LONDON – Almost 50 years have passed since The Responsive Eye, a major exhibition of Op art held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1965. The decade had brought a felt need for audience engagement in art; it was also the era of hallucinogenic experimentation. The front cover of the catalogue featured a work by Bridget Riley, bringing her international recognition. Since then, the artist hasn’t stopped working on her distinctive paintings with method and precision. Bridget Riley: The Stripe Paintings 1961–2014, the current exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery in London, gathers together a considerable number of these paintings more than 10 years after the last retrospective of her work was held at the Tate Modern in 2003.
If the choice of showing only her stripe paintings sounds in any way arbitrary (excluding her most famous “wave paintings,” for instance), the show is an occasion to focus on a particular selection of works with the same features. Moving through the three floors of the gallery, the visitor soon begins to appreciate the almost endless variations possible with stripes. Riley employs them as optical devices for the experimentations in composition for which she’s famous, carrying on the research in the elemental components of painting that marks out Modernism. Modernist hero Wassily Kandinsky’s theorization of the fundamental elements of painting is not so different from Riley’s conceptions, although the two artists belong to completely distinct worlds. Kandinsky’s studies of the elements that make a painting (point, line, and plane) perfectly express the need for analyzing the common source from which every artwork originates. In a similar way, Riley — using those very elementary shapes — has dedicated her whole career to studying the mechanism at the roots of visual experience. Her personal mantra, “rhythm and repetition,” sounds akin to the very principle of abstraction.
Interestingly, the show focuses almost exclusively on her colored paintings, with the only exception being the monochrome “Horizontal Vibration” from 1961. Bridget Riley: The Stripe Paintings 1961–2014 also includes her first stripe work in color, as well as vertical stripe works from the 1980s where, after a journey to Egypt, she employed her “Egyptian” palette, a range of colors inspired by the vibrant shades used in ancient Egyptian paintings. Riley’s interest in color is inspired mainly from her studies of Italian Futurism and French masters like Henri Matisse and Georges Seurat, whose pictorial outcomes perfectly suit her activity and interests. Riley herself is passionate about art history, having studied and written extensively on Old Masters. Not surprisingly, Pointillism and Divisionism are at the roots of her practice, them being two of the most substantial tendencies of Modernism as well. The two movements rely on the capacity of the eye of the viewer to blend colors placed side by side, obtaining a fuller range of tones.
In a similar way, Riley has used this very ability of the human eye to make an impression on the viewers of her works, hence her reputation of being an “optical” artist. A painting like “Elysium” (1973/2002) illustrates the effects Riley achieves just combining colors organized in stripes. While looking at the picture closely the different shades are perfectly separate and recognizable, from a certain distance those very colors overlap. This impression, combined with the regular rhythm of vertical lines, tricks the mind of the observer, making the painting alive as in an optical illusion.
Following the Modernist tradition, the artist has dedicated her whole career to understanding visual perception, engaging with form and color. Yet, her way of painting links her to Minimalism and to conceptual practice, influences that are still clearly recognizable in a great part of today’s art. This is probably where one has to look to understand the reasons for her success: Riley’s paintings establish a sort of bridge between old inquiries and more recent art; no matter how many years have passed since the inception of Modernism, she seems to suggest its bases are still the fundament of artistic endeavor, and always will be. Her work acts as a reminder of this.
Bridget Riley: The Stripe Paintings 1961–2014 continues at David Zwirner Gallery (24 Grafton Street, London) through July 25.