated herself and her art from the constrictions of the black-and-white paintings with the adoption of gray as a tone midway between the two, and of the atmospheric qualities gray naturally possesses. In these early works gray gives the impression of fading the edges of a composition, loosening its obsessive grip over the eye. In time gray became an expressive force in its own right, like a fog or force between the viewer and picture.
By 1968 Riley was painting in color with such conviction and confidence that she won the international prize for painting at the Venice Biennale, the first woman and the first Briton to do so. Her early color paintings, such as the “Late Morning” series or “Chant 2”, were as original and innovative as the black-and-white paintings had been earlier. Large in scale, they consist of tightly knit vertical stripes of color with a narrow interval of canvas between them.
For all the austerity of the composition, the effect is strikingly rich and ambiguous, with an abundance of after-images unsettling the taut frame-to-frame structure. These are light-generating pictures. It is clearly daylight that filters through the “Late Morning” paintings. The richer the chromatic effect (as in “Chant”), the more palpable the glow of light.
Color changed the relationship between Riley’s paintings and the world. Brought up on the Cornish coast, she has always been acutely aware of her environment, but without any suggestion of landscape in her art. Indeed, her horizontal paintings in the new manner lack the implacable quality of the vertical ones. A pair of paintings from 1979, “2 Color Twist” and “Series 41 Red Added”, have the strongest suggestion of looking at vegetation under water through to a sandy bottom. A longstanding admirer of Monet’s Nympheas, Riley paid her first visit to the Orangerie in 1954 when she found them “in a sorry state, the galleries dark and gloomy… But even in that state the paintings were glorious, the greatness and grandeur clearly apparent. This visit made a deep impression on me and I drew inspiration from it… years later.” She lists the colors of paintings in their titles – for example, “2 Color Twist – Blue/Red and Violet/Yellow, Series 41 – Green Added(1979) – to make the point that color is both the subject and the means of the work.
Color became a way of advertising experience. On a momentous visit to Egypt, Riley was struck by the contrast between the arid desert and the rich cultivation along the banks of the Nile. The masterpiece “Vein” (1985) is structured around five dark green vertical stripes. They throw into relief the rich, warm stripes bunched between these commanding greens. Maryam Ohadi-Hamadani, who makes the point well in her essay in the online catalog, quotes Riley on the great change color brought to her work and her fundamental beliefs: “The preoccupation with methods of perception quietly shifted to the background. From then on, I was trying to paint sensation.”
The final astonishment and acclaim must be reserved for the brilliant series of paintings from the mid-1980s to the early years of this century. The first group shares the same structure: a gridded surface is rained down on, assaulted, threatened by a series of diagonal shapes that seems to multiply ceaselessly even as one looks at the painting. The grid sustains itself – it does not buckle under – yet the encounter can be furious to the point of annihilation.
Riley’s understanding of the inherent volatility and instability of color is clearly on view. If the abstract condition of the black-and-white paintings of twenty years earlier is traumatic and calamitous, the condition of the later paintings is nothing short of heroic. Withstanding all forces, the grid is like a central article of faith that sustains the artist through all the tempests of life.
To be fair and accurate, not every painting is filled with Sturm und Drang. The beautifully modulated “Reflection 2” has a dense, intimate colloquy of warm and cool tonalites. Each part of the painting seems to be listening to the next, the whole is more important than its parts and unity is all. Elsewhere in this group, as in the clear and urgent “New Day”, Riley takes her art into the fresh air, where strong, clear light produces a labyrinth of overlapping shapes. Shadow and substance vie with each other for dominance.
Two extraordinary paintings, “Rêve” and “Enchant”, end this multivalent exhibition. They bring Riley to the threshold of abstract figuration. Broadly drawn shapes, reminiscent of Matisse, move in balletic rhythms that produce patterns of flesh-colored shapes interwoven with the green and blue of nature. They could well form the decor for a Diaghilev ballet, so mesmeric are their rhythms.
For an artist who has made austerity an object of belief and practice, “Rêve” and “Enchant”, with their decorative opulence, are daring departures. Their startling beauty carries the day and makes us admire this artist, prepared to set out on a new path in her late sixties. Bridget Riley: Perceptual abstraction has the feel of great art – a painter of our time who measures up to the founders of abstract art, to Mondrian, Malevich and Kandinsky. How else can we explain why Riley moves us so deeply?
A digital catalog for Bridget Riley: Perceptual abstraction is available from the website of the Yale Center for British Art
Patrick McCaughey‘s edition ofThe Diaries of Fred Williams 1963–1970will be published by the Miegunyah Press at the University of Melbourne
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