"Bridget Riley: Paintings from the 1960s and '70s," June 18-Aug. 30, 1999, at the Serpentine Gallery, London.
Bridget Riley suddenly looks very sexy. A wunderkind of the 1960s, Riley's vibrating Op abstractions inspired endless fashion spin-offs and helped define the decade. In 1968, she was the first woman to win a Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale.
Now, with a sharply hung exhibition of 33 works at the Serpentine Gallery in London, Riley is making something of a comeback. Considering the warped hedonism of her psychedelic surfaces, it is tempting to claim her as the first YBA.
Her work has a balance similar to that of Damien Hirst and crew -- 90 percent style, 10 percent nausea. In her case the frisson isn't provided by the abjection of rotting meat, say, but rather is integral to her formalism. In her canonical works of the 1960s and early '70s Riley offers an optical equivalent of heartburn.
But there is no cynicism or smarminess in Riley. Quite the contrary. She is an artist of high earnestness, which comes across in her copious interviews and eloquent writings. Riley was genuinely horrified at the "bandwagoning" (the artist's word) with which the fashion industry appropriated her wave paintings.
In one dramatic instance, the design of the painting Current went straight from the cover of the Museum of Modern Art's 1965 exhibition catalogue for "The Responsive Eye" to dresses in the windows of Madison Avenue boutiques. As Lisa Corrin, co-curator of the Serpentine show, points out, today's artists anticipate and celebrate commercial interactions with their strategies and designs.
Riley is actually one of the most persuasive artist-writers of the last quarter century. A collection of her words, The Eye's Mind: Bridget Riley Collected Writings 1965-1999, was just published by Thames and Hudson, while her Dialogues on Art, the transcripts of five BBC radio interviews conducted with her by a distinguished rostrum including the art historian Ernst Gombrich and Neil MacGregor, director of the National Gallery, is available from Zwemmer.
Riley makes a riveting read. She is especially illuminating on the modern masters who make some sense of her own esthetic, like Mondrian and Seurat. The problem I have is that there is no comparable -- sustainable -- pleasure to be had from the paintings, try as one might (and as her eloquence exhorts one to).
The theory of Riley is easy enough and fun to grasp -- optical effects are in the eye of the beholder. She reduces painterly elements to the precisely crafted minimum to allow for maximum vibrant interaction on the retina. In her paintings, perceptual phenomena are both the raw material and the refined result, exploited and explored as scientifically as the pixilations of her hero Seurat.
But with Riley, there is this nagging doubt: what is the point of her (equivalent of) Pointillism? It is hard to suppress the suspicion that Rileys are like test cards, that a psychology major ought to be able to name the effects by the end of sophomore year.
Certainly, some odd things do happen. Current and Crest, both dating from 1964, are the most vitriolic of her optic nerve attacks. In each work, bands of parallel wavy black lines bunch together in the center of the composition. Fix the penetrating gaze this center seems to compel and it becomes quite impossible to work out which way the lines flow -- they bounce this way and that.
Allow the eye to rest in a semi-gaze, and the whole picture begins to do the shimmy. The lines -- which are all black -- seem to alternate first in tone then in actual color. Yellows seem to creep into the white spaces between them. Other colors emerge from somewhere, too. Even more intense eye grating occurs in the herringbone forms of the following year (effects that can be observed when someone wearing a herringbone garment appears on TV).
The acidity of Riley's optical ill-effects declines and softens as her career unfolds. By the early 1970s, as color has made its entrance, we are into, at worst, mild seasickness, and possibly a more socially stimulated nausea from the 1970s color schemes. What happens to her career after the timespan of the Serpentine exhibition is that she enters a hermetically sealed world of chromatic investigation in which the only psychological effect is that of mind numbing at the sheer tedium. They seem to have no point beyond graphic design.
But what graphic design! There is an undeniable buzz coming off my desk as I write this from the gorgeous covers of her various publications. She provides the perfect book cover, too, for volumes by her scholarly contemporaries and mentors, men like Gombrich (see the current edition of his Art and Illusion) and Anton Ehrenzweig, whose seminal work, The Hidden Order of Art, acknowledges his conversations with the artist. But ultimately, the idea of Riley far outstrips the actuality. We need to look to her own writing for the best she has to offer.
DAVID COHEN is a London-based art historian and writer.