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

Optical excitation in art is nothing new. In one way or another it has been going on in painting and in the graphic arts ever since the first artist decided he could be more effective with three colors than with four, and certainly long before the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists made such a big thing out of putting color sensation out front in their work.

But the notion that a picture could exist as art on the basis of nothing but its ability to stimulate and excite the eye through various forms of optical illusions didn't seriously occur to anyone until well after World War II.

Once the idea had made its appearance, however, it quickly caught on. Before long any number of artists were pushing color relationships to the limits of human vision, were forcing reds to coexist with other reds within fields of still more reds, were squeezing every last drop of optical excitement possible out of color by crowding pure blue against pure green against pure blue. Or were jarring the eye by confronting it with a succession of the most intense reds against the most intense blues.

Striving for the most razzle-dazzle high- frequency color contrasts became the order of the day. The more eye-shattering the effect, the more successful the work was considered to be.

Immediately labeled "Optical Art," or Op Art for short, this loosely knit movement rapidly became the talk of the art world. Gallery after gallery began to show this kind of art, and it wasn't long before the museums followed suit with major exhibitions, including a highly publicized one at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1965. In the deepest sense, however, Op art never really established itself as a major art movement, and gradually slid off into the pages of art history before it was four years old.

But not before it had given impetus to the art and careers of a small handful of painters whose work rested on a firmer foundation than that provided by the rather tricky premises of most Op Art.

Of these, Bridget Riley was, and is, one of the most talented and effective, with a body of work whose identity remains quite separate from that of the rest of the Op Art movement.

She is a consummate master of black- and-white and of visual movement. Her paintings operate as optical jazz or as visual dance. We may stand stock still before them, but our visual sensibilities cannot. They respond and are caught up in the dynamic wave-like rhythms and zigzag patterns existing within these images.

riley knows how to unlock the dramas and tensions inheret within black and white, and manages to achieve maximum optical effectiveness by making them equally provocative and important.

Her black lines lie on top of the picture surface and press downward. The white lines erupt upward from the surface as pure light. As each new black line is added, it is subtly modified before taking its place in dramatic juxtaposition to the other lines, where it adds its little bit toward creating the picture's overall effect of flickering and fluctuating pattern.

Since Riley's black-and-white images exist to transmit pure creative energy from picture to viewer as simply and directly as possible, she first eliminates everything from her pictorial vocabulary that is not absolutely essential, leaving her, in this case, with pure black against pure white. With this she creates an art based on the precise, total, and repeated clash of opposites -- an art that uses the tensions and disturbances resulting from this clash to transmit high-intensity energy as immediately and joltingly as though it were pure electricity.

Viewing an exhibition of these black-and- white paintings is quite an event, because our senses and sensibilities are seduced and assaulted from all directions by one variation after another of these powerful optical effects and illusions. In those cases where the image is large and the effect is particularly dramatic, visual confusion and even vertigo can sometimes take place.

So what, one may ask, is the point of all this? Why should this optical trickery be considered art?

The answer to that lies in the remarkable staying power and visual handsomeness of these works, and in their ability continually and repeatedly to serve as visual energizers. A print such as "Fragment 3/11" radiates energy and vitality at least as much as other, more traditional images. And her larger paintings offer ravishing areas of visual enchantment to anyone interested in an art stripped down to its barest essentials and operating at the point where message and means become one and the same thing.

Bridget Riley is the type of artist who manages so to fuse the substance of her art with its formal means that the two become one, and we are treated to works in which what she says lies entirely in how she says it.

Lest that sound like empty rhetoric, let me remind the reader that that quality lies at the very core of 20th-century modernism -- and, if one really thinks about it, at the very core of art in general.

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