Unlocking The Vault: Bridget Riley, Wadsworth Antheneum

Museums have gone crazy for traveling group blockbusters but the works in their collections can still inspire. In the coming months, our Boston Contributor, John Pyper, will explore some of the works in permanent collections in a column called: Unlocking The Vault

Bridget Riley, Shuttle II, 1964
Wadsworth Atheneum


Bridget Riley, Shuttle II, 1964. Emulsion on panel; 42 1/8 x 42 1/8 in. The Alexander A. Goldfarb Contemporary Art Acquisition Fund and the Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, 1994.5.1

There are certain exhibitions I'd love to travel through time and experience myself. 1965's The Responsive Eye (at MoMA) is one of them. I can't image what a revolutionary jolt Op art was to academic painters. Today it's impossible to see this work for what it was, in the same way that using complimentary colors for shadows seems pretty standard to us now. In 1938 Victor Vasarely painted his Zebras, and this is probably the only thing that could have prepared you for the The Responsive Eye's vigor.

By the opening of the Responsive Eye, most of the notable Op art works had been made. This exhibition was the introduction of pop art for most, and yet could also be seen as the end of Op being a viable style. Vasarely, Paul Feeley, Piero Dorazio, and Equipo 57's paintings along with Francisco Sobrino's sculptures are stand outs from the show and would be included into any survey of art that messes with your eyes. Yet the superlative artist in The Responsive Eye, the epitome of making a flat surface move, was Bridget Riley. Like most great art, her monochromatic linear paintings from 1961 to 1967 need to be seen in person to be believed.

One of the first things you upon standing in front of a Riley painting is how little painting there is. She denies the brush and the hand like Baldessari does, but doesn't make this her central conceit. Both used other people to paint their works and it shows. Riley's work refuses almost all of painting's guidelines. 1964's Shuttle II, part of the Wadsworth Atheneum's permanent collection, is a good example of her work. Just big enough to force you to lose your balance, this shaped panel is covered with a flat layer of black and white tempra paint. The nauseating motion produced by the lines are slower and don't make you feel like you're falling as much as standing in front of an unsettling, low-relief object.

Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, and Georges Serurat are the obvious artistic companions for Riley. For me, though, one of the missing pieces of information when considering her work as a painter, is that she is a printmaker. Her paintings resemble the details you find when you look at engravings through an optical loupe. Each line's smooth transitions manifest as space and shadow rather than marking the outline of an object. These lines set (like concrete) into the form being portrayed rather than grow out of judicious layering of paint. The syntax that make up these images is unlike the one found in many abstractions.

Seeing it for what it is, a group of reasonably regular and straight lines whose angle and thickness have been modulated, is very difficult. It forces a stepped look on us; an outline of some irregular stairs. The stark monochromes produces phantom colors. In essence, the vibrating lines don't optically mix but instead breaks your eye's equilibrium, pressuring them to try to decipher what is going on.

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John pyper is an independent critic and curator based in Cambridge. He is a contributor to numerous art publications including art papers, daily serving, printeresting.com.

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