An Artist Who Makes Colors Felt

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

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.

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.

Here is an artist fascinated by the elusiveness and the illusory character of physical sight, who attempts with strict discipline to pin down, to fix, the stimulus and experience of sight; and the more she tries to organize and precisely capture, the more complicated seems her quest. Her recent work begins to suggest that she is realizing that to paint the ungraspable it may be necessary for the paintings themselves to be no less ungraspable. But her language and method remain technically crisp and clear .

Her recent paintings show her at fuller stretch than ever, with a wider range of color, a denser mesh of internal relationships in the paintings, and a deeper engagement with every color-shape and its placement. Fascinating effect no longer seems an issue: Something has gone. Perhaps she has moved away from a sort of inevitable internal logic to each painting, or from a sense of mathematical progression, which in her earlier work seemed to have been imposed on the painting from the start. It was as if sh e then said: Repeat these wavy stripes in a certain way and see what happens. Or follow the development of these discs from darkest gray to lightest gray and see what happens. Or interweave these four colors regularly and what is the effect?

Now, with the work in this show, such analyzable organization is either not there at all or has become so complex that the viewer is baffled and can only look at what the artist has, color by color, shape by shape, decided to do. It is as if, without abandoning her method or language, she has shifted from "designer" to painter, though these are relative terms. She has always been a painter - a maker of paintings - and in the 1960s, when she was suddenly famous and people pirated her image-ideas to make m iniskirt and curtain fabric, they misrepresented her. She was not a designer in that sense at all. But now in the '90s she seems to be moving toward an integrated, musical kind of painting which has less to do with planning and more to do with instinct.

In his revealing catalog essays, Mr. Kudielka mentions that one of Riley's studios (in the south of France) has no window overlooking the view. This seems significant. (Though he also emphasizes Riley's love of outdoor nature.) Riley is not, even metaphorically, a painter of "the view through the window." Instead - to labor the metaphor a little - she is a painter of the curtain, the blind, which intervenes between a room's interior and the view outside. A brilliant light breaks through. But the confront ational immediacy of her paintings allows little escape to something distant or beyond. She is in her diamond, not looking through it. This is the potency of her work. It is also, psychologically, its limitation. *The exhibition, `According to Sensation: Paintings by Bridget Riley,' previously shown in Nurnberg and Bottrop, Germany, and in London, has a final showing from Jan. 16 to Feb. 20 at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, England.

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