Op Art and the Old Masters

In a special exhibition at London's National Gallery, Bridget Riley explores the subtle links

WHO was it that said of Monet that he was ``just an eye - but what an eye?'' Something similar, I suppose, could be said of Bridget Riley. This British artist emerged in the 1960s with exacting, unremitting black-and-white paintings that were not at all comfortable to look at. They seemed to set up uncontrollable movements, vibrations, and even suggestions of color in the viewer's eye. One writer wrote that ``the eyes seem bombarded with pure energy.'' For a period, Riley's work was extraordinarily voguish. It seemed to epitomize more intensely than the work of any other of the large number of artists investigating visual effects for their own sake what was smartly labelled ``op art.''

Now Riley has been chosen for this year's ``The Artist's Eye'' exhibition at London's National Gallery - a series of shows that has, for a number of years, confronted modern British artists with the museum's Old Master treasures. It is a simple idea, but it works. The artist is asked to choose a small selection of National Gallery paintings that have special meaning to her or him. They don't necessarily feel compelled to justify their choice, but when they do - and Riley, in a printed conversation with Robert Kudielka and in a video, very thoroughly does - the results are particularly revealing.

RILEY has always been the very antithesis of a quick-effect, window-dressing kind of artist. Nor does she consider her images, just because they are clearcut and lacking in obviously personal gestures, to be the popular, common property of curtain or dress designers. She is fully a painter and a highly serious one.

She works with assistants, slowly and deliberately. She has said that her paintings have to do with ``pure sight.'' They don't tell stories, unless the effect (it can be 'eclat or whisper) that colors exert in relation to each other can be called some kind of ``narrative.'' Certainly, for all their immediacy of impact, her paintings are concerned with motion, with directions. They ask the eye to move, to travel. Indeed, they insist that it does; so, to that extent, they contain a time element. Like music - or like any ``composed'' work of art - they exploit interval, pause, interruption, continuum.

For a long time now, Riley has been exploring color. Her works transform the flat surface of the painting into ripples, waves, corrugations - into spaces that approach and recede. She works, however decisive the final images, probably with as much intuition as system. Like any really discovering artist, her art appears to be a tense balance between the planned and the unexpected.

Riley's obvious stylistic forebears are Vasarely, and earlier Seurat and Monet. Originally her intention was to choose works by Seurat, Monet, Constable, and others for ``The Artist's Eye'' show. But the artists she actually chose seem more surprising at first sight. There are seven of them. Three - Titian, Veronese, and Rubens - have long been described as ``colorists,'' but El Greco the visionary, Poussin the classicist, and C'ezanne, who tried to bring the elusiveness of Impressionism what he saw as the solidity of the Old Masters without losing its light and color - might not be the painters one would unthinkingly expect her to go for.

``But,'' she notes in the printed conversation - with Kudielka, ``my own preoccupations have shifted a little, and I have become more and more involved in the problems of plasticity - in that intangible quality which gives a painting its unique coherence.'' The artists of her choice ``have each used color in this particular way,'' she argues, ``as an element of construction.''

DOWN the hall from these Old Master paintings is her own single work on view, ``Gaillarde.'' They seem light years apart, not just a century or two. And yet the insights Riley brings to these older paintings not only make a strong case for the crucially abstract concerns embedded in works which seem, above all, concerned with human dramas and mythologies, but also make it clear that what she is doing with painting - her extension of what painting can do and be - for all its modernism, contains an appreciation of antecedents, of past achievements.

The way she analyzes Titian's early painting ``Bacchus and Ariadne,'' for instance, is by no means some academic's schematization of composition. But it does tellingly explore the vigorous subtleties, the unity and contradictions of the painting's striking color relationships. Riley sees these as transforming the myth, the story, into ``a pictorial event controlled by plastic considerations.'' Titian's ``archaic imagery'' becomes ``an intangible web of organized sensations within the painting. The content of this web is as removed from the arcane quality of the myth as it is superior to mere decoration.'' She could equally be talking about her own myth-free paintings.

With the El Greco - not obviously a ``colorist'' painting - Riley is no less stimulating in her fresh view. ``Quite apart from the actual `story,''' she says, ``color re-defines the figuration in such a way that axes of visual tension are created which form a rhythmic framework for the figure of Christ.''

It is the ``rhythm'' in El Greco's color structure that Riley points to - and again, from her observations, one learns about her own art. ``There is a free-floating rhythm in the painting which seems to hang there, self-contained, almost dancing - and quite flat.''

El Greco ... Riley: Perhaps the more things change, in art, the more they are surprisingly similar. Or at any rate have more in common than one might think.

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