Bridget Riley

Published:  Esquire Art 2007 – 2010

Beauty. Subtlety. Repetition. Mystery. Delicacy.
Serious. Cerebral. Unchanging. Determined. Mesmerising.
There are really only a few living artists whose work these five nouns and five adjectives could describe. They would help us perhaps identify the American artist Vija Celmins who has worked mainly at making images of the sea and the sky, or perhaps even Sean Scully, who has worked at making powerful blocks of colour using paint, but there are qualities which are not cerebral in the work of Celmins and there is something deeply emotional also in the paintings of Scully. Since the deaths of Donald Judd or Agnes Martin – these words, perhaps the most wonderful in the language, help us to come close to the work of Bridget Riley.
The first thing to say about Riley’s work is that the term Op Art doesn’t really help us to look at it; it almost does the opposite, suggesting that her art is cold, spiritually bereft and almost medical in its scientific certainty. Her work seems to me to carry almost as much coiled and controlled emotion as Mondrian’s and to represent a striving not merely to represent a minimalist element of the visual world but actually rather to create a world on terms which she, as an artist, can insist on and develop, rather than following science or indeed philosophy.
Bridget Riley was born in London in 1931, had her first show in 1962 and was included in the show The Responsive Eye in New York in 1965 which associated her with the Op Art movement. Some of her very early work – painting from the 1950s – like that of Mondrian, is purely based on landscape, and this is helpful in allowing us to see that the sources of inspiration come from nature.
Riley’s work is at its weakest when it is at its most kinetically sensational, unyielding and disorienting, when it seems ready to hurt the eye of the viewer, to cause seasickness or mild nausea because of the way the lines are formed. There are times when the impulse behind these paintings borders on the silly, a mixture of the jokey and the humourless, when they make you want to laugh or turn away, do anything but go on looking at them. Some of these paintings look like plans for paintings without any depth or ambiguity. This can happen also in the work of other artists who deploy minimal effects and a conscious, scientific flatness, such as Josef Albers and Victor Vasalery.
These paintings by Riley are useful perhaps in the same way as war might seem useful as a way of creating peace and making us appreciate all the better a return to civilian life. They are ways to make Riley’s less programmed paintings come as a relief, to seem softer, more subtle, soothing, mild, filled with distilled beauty and a sort of depth which makes looking at them for a very long time oddly rewarding, as prayer and fasting must have been at some time in the past.
The idea of Riley’s work as a game being played with colour and line and perception makes it easy to identify and reproduce. And its ostensible coldness, the fact that much of the final detail is added by assistants rather than the artist herself, suggests that its real home is a gallery of British art of the 1960s. But it is possible that her work would benefit from being shown in very small quantities and in the company of paintings by Seurat, say, or Matisse, in the company of sensuous paintings which have ways of pulling the eye in, or deceiving the eye.
While some of her work is literally stunning, other paintings are metaphorically so. They are simply marvellous and uplifting. This is especially true for a painting like ‘Song of Orpheus 5’ (1978) and ‘Ease’ (1987). Some of the large work from recent years which uses blues and greens, or yellows and blues comes close to the freedom, the vision and the purity of what Matisse achieved in the cut-out paintings of his last years. The creation of limits has given way to a sort of freshness, an openness; there is a magnificent tension between what flows and pours into the light and what is controlled and distilled, kept in check. Thus Riley’s recent paintings have a new, hard-won dynamic, an unpredictable wisdom which makes them fascinating.