Bridget Riley, Arcadia 3, 2009/2011, graphite and acrylic on wall, 5' 7 3/4“ x 12' 3”.

Bridget Riley, Arcadia 3, 2009/2011, graphite and acrylic on wall, 5' 7 3/4“ x 12' 3”.

Bridget Riley

Galerie Max Hetzler | Oudenarder Strasse

Bridget Riley, Arcadia 3, 2009/2011, graphite and acrylic on wall, 5' 7 3/4“ x 12' 3”.

If you want to know what interests inform Bridget Riley’s work, you could study her modernist predecessors: Mondrian, perhaps, or Seurat. But it would be at least as illuminating to go on a nature walk with your eyes wide open. Implicit in Riley’s paintings is an intimate knowledge of the workings of nature and how things are perceived by the human eye. No matter that her work is abstract and never depicts landscapes. Just as nature reinvents itself minute to minute under the influence of light, rain, and wind, Bridget Riley’s paintings keep changing under your gaze.

Riley’s exhibition was announced as a mini-retrospective, though mini is relative: The twenty-one works comfortably filled the space of the former factory that houses Galerie Max Hetzler. They date from the period 1983–2010; this is the later Riley, no longer wedded to the Op art with which she made her name in the 1960s. The heart of the exhibition was a mural more than fifty-five feet long, Composition with Circles 4, 2004/2011, consisting of thin black circles that meander over a white wall in a calm but irregular rhythm, the only black-and-white work in the exhibition.

As for the works in color, there were three types. There were paintings composed entirely of vertical stripes, no wider than a thumb, such as Delos, 1983. The great density and variety of color makes them stark in form and harsh in appearance. In fact, it hurts to look at them if you get too close. Then there were paintings whose vertical orientation is disrupted by diagonal bars, such as Between, 1989, in which motion emerges like the play of sunlight on water’s undulating surface. The impression is one of constant change, yet the painting remains an integrated whole. Finally, there were works in which the verticals and diagonals are complemented by round and gently curving shapes. All these were made after 1998. Here the forms are larger and the number of colors smaller, which brings greater calm to the composition. The wall painting Arcadia 3, 2009/2011, carries Matissean resonances in its bright, restricted palette and its use of cutouts. Riley has been wielding scissors for some time now, and the placement of the cutouts precedes the actual painting, which is done by assistants: To achieve the greatest possible detachment, Riley chose not to wield the brush herself. Strikingly, Arcadia 3 also echoes Matisse’s aesthetic purpose: It soothes the spirit, something that cannot be said of many of Riley’s other works.

The exhibition as a whole achieved a fine balance between hard, optically overbearing works and lighter, more graceful pieces in a contemplative mood. All were made with great precision and concentration, and that in itself qualifies as a theme, something the viewer took away from the show. Another theme was the line of development visible over this almost thirty-year period during which Riley has become far more than the queen of Op art. Speaking of Matisse, she would not be the first artist to discover a new dimension at an advanced age, using ever more limited means to come ever closer to the heart of the matter.

Jurriaan Benschop

Translated from Dutch by David McKay.