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The Dizzying Sudden Success of Op Artist Bridget Riley: A Close Look

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The Dizzying Sudden Success of Op Artist Bridget Riley: A Close Look
Bridget Riley. Image via WSJ

The following is an excerpt from Paul Moorehouse's book Bridget Riley: A Very Very Person: The Early Years, the first biography of Bridget Riley that addresses the tantalizing question: How did success arrive so suddenly for the young artist? Riley's first UK retrospective opened this summer at the National Galleries of Scotland, and will travel to the Hayward Gallery in London where it will open October 23.

 

Creating a site that the viewer occupies visually is a central concern of Bridget Riley’s black-and-white paintings. Whether presented as a field of activity or in the form of a self-contained image, her early paintings draw the gaze of the viewer, whose ensuing perceptual involvement is immersive. As a result, the observer inhabits the virtual space of the painting. The same imperative remains true of her subsequent work and, while using other strategies, it continues to the present. In 1963, however, she considered whether it was possible to engage the spectator even more completely. She saw that the paintings exist at a remove, separated by an intervening space; however ‘devouring’ their relationship with the viewer, the work of art is something external. The question was how to dissolve that separation, so that the viewer is actually in the painting.

That ambition was prompted partly by seeing Monet’s Water Lilies at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris during her earlier visit with [Maurice] De Sausmarez. Monet’s success in producing a field of color that envelops the viewer had made an indelible impression. In particular, she was struck by the intimate relationship that these large works establish with anyone standing in proximity. With their entire field of vision filled, the spectator ceases to be an onlooker and, instead, becomes an occupant of the world created by the artist. On that earlier occasion in Paris she had absorbed the thrilling insight occasioned by Monet’s paintings, and it was one that she now wished to emulate for her second solo exhibition at Gallery One using her own visual language of black and white. Her aim was to extend the perceptual situation proposed in her paintings by making a physical structure that the viewer could physically enter and occupy. In realizing that idea, Bridget turned to her companion Peter Sedgley for assistance. Taking time off from the building project at Les Bassacs, he returned to London and together they devised the three-dimensional construction that would be titled Continuum (1963).

Bridget Riley, Continuum (1963). Image courtesy of Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin, via ChicagoReader.com

The entire structure was approximately 28 feet long, six feet and ten inches high and twelve feet in diameter. Resembling a large shell, it comprised seven wooden panels that interlocked in a continuous coiled arrangement. While the exterior walls retained a purely functional appearance, the interior was painted in white emulsion, creating a surface for large chevron shapes in black. The viewer entered a sanctum-like inner space through a vertical aperture between the ends of the encircling wall. Standing in that internal area, the occupant was completely surrounded by the interplay of black-and-white shapes; with all external viewpoints removed, the spectacle was both enveloping and highly disorientating. In common with the paintings hanging elsewhere in the exhibition, Continuum destabilised the viewer’s field of vision. The dynamic action of expanding and contracting chevron shapes produced hallucinatory movements, undulations in space and unpredictable, dazzling discharges of light. But in a further development, while standing inside Continuum the viewer could turn around and shift their gaze within an enclosed space. That expanded view powerfully augmented the sensation of being ‘devoured’. In effect, virtual space and real space had overlapped and merged. The result was an all-encompassing intensification, generating an experience at once perceptual and uncompromisingly physical.

Continuum was a powerful demonstration that Bridget’s agenda far exceeded the boundaries of purely optical art. That lesson was not lost on Norbert Lynton, who reviewed the exhibition for Art International. In his earlier response to her first show Lynton had made a connection with Victor Vasarely’s research into visual dynamics. Now he concentrated on the expressive capacity of her work in terms of bodily experience. He began with a ringing endorsement: "Quite the most brilliant (in more than one sense of the word) exhibition in London… is that at Gallery One: Bridget Riley’s second one-man show." Having identified the complementary directions advanced by the field and image paintings, he then continued:

Riley has done the seemingly impossible by tightening her work up still further, excluding the one or two playful pictures that had crept into her first show. And yet these paintings are beguiling. One has to write of them as though they were nothing but scientific diagrams exploiting and illuminating the mechanics of human vision and setting up a kind of domestic conflict between expectations and visual data, but they are more than merely fascinating. They are physically stimulating and compelling. More than the eye and the conceptual vision department of the mind are involved: each work is a bodily experience that draws the spectator into a world where vertical and horizontal and gravitational pull are no longer the controlling facts – a world more like that experienced in swimming or perhaps sky diving.

