by John Chilver
Review of ‘Bridget Riley: The Curve Paintings 1961-2014’, De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, UK, 13 June – 6 September 2015; published in Journal of Contemporary Painting, Volume 2:2, 2016, ISSN 2052-6695, p318-321
You can never accuse Bridget Riley’s work of indeterminacy. All along she has kept faith with visual clarity and precision. Hers has been a doggedly anti-romantic project, at least to the extent that the romantic currents in art have aligned themselves with the sublime and thereby implied the insufficiency of the visual as such. For Riley the self-sufficiency of the visual as an auto-affective plenitude is never in question.
But within the long continuities of Riley’s career there are nonetheless large contradictions that this show plays out. The main contradiction lies in the way the optical attack of the early work contravenes the assumptions of the increasingly sedate and orderly chromatic formalism of the later paintings. To an extent this is no more and no less than the story of artist’s oeuvre maturing and consolidating over years and decades. But an oeuvre is never just a biographical or intentional path. It is also a sequence of points of contact with broad and public problematics.
Riley’s inclusion in MoMA’s 1967 Op art survey ‘The Responsive Eye’ was a watershed moment in her career. Op painting had already been rightly identified by Michael Fried as “coercive”1. For Fried this was a fatal flaw, since it rendered impossible the elective vision2 of the beholder. The optical assault hi-jacked the eyes and forced them along pathways, both neural and spatial, that were pre-programmed. This is a huge issue because the compositional traditions of European painting proposed a viewer who could choose what of, how and when to view the different forms, aspects, details, intervals and levels of an image. It’s true that all paintings direct the eyes of viewers in determinate ways. But whereas one can choose to focus on a detail of a Poussin or a Matisse while visually bracketing off whatever else then falls in the peripheral zones of the visual field, the perceptual charge of an Op field makes this impossible in a work like Riley’s ‘Current’ or in a Larry Poons dot painting. Emerging as a 60s style phenomenon, Op was oblivious to the boundaries between fashion, design, décor, music and art. But under the auspices of painting, Op stood to contravene the norm of elective vision. This is the context within which Fried’s charge of coercion should be understood.
Riley’s defenders have shrugged off Fried’s claim. But unconvincingly. On the evidence of this show Riley herself seems tacitly to have agreed with Fried. For what is apparent here is a sustained flight from optical activation. It is as evident from her lucid conversation as it from her practice itself that Riley today wants to inhabit a notional formal domain for painting where Monet is posed in dialogue with Mondrian, Matisse and Futurism, and where any sense of shifting ideological tensions around abstraction – or indeed of any debate about what abstract forms may or may not stand for – is absented. ‘Cataract 2’ of 1976 is by some measure the best painting in this show and arguably Riley’s best ever painting. It works through the problem of taming the optical spasms of the early period. Yet the optical flashes that remain here de-stabilise the formalist assumptions of Riley’s emergent later position. In ‘Cataract 2’ the tensions between optical coercion, sensuous seduction and a tactfully wrought and ordered illusionism are held in a delicate equilibrium that remains extraordinary. The second big contradiction in Riley is between overt illusionism and an idea of abstraction understood as the isolation and distillation of painterly means as such, which is how Riley described what she says saw in and derived from Mondrian3. For Rosalind Krauss4 the strong residual illusionism in Riley’s work of the early 60s was a problem. But this contradiction can be productive, as I think it is in ‘Cataract 2’.
The painting is a large square at 76 by 76 inches. It can be viewed as a sequence of nested chevrons flowing from left to right that are not quite symmetrically placed on the canvas. As often, what Riley has called her practice of “pacing” her elements is key. She has always had a remarkable ability to take a good idea to a far higher level by visually rehearsing it on paper and testing its chromatic and geometrical affordances to a point where something new is added. So a ‘Cataract’ done in strict monochrome would have been a strong proposition. But by introducing almost subliminal colour shifts into the curving bands, Riley raises the stakes of the painting massively. This chromatic pacing intensifies the spatial and cognitive complexity, which are both pleasurable and unsettling. ‘Cataract 2’ also offers a negotiated elective vision at the level of metaphor. For the encounter with the painting has much to do with the experience of space, as one of choosing spatial metaphors and scales – be they ocean waves, desert dunes, swift flowing river currents, a furrowed field, diagrammatic light rays or whatnot. The virtue of the painting of course lies in none of these being ‘correct’ readings. Hence the viewer experiences the choice of what to see in an unassigned metaphorical role.
The show then traces what happens when the curves are turned onto a vertical axis. This is much less satisfying. The works (‘Andante 1’, ‘Song of Orpheus’) that are conceived as vertical renditions of ‘Cataract’ are tediously homogeneous, chromatically confused, metaphorically barren and offer no dialectic between literal and virtual space. The most recent group of works varies greatly in quality, from the sloppy ‘Reve’ to the inventive ‘Painting with Verticals 3’ of 2006. Here the conceit of the show’s theme wears thin because Riley’s recent works really came out of her slanting rhomboid grid paintings of the 1990s and bear little relation to the previous curve paintings. In the 2000s Riley’s imagined interlocutor seems to be the pre-revisionist Matisse of the heroic period of ‘Bathers by a River’ and ‘The Moroccans’.
Shape was not an issue in the Cataract series, since the curving lines flowed from canvas edge to canvas edge without remainder. These are paintings formed of pattern and rhythm rather than shape. But shape becomes central in the 2000s. Sometimes it arises self-bounded, like a leaf, while other times it’s a segmented form that has been sliced by another line. This disparity is awkward and needs careful handling – as it gets in ‘Painting with Verticals 3’ – both in terms of composition and metaphor.
In recent works Riley is often unable to assert large profiled shaped areas of a single colour and desperately needs a strong differential charge from multiple neighbouring colours. Yet perversely she pares the colours right down until there simply are not enough. You can almost identify the failures here by the restriction of hues: ‘Reve’ has only four component colours, ‘Red with Red 1’ only three.
Riley is an artist of remarkable resilience who has never succumbed to sentimentality, melancholy or self-parody. But like any artist, her oeuvre contains failures and contradictions that are as illuminating as her overt accomplishments. When Philip Taaffe’s 1980s paintings appropriated from Riley, they were – however faddish – legitimate attempts to stage the discursive tensions arising from her work. Given the ongoing efforts – of curators, of this show and of Riley herself – to insert her work into a notional grand formalist lineage, it is important to keep an eye on those tensions. The impossibility of sustaining any such lineage is a consequence of the tensions that this show ends up revealing.
1. Michael Fried ‘New York Letter’, Art International, vol 7, January 1964, p55-56.
2. ‘Elective vision’ is a term borrowed and adapted from the artist Tom Benson.
3. Bridget Riley in a conversation with the author at De La Warr Pavilion on 12th June 2015.
4. Rosalind Krauss ‘Afterthoughts on Op’, Art International, vol 9, June 1965, p75.
© Copyright 2021