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Op Art, Not Pop Art

One wall of 'Stripes and Diagonals' at the Bridget Riley exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, London

As an art consultant, I am regularly asked the same question: ‘Bridget Riley: what’s so good about her? They’re just stripes…’ And I tend towards the same boilerplate response… 'Well, it’s a little more complex than that…’ as I talk about Op Art to predictably blank faces. So, having recently visited the fantastic Bridget Riley exhibition at the Hayward Gallery – probably my favourite contemporary art space in London – I thought what better way to start the year than a blog about Op Art, and one of its most celebrated artists. Over the next few months I will be delving into some of the lesser-known artistic developments. Movements such as Spatialism, Minimalism and Dadaism will go under the spotlight: those that many art collectors and enthusiasts will have heard about, but don’t necessarily understand what makes them so vital within the canons of Modern and Contemporary art.

What is ‘Op Art’?

‘Op Art’, short for ‘optical art’, is a form of painting that uses geometric shapes, colour theory and the psychology of perception to create optical illusions. Rather than the culture-based Pop Art, Op Art is a more formal and philosophical development that explores ways of seeing through abstract painting.

The movement – and Bridget Riley herself – first gained global recognition in 1965 with the Museum of Modern Art exhibition ‘The Responsive Eye’. In fact, Riley’s ‘Current’, one of her most striking black and white paintings from 1964, was the catalogue frontispiece. Initially called ‘perceptual abstraction’, the exhibition was the first of its kind to champion the new movement that some thought amounted to little more than psychologists diagrams or graphic design projects. However, with Victor Vasarely and Joseph Albers already masters of what was to become ‘Op Art’, art historians, collectors and curators began to take note.

Riley's 'Current' on the front cover of MOMA's 'The Responsive Eye' exhibition catalogue from 1965. According to the catalogue, ‘the eye seems to be bombarded with pure energy...due to sequential alterations in position and size of lines, giving the feeling of cinematic movement’.

Where did it come from?

I always like to look at the precursors for art movements to examine why they rose to prominence. Op Art is most commonly linked to geometric abstraction, and is often thought of as the successor of Dutch de Stijl. This movement, and abstraction in general, made it possible for colour, tone, line and shape to all operate autonomously for the first time in art. However, de Stijl was based on three elements: Form – the rectangle; Colour – primary hues; Composition – asymmetrical balance. Op Art, however, has a much broader vocabulary. Diagonals, circles, complex curves and uniform patterns of dots and lines all hold equal weight. Colour is entirely without limitation, with many artists, especially at the start of the movement, choosing the contrast of black and white to experiment. It is less the colours themselves than their interaction with each other that is key. In terms of composition, uniformity with slight deviations to trick the eye seem to be the order of the day.

‘The Responsive Eye’ exhibition catalogue from 1965 calls ‘perceptual abstraction’ a ‘development from Impressionism’. This is particularly apparent when looking at Pointillism, something that Riley studied in some detail. Georges Seurat embraced the concept of ‘optical mixture’, using tiny brushstrokes of varying colours that seem to merge into one. Riley cites Seurat with teaching her the importance of contrast, and the interrelationship of colour and tone.

Even further back, during the Renaissance, the Old Masters used Trompe l’oeil to ‘deceive the eye’. This technique, said to have originated in Ancient Greece, was used to trick the viewer into thinking the painted object was actually real. There is no doubt that this was in part the precursor to Op Art.

Where to see Bridget Riley Works

Numerous Riley paintings and screenprints adorn the booths of art fairs across the globe. If you’ve ever been to any of the more premium fairs – Frieze, Frieze Masters, Masterpiece, TEFAF, Art Basel – or indeed are popping into London Art Fair this week, you will no doubt come across some of her works. However, I believe to truly understand Op Art, and Bridget Riley in particular, you must stand in front of a collection of original paintings.

The Hayward Gallery brings together paintings, drawings and studies spanning Riley’s whole career, from 1947 to present day. Laid out thematically, rather than chronologically, it allows the viewer to understand the different tools Riley uses to create feelings of movement, unease, confusion, energy and dynamism. From her early black and white paintings – a theme that she returned to regularly in order to ‘focus the perceptual potential of her work’ – through her series of stripes and diagonals, curves and to her more recent developments (where she revisits discs with some gusto), it is a titillating journey through an incredible career.

Riley's studies, including notes to her assistants on precise measurements, angles and tones

For me, the most fascinating part of the whole journey are her studies. Like many artists before her – Da Vinci, Rothko, Koons, Hirst et al. – Riley has a studio with assistants to undertake her final paintings. This allows her to better concentrate on the analysis and synthesis of the artworks. After numerous experiments, each painting is meticulously planned: the precise distances and angles between forms measured; the exact tones calculated. I’ve heard it argued many times that the hand of the artist is key, and a painting done by an apprentice or assistant just isn’t the same. However, with Op Art, one of the main theories is that the eye responds best when only the essentials are present. This means no hand of the artist; no brushstrokes or textures to distort the pure colour, line and area; no clues to actual objects to distract the brain. Simplicity at its finest. This is why all Riley’s pieces are harsh lines, almost graphical, with a limited, but usually contrasting, colour palette.

So if there is one exhibition you go to before the end of January, make it Bridget Riley at the Hayward Gallery. By taking basic shapes, warping, squeezing and elongating them, and playing with colour and form, Riley manages to completely change our spatial perception, and create a tour de force show that cannot be missed. Oh, and if you’re doing ‘dry Jan’ and missing that buzz from the booze, this is sure to mess with your visual perception just like that elusive fifth glass of wine!

‘Bridget Riley’ is at The Hayward Gallery until 26 January 2020. Opening times: 11am – 7pm every day except Tuesdays. Late night opening on Thursdays until 9pm.

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