Lynton’s review gave the exhibition a valuable international endorsement, but it was significant in another way. Extending the views expressed in his first review, it now situated her alongside but also apart from Op Art, the artistic context into which, from this time onwards, she would steadily be drawn by other critics. Op Art, as it would become known from 1964 onwards, had its roots in developments that had taken place in France in the mid-1950s. Spearheaded by Vasarely, there was a widening interest in paintings and sculpture that cultivated effects of movement, light and other sensory phenomena. Exhibitions held in Paris and Zagreb in 1955 and 1961 conferred an expanding international visibility on that movement. In his response to her first show, Lynton had not been alone in making links between Bridget and Continental artists concerned with optical research. Writing in Arts Review in May 1962, Michael Shepherd had made a similar connection. He identified her "as being in the vanguard of a branch of research in contemporary art which is a world-wide concern at the moment: the integration of optical, scientific effects into the language of painting." By contrast, Lynton’s response to the second exhibition cited Bridget’s involvement with "bodily experience," implying an essential difference between her work and the optical art then being produced elsewhere. But that view was by no means widely held. The success of the Gallery One exhibition meant that from this point on her work was regularly included in group shows, and that exposure ensured that she enjoyed a rapidly growing profile. At the same time, however, her work would increasingly be connected with wider tendencies even though such links were tangential or superficial. 

RELATED ARTICLE: You Won't Believe Your Eyes: The Dizzying History Of Op Art

The extent to which Bridget was aware of the developments in optical art is debatable. By her own later account, she did not encounter Vasarely’s work until 1962 or 1963, when she was invited to the home of a collector who had seen her work at Gallery One. That, of course, does not discount a degree of second-hand awareness from ideas and reports that circulated at the time. But evidence of any first-hand influence by the Hungarian, or other artists connected with Le Mouvement as it was known, upon the direction that she took in 1961 is unsubstantiated. The sources of her work – and its motives – lay elsewhere. Eschewing visual research, Bridget’s devotion to developing visual structures in an intuitive and improvised way is a defining characteristic of her approach. By contrast, the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel insisted on rational, systematic, research-based methods, which prioritised optical effects over the expression of emotion. The artists and artistic movements that she has cited as models – notably Seurat and Futurism – belong to a much earlier time frame. The closest contemporary influence that she acknowledged was the phenomenon known as Happenings that came into vogue from the late 1950s. The involvement of spectators in a live event-based situation caught her attention and sympathy and has clear parallels with her own aims. In both ways of working, the principle of dynamic engagement is conspicuous. That said, the theatrical aspect of Happenings stood at a remove to Bridget’s single-minded commitment to painting.

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Following the exhibition at Gallery One, Bridget would not have another solo exhibition until 1965, when she showed at the Richard Feigen Gallery in New York. In the meantime, however, the group exhibitions in which she participated, and the attention that these attracted, sustained an ever-increasing reputation. That process had commenced with Ten Years, which was held at Gallery One immediately prior to her second solo show. Selected by Victor Musgrave, the exhibition brought together artists whose work had been presented at the gallery in the preceding ten years. The timing was fortuitous, the inclusion of Ascending and Descending (Hero) providing a foretaste of her imminent solo exhibition. More significantly, Ten Years marked the first time that her work was seen in an international context. The artists from abroad with whom she showed included Yves Klein, Henri Michaux, Rufino Tamayo, and Enrico Baj.

That outing was followed by inclusion in the John Moores Liverpool Exhibition to which she submitted Blaze 3 (1963). The jury included two artists of a very different persuasion – Peter Lanyon and William Coldstream – as well as the curator and art historian Ronald Alley representing the Tate Gallery. She won a non-purchase prize of £100, but there was more to come. The year 1963 concluded with a piece in The Times, which announced that "Miss Bridget Riley, whose painting Fall was recently bought by the Tate Gallery, has been awarded this year’s Critics Prize." The acquisition of one of her most distinctive early paintings speaks of support from Alley, who was acutely aware of the need to build the Tate’s holdings of contemporary art. For Bridget, representation in the national collection was an important staging post in a career that was now clearly gathering momentum.

The following year provided confirmation, if any was needed, that Bridget Riley had joined the ranks of the first division of leading British artists. She was included in no fewer than eight group shows, several of which took place overseas. In Six Young Painters, an Arts Council exhibition that toured to various venues in the United Kingdom, Bridget’s work was placed alongside that of Peter Blake, William Crozier, David Hockney, Dorothy Mead and Euan Uglow. As the accompanying catalogue noted, these were artists "whose names are becoming established in this country – and indeed abroad." The selection drew together exponents of markedly different tendencies. Pop Art, expressive figuration, observation from life and – courtesy of Bridget – the latest abstract painting were all represented. Her growing international prominence was signalled by inclusion in Nouvelle Tendance, a large group exhibition held at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. Its title refers to the group of Continental artists, formed in Paris, whose involvement with kinetic and Op Art formed common ground. Bridget was the only British representative in a line-up of 52 artists dominated by men. In November she was included in The New Generation: 1964 held at the Whitechapel Gallery, London. She was one of a group of 12 artists described by its visionary Director Bryan Robertson as "conspicuously brilliant and gifted." That David Thompson, one of the judges associated with the exhibition, could justifiably describe the wider context as "a boom-period for modern art" evokes a sense of the distinction that Bridget had so quickly achieved.

