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Seeing the Top of the Op Artists

TIMES ART CRITIC

Until recently, the paintings of British artist Bridget Riley have rested uneasily in the history books. Now 69, she is widely regarded as the best of the so-called Op artists who flared into public consciousness around 1965, with abstract images that created surprising optical illusions by playing with color, surface, line and the physics of human perception. But Op seemed to disappear almost as rapidly as it arrived--and Riley with it. In the United States, she was thought of (when thought of at all) as the avatar of a quickly discredited movement.

All that is changing now. Riley’s reputation has always been more secure in Britain, and at the opening last spring in London of the new and widely acclaimed Tate Gallery of Modern Art, a room was devoted to Riley’s paintings. And for next summer’s installment of Site Santa Fe, the international exhibition in New Mexico, Riley will be the senior member among five artists already chosen to set the exhibition’s thematic tone. Currently, a lovely show of 18 paintings and one wall drawing, most dating from the 1960s and 1970s, is enjoying a lengthy run at the Dia Center for the Arts here (it remains on view through June 17).

Aptly titled “Bridget Riley: Reconnaissance,” the show reveals a painter of immense sophistication and visual skill. It leaves one to wonder: How did rare and hard-won attributes like those ever fall out of critical favor?

The pristine former industrial spaces of Dia’s galleries in Chelsea feature white scrims over the windows to diffuse natural light, which mixes with overhead floodlights to illuminate gray concrete floors, white walls and white ceilings. Chic and postindustrial, these rooms are ideal for Riley’s crisp abstract paintings, whose calculated surfaces are uninflected by strokes of the brush. Hard-edged and geometric, the imagery is so precisely calibrated as to almost seem to have been made by a machine.

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In fact, Riley’s paintings evolved in the 1960s partly in reaction to the messy, emotive gestures of Abstract Expressionist art, which had dominated the previous decade. Paint loaded on a brush and thickly slathered onto canvas had come to signify, like some primitive form of automatic writing from deep inside the subconscious mind, the turbulent interior life of the artist. By contrast, Riley made flat, sleek surfaces that did not betray evidence of the artist’s hand.

They are patterned all over, from edge to edge, in a compositional convention indebted to Pollock. And they typically employ geometric forms with distinctly organic undertones, such as circles, ellipses and wavy lines. Nature and the cosmos are suggested, but Riley’s work banished any possibility that the picture could be seen as representing the artist’s expressive self.

Turbulence certainly remained, though, in optically dramatic ways. As its title might suggest, “Static II” (1966) is one among many works that create a charged, atmospheric field of visual disturbance. It seems almost electric.

“Static II” is a smooth white canvas 7 1/2 feet square, punctuated with 625 small black oval dots. The dots are arranged on a grid--25 ovals across, 25 down. The absence of painterly inflection is such that you can’t tell whether the black dots were painted atop the white field or whether the white field is a kind of screen, which allows a solid black under-painting to show through.

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The stark contrast between the small black dots and the surrounding pool of bright white creates instant eye fatigue. Each dot seems to be surrounded by an intense corona of light, like the sun at the moment of a full eclipse. Somehow, this corona appears whiter than the painting’s pure white field. It glows from within, as if electrically illuminated.

Similarly, 1964’s “White Disks” is composed of black spots painted on a white ground. The white disks described by the title don’t exist on the canvas but in your eye, as an after-image floating in front of the painting. Riley complicates the composition by lining up sequential strings of dots--small, medium, large, medium, small--on the diagonal, then dropping one or more dots from the sequence. Black and white erupts into an unexpectedly effervescent visual fizz.

“Disturbance” (1964) transforms solid dots into open circles, with the interior inscribed by an oval. (Think of the shape of a stylized letter O, round on the outer edge and oval on the inner edge.) The open circles are lined up on a regular horizontal and vertical grid, but the internal ovals are tilted on the diagonal. Scan the painting, and normal visual circuits jam. Your eye reads the conflicting shapes as slipping and sliding across the picture plane, despite the stability implied by a grid.

If Riley’s all-over patterns build on Pollock, her optical expansiveness recalls Jasper Johns, whose sophisticated eye games are another unexpected precedent for this art. And, from the same year as “Disturbance” and “White Disks,” “Crest” tilts the approximately 5-foot-square canvas itself onto the diagonal, making it a diamond shape that recalls certain experiments by Mondrian.

The surface of “Crest” is covered with thin, wavy vertical lines in alternating black and white. The thickness of each line varies as it meanders down the surface, as does the sharpness of the curving twists and turns, creating the illusion of a rippled plane. It’s virtually impossible for your eye to pick out one line and follow it from top to bottom; midway along the journey, optical flashes of hot pink and lime green seem to swim throughthe undulating waves, interrupting your progress with the visual equivalent of a train wreck.

Most of the show’s 10 paintings from the 1960s are in black and white. The earliest color painting is 1968’s “Cataract,” and the title is a telling pun. Horizontal waves of paired colors tumble down the surface like a fluid cascade--bands of putty and dull turquoise at thetop shift into red and breezy blue in the middle, and then back again at the bottom. The differences between these shifting hues seem to be less differences of applied pigment than obstructed light. The cataract as waterfall meets the cataract of impaired vision.

Color becomes more commonplace in the paintings done in the 1970s and 1980s. They range from the landscape allusions in the gorgeous horizontal expanse of “Veld” (1971), where grassy green stripes edged in orange and violet conspire to create an after-image shower of yellowish slanting light, to more recent paintings of rhythmic vertical stripes.

Riley’s stylish work has been an obvious source of interest to such younger artists as John M. Miller and Philip Taaffe, who emerged in the 1980s, and to any number of new painters today, including Tim Bavington, Alicia Beach and Yek. Some wave it all away as the Eye Candy School of painting, with pointed intimations of empty calories that will ruin your health. Happily, though, Riley’s return suggests that we’re getting well beyond such Puritan shibboleths of modern therapeutic culture, which insist that the only good art is art that is good for you.

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After all, the rise of that point of view is what squeezed Riley out in the first place. Hoisting the anti-painting banner of Duchamp, fervent detractors decried the bankruptcy of purely retinal art, and Op was the first casualty in the fight. The exploratory survey at Dia demonstrates how mistaken the assault was. For Riley’s eye-popping paintings are certainly retinal in the extreme, but their contradictory effects and perverse material pleasures mean they’re anything but pure.

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* Dia Center for the Arts, 542 W. 22nd St., New York, (212) 989-5566, through June 17. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.


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