'Optical jazz': Art of contrasts that tickles the eye

Fifteen years ago the English artist Bridget Riley exhibited for the first time a series of prints she called "Fragments." Here is one of them. These silk-screen prints were technically innovative: they were on acrylic plastic. And both the black and the white were printed onto this surface, not the black alone. They also bear an unusual relationship to the main body of her work, which consisted (and still consists) of large-scale paintings, very precisely made. The "Fragment" prints are offshoots from the preparatory stages for some of these paintings. They aren't studies so much as images, which, though in the end unsuitable for the materials or size of the paintings, were nevertheless worth preserving. They have their own identity.

In printing "Fragment 3/11" on acrylic plastic, Riley has not forgotten that a white sheet of paper is the customary surface for a print, and she enjoyed the freedom allowed by this convention: the large white margin round the image isolates it, and at the same time lets it operate as though it were only part of a configuration that continues (invisibly) in every direction. In the big, square painting which eventually emerged (called "Descending") the zigzags are brought right to the edge of the board most satisfactorily. The top and bottom edges of "Fragment 3/11" would, however, have been very awkward without the wide margin.

This is the way with Riley's art: the viewer -- apart from his subjection to a vigorous optical excitement -- is brought face to face with the way in which her images operate. He is confronted with activity rather than being -- with "what happens" and "how it works" rather than "what it is." Riley has said that in this work she was "keeping each alternative vertical straight -- the others move in a series of related curves." It is quite hard actually to see the straight verticals. (In the final painting they are much clearer.) The exertions of the black and white zigzags create a push-and-pull that disrupts a clear perception of the underlying structure of the image, at the same time liberating another, quite unexpected, element. This other element is not simply the vibrating optical response which is, sometimes irritatingly, present in most of Riley's work. It isn't just the illusionistic ambiguousness much of it contains. It is the quality that I believe lifts her work out of mere sophisticated pattern-making, or fascination for systemized effects. It might be called the naturalistic aspect of her work. The "related curves" are in reality like natural formations -- the progressive patterns found, for instance, in wave movements, in the ribs left in sand or snow by wind, in shells, or even in markings on flowers or birds. This is not to say that her pictures are in any way direct or indirect studies of such phenomena. They are too self-sufficient and too diagrammatic for that. They set up and obey their own internal laws. But the motivation of these laws is actually intuitive: is controlled by an artist's eye and judgment. Cutting through their dispassionate , relentlessly impersonal technique is this surprising gracefulness.

Her more recent work, which is often sinuous in form and, using color, is sometimes quieter, acknowledges overtly this lyrical, mellifluous element. At times it seems almost two sweet. But it was there, in spite of smart and immediate reactions, in the earlier work also. In some ways it was almost more rewarding then because it had to be perceived through, or even in spite of, the barrage of visual sensations. The gentle curves are present in "Fragments 3/11, " but they are understoodm rather than described.

The tension between the sharp angularity and the smooth curves gives energy to the first and subtlety to the second. Riley discovers free, hidden movements behind the strictness and inevitability of repetition.In her words: "I'm not demonstrating any scientific principle, may it be perceptual, arithmetical or geometrical. It doesn't interest me at all." She remains a painter -- and this differentiates her from many artists who have pursued and experimented along lines of "visual research" for its own sake. "Relationships such as constancy and change, contrast and harmony, identity and contradiction, directions, rhythm , pace, repetition, accumulating and dispersing density" -- these interest her.

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