Three exhibitions that cemented Bridget’s international profile now came in swift succession. The first of these, Painting and Sculpture of a Decade 1954–1964, was organised by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and held at the Tate Gallery, London, from April to June 1964. As its title suggests, the exhibition surveyed the artistic developments that had occurred in the preceding ten years through a stellar line-up of over 50 leading figures from around the world. For Bridget’s work to be shown alongside that of such senior luminaries as Picasso, Joan Miró and Barnett Newman was an extraordinary advance given that her work had been unknown only two years previously. This remarkable year of achievement concluded with her inclusion in Contemporary British Painting and Sculpture, held at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, from October to November, and Motion and Movement, an exhibition of kinetic painting and sculpture mounted at the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, Ohio, from November to December. With these exhibitions, her reputation now had a foothold in America. They were important steps in a heady ascent that would lead to celebrity status on both sides of the Atlantic.

Bridget Riley’s achievement of international prominence came with her inclusion in The Responsive Eye, which opened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in January 1965. Curated by William C. Seitz, this ambitious exhibition comprised 123 works by artists from 15 countries. Seitz’s original intention, as stated in the accompanying catalogue, was to chart the development of paintings with a "primarily visual emphasis", from Impressionism to the present. However, as he conceded, the recent proliferation of art with an ‘optical’ basis made a historical survey impossible, and he chose instead to concentrate on contemporary art that he characterised as having a ‘perceptual’ character. That conceptual framework was a loose one. It emphasised the subjective nature of seeing, which, as Seitz rightly pointed out, was bound up with thinking, feeling and remembering. This was something of a catch-all, and as he acknowledged, even with a narrower chronological focus, the scope of the resulting survey was diverse. It embraced various tendencies, ranging from kinetic art to hard-edge abstraction, with artists as radically different in character as Kenneth Noland and Agnes Martin. The selection is notable not least for including Peter Sedgley, who was by now also developing an independent artistic profile.

Despite the porous nature of Seitz’s selection, one unifying characteristic was that the works were all abstract, his argument being that any form of representation deflects from "the purely perceptual effect of lines, areas and colors." That rationale conferred a seeming unity on what in reality was a heterogeneous body of work by artists practising in many different ways. In that respect, the exhibition would draw its critical detractors. Even so, the show was a huge popular success and, despite its expansive outlook, it would be viewed as a manifesto for a new phenomenon: Op Art. The visibility of the new style, which attracted a wide audience through an ever-attentive American media, was helped by Seitz himself, who contributed an article to Vogue magazine. While that kind of publicity galvanised public interest, it also had the effect of alienating sections of the art establishment, particularly certain critics, curators and academics who recoiled from the taint of populism surrounding the exhibition.

Aside from the media storm that it provoked, The Responsive Eye was controversial in other, more enduring ways. Its abiding significance is to have firmly established Op Art as an important artistic manifestation. At the same time, the movement—such as it was—would suffer from the perception of fashion-driven success. When the exhibition opened, Bridget found herself very much the focus of these different kinds of attention. Two of her paintings were included in the show, namely Current and Hesitate (both 1964). Of huge consequence to her ensuing reputation was the organisers’ decision to reproduce Current, which MoMA had recently acquired, on the cover of the catalogue. Seitz also singled out her work in his catalogue essay, which set out various themes within the overarching concept of perceptual abstraction. He noted that in Current, "The eyes seem to be bombarded with pure energy," Arguably less helpful was Seitz’s bracketing of her work with that of Vasarely, both artists being cited as exponents of black-and-white optical painting.

The recognition thus accorded to Bridget was a powerful endorsement, but by identifying her so conspicuously with the stylistic aspects of Op Art it was also misleading.

This, however, did not detract from her elevation to stardom. In addition to the enormous popular interest generated by the media, she was lionised by other artists in the exhibition, notably Josef Albers and Ad Reinhardt. Significantly, that wide acclaim translated into commercial success. All 16 paintings in Bridget’s solo exhibition at the Richard Feigen Gallery, which opened a week later, sold in advance. Those collectors who were disappointed when the availability of works was exhausted immediately registered on a waiting list. Critically and financially, her position seemed secure. Almost immediately, though, there was a backlash.

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To continue reading, pick up a copy of Bridget Riley: A Very Very Person.

 Paul Moorhouse, Bridget Riley: A Very Very Person: The Early Years (Ridinghouse, 2019) ISBN: 9781909932500 Price: $24.95/£20

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