When the name Bridget Riley (b.1931) arises in conversation, various epithets spring to mind; the (he)art of the swinging sixties1, the doyen of Op, the arch orchestrator of Moiré, I could go on. For those who think that the works are decorative, then of course they are absolutely correct, but of course we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that their primary function is to decorate, which it clearly is not.
Riley of course is now an institution, with this being a befitting, if rather overdue retrospective, that boasts a homage by the London Sinfonietta, workshops on how to (pretend to) be an op artist and a tympanic homage to Steve Reich and Michael Nyman. To paraphrase Shakespeare; for painting though it has no tongue, will speak with most miraculous organ2. To put it all in perspective though, Riley represented Britain at the 1968 Venice Biennale3 and had a first major showing at Hayward in 1971, almost a half century ago. No mean achievements.
Now in her late eighties, Riley attributes her interest in optical effects, gradients and patterns to the archetypal pointillist, Georges Seurat, who inspired her to take a visually driven approach to painting. We should also note that she had a spell in the world of advertising, which probably gave her an appreciation of how the medium of print might enhance or diminish the image that might catch the eye - and Riley’s works certainly do catch the eye. One can perhaps understand her position through this much cited quote:
The eye can travel over the surface in a way parallel to the way it moves over nature. It should feel caressed and soothed, experience frictions and ruptures, glide and drift…One moment, there will be nothing to look at and the next second the canvas seems to refill, to be crowded with visual events.
So far so good then, heavy footfall, great receipts at Hayward and bums on adjacent café seats for the masses exhausted by the combination of Riley’s abundant energy and Southbank’s endless concrete embrace.
So why, I ask myself, do I find I am disquieted? The work is elegant, shapeshifting, slippery to the gaze and mesmerizingly beautiful. In common with a wider audience I conjecture, I find myself adrift in the waves of Cataract 3 (1967), rolled flat by Movement in Squares (1961), and bemused by the monumental (Hirstian?) Composition with Circles (2019 version).
But leaving Southbank I feel strangely emptied and flat. Ultimately, for all their visual ‘pizzazz’ and bounded variety, my search for meaning leaves me thinking that the works are sophisticated graphic layouts that slightly flatter to deceive. One anticipates the same level of broken religious reflection as when one is faced with a Rothko classic or Richter’s All Stripes series (2011), but it just ain’t there. It’s the timing too, Yayoi Kusama has taken related ideas to a whole new celebratory level in a way that makes The Riley’s look tame, tired and lacking in passion, an unfortunate triumph of appearance over substance. But maybe that’s why as much as Op Art is a historical fascination, it essentially faded away and collapsed back into its own clever conceit.
It really pains me to say it, but I think I would now rather encounter and remember Bridget Riley’s work through (lovely) books than having the real-time encounter with the works. This commentary is not meant to be an indictment, but the work is of its time and so, now out of time; as I approach my own sixties there is something melancholy and ashen about this particular retrospective that shines an unkind, if not withering, spotlight on a long life in art.
Bridget Riley at Hayward Gallery, Southbank, London, (Oct. 23, 2019 – Jan. 26, 2020).
1 (The 1960’s I mean for my younger readership).
2 Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Act 2, Scene 2, New Folger's ed. New York: Washington Square Press/Pocket Books, 1992.
3 Along with Phillip King.