“Bridget Riley: Paintings from the 1960s and 70s”

“It is a painting’s first merit to be a feast for the eyes,” Delacroix wrote in 1863. Over a century later, his diary entry has become a favorite motto for Bridget Riley. The word “feast” may beg definition, but at the formal level the Serpentine Gallery’s review of thirty-three Rileys from the ’60s and ’70s could certainly be called visual haute cuisine. The recently renovated, pavilion-like gallery, with its symmetrical plan and pleasant balance of natural and artificial light, serves as an ideal setting for her pictures. The first space one enters contains monochromatic work from the early ’60s, as do the flanking, artificially lit areas, and the next two rooms leading off from these. Here, though, warm and cool grays creep in, as do moments of color. In the final pair of side rooms, color takes over, and the grand, domed central space is given over to big vertical and horizontal color stripe paintings: Late Morning, 1967–68, and Rise 1, 1968–70, for example. The installation’s shift from monochrome to color is subtly mediated by three particularly striking works, which demarcate the transition: to one side, Deny 2, 1967 (a grid of rotating gray ovals on a darker gray background); on the other side, Cataract 3, 1967 (undulating red and blue lines that shade into gray along the canvas’s upper and lower edges); in the central space, the spiky black and white Breathe, 1966.

Riley has confirmed that this selection and arrangement is essentially her own, so it seems fair to address it in toto as a work of the artist’s, along with the individual paintings. In her catalogue essay, Lisa G. Corrin suggests that the time is ripe to “return to Riley’s work with the critical tools . . . of the late twentieth century, not only in order to examine her paintings, but also the discourses and constructions surrounding them.” These are sound words, but ones that serve to contradict the actual show’s whiter-than-white-cube ethos—its emphasis on finished product over process, and its ruthless exclusion of contextualizing material. Might it be this (and not the once-hyped, supposedly “eye-twisting,” optical effects of her paintings) that sends one skating from one beautiful, glacial, finished product to the next, struggling to establish a subjective grip? In the mid-’60s, Rosalind Krauss noted that Riley’s preparatory drawings “show [her] analytical gifts to their best advantage” (Artforum, June 1966). A rummage in the archives suggests that this is still true. Riley might have included these—or her slightly earlier, formative, Seurat-influenced paintings. She might have flagged her mid-’60s experiment in theater design or her large-scale 1963 environmental piece, Continuum, but she dismisses the question of including such contextual material as “stupid.” The only “process” of significance is that which is transparently revealed by the form of each work (presupposing, of course, a sufficiently “sensitive” viewer). “Context” is irrelevant to the understanding or appreciation of form: For Riley, the myth of the white cube’s neutrality is worthy of defense. She specifically values paintings that “are not symbolic or transcendental, but perceptually accessible and plastic,” such that they build “a structure of relationships that place us, as spectators, in an analogous ‘equilibrium’” (“Riley on Mondrian,” 1997). Thus, she reinstates the formal goals of Mondrian, say, or Seurat, but unceremoniously dumps out the Idealist brainchild—the sense that this equilibrium might reference some currently unattainable, less alienated, form of life—with the transcendental bathwater.

In one sense, paradoxically, Riley’s formalist project is a relativizing one; it’s about harnessing the ways that forms and colors affect their neighbors, and exploiting the unpredictability of perceptual experience, for aesthetic ends. That’s as far as it goes, though: The idea that the significance of painting’s form ultimately relies on factors outside the literal frame—that history, relations of production and consumption, social formations of subjectivity, inescapably contaminate “pure” form with ideological content—would, one imagines, earn a big raspberry from Riley. So how might one read her work against the formalist grain? It offers a perceptual experience of illusory motion and fluidity, of iridescent mirages, of phantom colors born of simultaneous contrast and optical mixture, all underpinned by rigidly delineated, insistently repeated, progressively more and more “standardized” units (fabricated by Riley’s studio assistants). Depth in front, flatness behind: a mind-boggling, anti-Idealist sublime-in-reverse. Risking accusations of crude reflectionism, it’s tempting to interpret all this as an unwitting but incisive anatomization of the phantasmagoric mechanisms of ’60s and ’70s commodity design and display. (Riley, incidentally, worked at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in the late ’50s.) That would certainly raise interesting questions about commercial design’s huge attraction to Riley’s work when it first emerged, and its ripeness for appropriation by the likes of Damien Hirst and Philip Taaffe. On the other hand, it might also suggest why, despite their refinement, poise, and skill, it’s hard to warm to these cold and lonely lovely works of art.

Rachel Withers is a frequent contributor to Artforum.