We all know Bridget Riley, the groovy boho artist in a black polo neck with a cool 'do, maker of wiggly squiggly paintings that play tricks on your eyes, LSD for the corneas. You can imagine her works hanging in Austin Power's pad behind the lava lamp and next to a Hipgnosis poster.
Reductive though that assessment is it's essentially true. Riley's art reached a peak in the swinging sixties, the hippy era, and since then, despite minor tweaks and developments, she's deviated little from the path chosen. In that respect if we're looking for musical comparisons from the time we'd do better to consider the minimalist compositions of Terry Riley, La Monte Young, or Pauline Oliveros than the open ended free form, and, let's face it, rather boring likes of The Grateful Dead. Riley don't jam.
Measure for Measure 7 (2016)
The David Zwirner gallery in Mayfair is currently hosting Recent Paintings 2014-2017 and if it's not the retrospective we're long overdue it is, at least, a chance to check in with Riley, see where her head's at at the moment. Dots and triangles it would appear. At first glance these works don't have the Op Art pull of her sixties work, they don't fuck with your eyes quite so much.
But spend a little time with them and it becomes apparent that they do, in fact, work in exactly the same way. As I pondered the various Measure for Measure paintings (and tried to work out how she decides what colour to paint each 'disc' and if that even matters) something odd started to happen. The dots/discs started jumping about. I could focus on one easily enough but attempt any more and the whole work started to vibrate at me. We know our peripheral vision is necessarily obscure but spending just a few minutes in a room with some Bridget Riley works certainly helps us to appreciate exactly what this means.
Quiver 3 (2014)
Rustle 6 (2015)
Even the works consisting of irregularly shaped triangles worked in this way. The dedication to repetition, repetition with minimal yet profound variation, that has been the hallmark of her nearly sixty year long career can be found, in microcosm, in each and every work she makes. It won't take you long to look at them (something Op Art shares with Pop Art) if you're in rush but if you're not (and you shouldn't be) you can quite easily sit in front of some of these for as long as you like, slip off the chains of time's cruel tyranny at least for a bit. In that respect her art owes more to Mark Rothko than it does to the more obvious influence that is Jackson Pollock.
Black to White Discs (1962/1965)
Cosmos 2 (2017)
Those are the more obvious forebears but Riley cites Old Masters and Impressionism as major influences also. The latter, not least in the Pointillist techniques of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, is easy enough to see. It's no great stretch to see how following one's artistic instincts could lead from constructing a figurative painting from dots to removing the extraneous detail to celebrate the dots themselves.
It's true, in a sense, that all painting is abstract in that a brushstroke is always a brushstroke and never the thing it seeks to represent, Rene Magritte saw that ninety years ago with his Treachery of Images, but in surrendering wholly to abstraction some, lesser, artists got a little lazy. It's not an accusation that could be levelled at the likes of Bridget Riley.
Not despite her adherence to a method but because of it. Much like Monet painting those water lilies, those haystacks, over and over again (see also Ruscha's gas stations, Giacometti's spindly men, or Frank Auerbach's constant revisits to the tower blocks of Mornington Crescent - Auerbach was, in fact, a fellow student of Riley's, along with Peter Blake, at the Royal College of Art) Riley hones her art until it becomes not a rut that she's stuck in but a groove - and what could be more groovy than a groove? Cue Soul Bossa Nova and get me the keys of the E-Type.
Measure for Measure 3 (2016)
Untitled 2 (Measure for Measure) (2018)