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An Artist Who Makes Colors Felt

A touring exhibition offers insights into the complex work of Bridget Riley

By Christopher AndreaeStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 29, 1992


BRIDGET RILEY'S sharply incisive paintings - an impressive selection from the last 10 years' work by this British artist is shown in a current touring exhibition - have always compelled hard looking. Having arrested the attention, they engage you in an effort to analyze their components, to try to understand how they work.

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Like looking at a clock with its mechanism showing, you may forget for a while that the message is different from the workings. But then - since Ms. Riley's art is concentrated, free of irrelevance, and without symbol or subject matter - you let the whole image she presents act on your vision in its own intense and surprising way.

Subsequently (as with all powerfully original art) the afterimage of a Riley painting keeps recurring in your everyday experience like an echo. The apparent abstraction of her paintings, and their isolation from anything but their own inner rhythms, relationships, and effects, turns out to be noticeable on every side.

The glistening of shadow and light on a wet, tiled roof; the repetitiveness of the tiles themselves; the iridescence of an oil patch on a road; the impossible dazzle of the glaring sun; the rear lights of a line of moving cars; the crisscross of the blades in a clump of grass; tree trunks in a dense wood dappled with sunlight.... She herself once said that her "visual life" had its basis in vivid childhood experiences, one of which was swimming through the reflections "dipping and flashing on the sea sur face." She said, "It was as though one was swimming through a diamond."

Riley was given a major retrospective in 1978-80, which toured in the United States and Australia, ending up in Tokyo. That show displayed work from the beginning of her career in 1959 to that point. Now more than 30 years of consistent exploration of her chosen kind of painting has produced an even more extended and various body of work, and in some ways a full retrospective might be thought due once again. The catalog, put together by Robert Kudielka - the most prolific expositor of the Riley aesthetic

- includes discussion and reproduction of works from every stage of her career, because to understand the recent work fully, the development needs to be shown.

Riley plows her own furrow largely without regard to the changing vagaries of curatorial taste. As the recent paintings demonstrate, her single-mindedness is to do with continual experiment in an effort to extend the capacity of her painting. It is not to do with sticking doggedly to some repeated formula from which she can't escape; very far from it.

On the other hand, her progress through various stages - an optically vibrant use of black and white, for instance, then investigation of new possibilities of tone, then a subtle introduction of surprisingly gentle color followed by more potent, even strident color - is not programmatic. It is apparent that however precise and rigorously organized her paintings are, and however free from romantic analogy or subjective mystique, good old-fashioned intuition plays a large part in the determination of what she does next and how she does it. Order doesn't, in the event, obliterate lyricism.