Bridget Riley, Gallery One, London with Uneasy Centre (above) and Off (below), 1963. Photographer unknown, courtesy Bridget Riley studio
The first exhibition
to focus solely on Bridget Riley’s seminal black-and-white works from the early 1960s is presented across two West End galleries until mid-July: Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert
in St James’s and Karsten Schubert
in Soho’s Golden Square. It is a happy coincidence that 2012 marks 50 years since a show at London’s legendary Gallery One heralded this early brand of Op Art, patterns of black lines and shapes that recessed, bulged and vibrated in the viewer’s eyes, or caused other dizzying perceptual illusions such as after-images.
The show features eleven paintings, as well as some fascinating studies on paper and a large selection of prints. These pieces have come together in various arrangements in major retrospective exhibitions, notably in 2003 at Tate Britain, but then they were seen in the context of Riley’s pieces from 1967 onwards in which the London-born artist embraced the possibilities of colour. Compared to the subtler chromatic sensations the later works evoke, the black and white pieces have been often characterised as perceptually severe, their optical effects aggressive to the viewer. The current exhibition therefore offers the opportunity to reappraise the black-and-whites
as a distinct body of work, isolated from the context of the
artist’s later achievements.
Seeing the pieces on mass in the exhibition, across the two different spaces, I was struck less by the severity than the diversity of the optical effects elicited, a variety that is a testament to the intensity of Riley's artistic experimentation during the period. Tremor (1962) creates an impression of shifting depths, as if the board’s surface was rising up and down at irregular intervals. White Discs 2 (1964) is all about after-image, the accumulation of black circles at different sizes somehow producing in the eye the appearance of white spots on black. The concentric circles of Blaze 4 (1963), filled with angled lines, on first look seem to move and have depth, like a revolving tunnel; as one spends more time with the painting, however, red and blue colours begin to emanate.
Indeed, there seems to be a constant play on our expectations – most works promise one optical effect and then hasten another. Crest (1964), on loan from the British Council, is a pattern of thin curved lines, but the undulations – in my eyes – appear to flatten and pixelate on a prolonged view. Horizontal Vibration (1961), a wide oblong of horizontal lines, paradoxically stresses the vertical axis, as the lines seem to move slightly up and down.
Paintings, prints and drawings are split across both galleries. The large airy spaces of Karsten Schubert are particularly sympathetic to the paintings, as the viewer has the space to move back and forth from a painting at a distance – pieces like Disturbance (1964) rely on this, their effects varying due to the viewer’s proximity. But Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert shows most of the studies, which allows the viewer a backstage pass, the chance to witness Riley’s working processes. Together the displays complement each other and form a memorable spotlight on an artist for whom perception is the medium.
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine