Los Angeles

Bridget Riley

Feigen/Palmer Gallery

Since two small works of hers were shown to advantage here last fall with a group of young British painters, Miss Riley has been included in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Responsive Eye” exhibit, has had a noisy New York debut, and has suffered an avalanche of attention in the popular press. The current exhibition of thirteen austere emulsion-on-board paintings and one fun-house walk-in “environment” is a selection from the period 1962 to 1965. Though she claims small science and less math, her manner throughout seems cerebral and scientistic, all intuitional decisions masquerading as inevitable solutions to mathematical puzzles, all expressive content evaded via the cool stance of empiricist in a world of measurable sensory data. Working with a severely controlled technique and a circumscribed set of faradic optical effects, Miss Riley further limits herself to the black-grey-white zone and (at least in this show) to predominantly cabinet-size paintings. The basic elements of her art are simple enough: spare line arranged in parallel waves or herringbone weave, tiny geometric shapes—mostly triangles and circles—repeated in precise overall patterns or spread apart in equally precise relational order. These ingredients she manipulates with remarkable aplomb, skillfully exploiting subtle variations in curve, shape, value contrast, unit size, or width of line to evoke dynamic illusions. Her execution is fastidious and brittle. Her two major effects are undulatory movement and brilliant light; the former comes in both gentle waves and violent tremors, while the latter ranges from laser-like beams to lunar shimmers. The paintings, whose subject can only be called vibratory energy, might be interpreted as a series of verbal tropes describing unusual moments of intensity, vibrations or spasms isolated from the otherwise (implied) orderly flow of streaming matter.

Oddly, the total impact of all these rolling and palpitating surfaces is less visually startling than might be expected. One explanation for the dilute effect of the show is Miss Riley’s wide variation of fragile to bold-face techniques. A less honorable characteristic is an erratic and conceptually unclear handling of the picture plane, which is alternately treated as an open, vibrating field (Polarity), a setting for a single, focal image (Blaze IV), or the surface of a shaped object (Suspension). Such shifting approaches suggest the extent to which her pictorial aims are still far less developed than her ability to create specific optical effects.

Nancy Marmer