On ViewThe Morgan Library And Museum
Bridget Riley Drawings: From the Artist’s Studio
June 23–October 8, 2023
After iterations at both the Art Institute of Chicago and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, this exhibition opened in late June at the Morgan Library and Museum, here in New York. Bridget Riley is a singular artist. Her visuality is subtle, bold, and complex: it is a pleasure and challenge for the eye and the mind. Riley has stated, “I know that my paintings declare absolutely everything and nothing is hidden whatsoever.” This is also true of her works on paper, which have a directness and complete absence of pretension that is both striking and powerful. The paradox is that Riley’s works are full of fluctuation and movement, shifting instability, and rhythmic repetition. For example, consider Red, Green and Blue Twisted Curves, a drawing from 1979. “I want my works to be perceived as ‘made,’” Riley has said, and they certainly are, especially here in the works on paper. But this does not undermine the optical effects produced, or the effect on our temporal understanding of the various speeds of movement, recombinations of color, and torques of space experienced.
This is the first presentation in over fifty years dedicated to Riley’s works on paper, and it includes over seventy-five works from the artist’s own collection. The earliest works, from the artist’s time as a student in the 1940s, are drawings of figures and landscapes. A figurative approach continued through the 1950s with such works as the black pastel on paper Girl Reading (1958). The transitions of tone and linear compositional dynamics anticipate Riley’s later abstract works, at this time yet unforeseen. Also included here, however, are studies for the black-and-white paintings that made Riley’s reputation in the 1960s—like Current (1964), the painting in MoMA’s 1965 exhibition The Responsive Eye and the cover image of the accompanying publication—together with later studies for color compositions beginning in the later 1960s and continuing up until the 2000s.
Riley is not concerned with the limiting effects of Op art, despite being assigned by others to this tendency: retinal experience for Riley is not isolated, it doesn’t end there. Looking, a process involving all our bodily experience, is the key. Visual experience is a complex and impure process which is dependent on far more than we can account for, either rationally or consciously. The traditional association of Op art with science and technology does not extend sufficiently to include the extensive art historical foundations of Riley’s interests, which include Egyptian tomb painting, the Venetian painters’ use of color during the Renaissance, and Post-Impressionism—in particular Georges Seurat. Early examples of Riley’s interest in Seurat include Tonal Study for “Blue Landscape” and Color Study for “Blue Landscape” (both 1959), the second of which also evokes Cézanne. The oil painting that resulted from these studies is also exhibited here.
Line is fundamental for Riley. It is what she has called her “agent,” and it has always been present as a core means, not a supporting or secondary element in her paintings. The turn away from representation, of what is seen and observed, is significant, a reversal of positions. Now the viewer looks to the drawing or painting directly, rather than to what has previously been seen. Looking, contemplating the visible world, and contributing to it by way of thought made visible is Riley’s achievement—it is a very inclusive process, as the viewer looks at Riley’s works, not only her thought seems active but also our own thought as we engage with movement and color across each surface. Take Study for “White Discs” (1964): the constellation of discs of different sizes change position spatially in time, as in passages of music. Towards “Lagoon” (1997) also provides a good demonstration, as the cursive interchange of vertical structures also expands and interacts horizontally. The realities discovered by Quantum physics come to mind, as observation is what produces reality, and we encounter the paradox of a thing that exists in more than one place simultaneously or the continual flux of coming into existence and disappearing. Parmenides’s view that everything is in flux, always arriving and departing, remains a stunning intuition: change is actually the status of reality. Riley’s works require time, it is a constituent part of what they are, as essential as line and color. They are not static propositions that we get, and then move on from—forget this as an option.