- The Eye's Mind: Bridget Riley - Collected Writings 1965-2009Our PickBy Bridget Riley
- Bridget RileyBy Paul Moorhouse
Important Art by Bridget Riley
Riley started work on Kiss after her relationship with Maurice de Sausmarez ended. While with de Sausmarez, she enthusiastically studied Futurist art in Italy and painted the Italian countryside. She made careful studies of paintings by the Neo-Impressionist Georges Seurat and the abstractionist Piet Mondrian. While working in this manner, Riley wanted to go further than these modern masters in investigating optical experience. In her words she wanted "to dismember, to dissect, the visual experience." With Kiss, Riley found her own forms to explore the vibrating and oscillating space she was so drawn to in these modern painters.
The black and white composition enacts a visual drama on the canvas. The two black forms almost touch, and the white space diminishes toward the center between the two sensuous black forms and then crescendos at the right edge. She said, "I decided on two black shapes, one with a curve, the other with a straight line, opposites, nearly touching, but not touching, the white spaces between them making almost a flash of light." She felt it was a success, and although she had told herself it would be her last painting, the painting pointed to further explorations.
The work is abstract, drawing on the open and shallow pictorial space established by Mondrian and the Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock. She activated that space with minimal means: sharply delineated black and white forms often asymmetrically arranged. With these means she embarked on a series of numerous black and white paintings that came to define the Op Art of the early 1960s.
Riley cites Movement in Squares as the first major step, after Kiss, towards her breakthrough into abstraction. During a difficult time in her art making, and in an attempt to make a new start, she began with the simple square. She said "Everyone knows what a square looks like and how to make one in geometric terms. It is a monumental, highly conceptualized form: stable and symmetrical, equal angles, equal size. I drew the first few squares. No discoveries there. Was there anything to be found in a square? But as I drew, things began to change." She created the design for Movement in Squares in one sitting without stopping, and then painted each alternate square black to provide contrast. When she stepped back to look, she was "surprised and elated" by what she saw.
Riley establishes the square as the basic unit and then modulates it across the canvas, maintaining its height but changing its width. The square's width diminishes toward the center of the canvas until it becomes a sliver, and then increases again toward the right edge. It's as if two planes are coming together and bending into each other, not unlike the pages of a bound book lying open. The progression of shapes intensifies, climaxes, and then de-escalates, provoking the viewer to confront their perceptual senses as well as their ideas of "stabilities and instabilities, certainties and uncertainties." Riley's exploration of how we see came to be rooted in her own experience and experimentation, her own intuition, and not on theories of optics.
Current graced the cover of the catalog for the seminal 1965 MoMA exhibition of Op Art, "The Responsive Eye," that launched Riley's notoriety in the United States. Working in black and white, Riley repeats a wavy black line at regular intervals across the canvas. The curve and the proximity of the lines make the painting appear to vibrate and move, as the viewer attempts to process the forms.
This composition confounds the usual foreground/background arrangement of pictorial space by not privileging one over the other. It is difficult to ascertain if the black is on top of the white or the white on top of the black, and instead the relation between the two colors never settles into an easy harmony. Riley has always been a little skeptical of the label "Op Art" because of its "gimmicky" sound. While her work produces optical illusions, of movement for instance, Riley insists that her paintings are not mechanical or depersonalized. She stresses the subjectivity of her own decision-making process in creating the forms.
In addition to the vibratory space created by the contrasting black and white forms, the viewer will also notice another phenomenon: colors not painted on the canvas begin to appear. One critic described them as "strangely iridescent disembodied colors, like St. Elmo's fires" that occur around points of tension in the composition. Where a light color meets a dark one, the brain creates color out of the juxtaposed lightness and darkness. Through stimulating our visual and mental processes, Riley fulfills her aim for "the space between the picture plane and the spectator to be active."