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Seeing the Top of the Op Artists

Once discredited, Bridget Riley's 1960s and '70s work is gaining renewed appreciation for sophistication and skill. The 'Reconnaissance' show is a prime example.

November 25, 2000|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

NEW YORK — Until recently, the paintings of British artist Bridget Riley have rested uneasily in the history books. Now 69, she is widely regarded as the best of the so-called Op artists who flared into public consciousness around 1965, with abstract images that created surprising optical illusions by playing with color, surface, line and the physics of human perception. But Op seemed to disappear almost as rapidly as it arrived--and Riley with it. In the United States, she was thought of (when thought of at all) as the avatar of a quickly discredited movement.

All that is changing now. Riley's reputation has always been more secure in Britain, and at the opening last spring in London of the new and widely acclaimed Tate Gallery of Modern Art, a room was devoted to Riley's paintings. And for next summer's installment of Site Santa Fe, the international exhibition in New Mexico, Riley will be the senior member among five artists already chosen to set the exhibition's thematic tone. Currently, a lovely show of 18 paintings and one wall drawing, most dating from the 1960s and 1970s, is enjoying a lengthy run at the Dia Center for the Arts here (it remains on view through June 17).

Aptly titled "Bridget Riley: Reconnaissance," the show reveals a painter of immense sophistication and visual skill. It leaves one to wonder: How did rare and hard-won attributes like those ever fall out of critical favor?

The pristine former industrial spaces of Dia's galleries in Chelsea feature white scrims over the windows to diffuse natural light, which mixes with overhead floodlights to illuminate gray concrete floors, white walls and white ceilings. Chic and postindustrial, these rooms are ideal for Riley's crisp abstract paintings, whose calculated surfaces are uninflected by strokes of the brush. Hard-edged and geometric, the imagery is so precisely calibrated as to almost seem to have been made by a machine.

In fact, Riley's paintings evolved in the 1960s partly in reaction to the messy, emotive gestures of Abstract Expressionist art, which had dominated the previous decade. Paint loaded on a brush and thickly slathered onto canvas had come to signify, like some primitive form of automatic writing from deep inside the subconscious mind, the turbulent interior life of the artist. By contrast, Riley made flat, sleek surfaces that did not betray evidence of the artist's hand.

They are patterned all over, from edge to edge, in a compositional convention indebted to Pollock. And they typically employ geometric forms with distinctly organic undertones, such as circles, ellipses and wavy lines. Nature and the cosmos are suggested, but Riley's work banished any possibility that the picture could be seen as representing the artist's expressive self.

Turbulence certainly remained, though, in optically dramatic ways. As its title might suggest, "Static II" (1966) is one among many works that create a charged, atmospheric field of visual disturbance. It seems almost electric.

"Static II" is a smooth white canvas 7 1/2 feet square, punctuated with 625 small black oval dots. The dots are arranged on a grid--25 ovals across, 25 down. The absence of painterly inflection is such that you can't tell whether the black dots were painted atop the white field or whether the white field is a kind of screen, which allows a solid black under-painting to show through.

The stark contrast between the small black dots and the surrounding pool of bright white creates instant eye fatigue. Each dot seems to be surrounded by an intense corona of light, like the sun at the moment of a full eclipse. Somehow, this corona appears whiter than the painting's pure white field. It glows from within, as if electrically illuminated.

Similarly, 1964's "White Disks" is composed of black spots painted on a white ground. The white disks described by the title don't exist on the canvas but in your eye, as an after-image floating in front of the painting. Riley complicates the composition by lining up sequential strings of dots--small, medium, large, medium, small--on the diagonal, then dropping one or more dots from the sequence. Black and white erupts into an unexpectedly effervescent visual fizz.

"Disturbance" (1964) transforms solid dots into open circles, with the interior inscribed by an oval. (Think of the shape of a stylized letter O, round on the outer edge and oval on the inner edge.) The open circles are lined up on a regular horizontal and vertical grid, but the internal ovals are tilted on the diagonal. Scan the painting, and normal visual circuits jam. Your eye reads the conflicting shapes as slipping and sliding across the picture plane, despite the stability implied by a grid.

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