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Bridget Riley / David Zwirner, London

For an artist whose work is frequently described with the vocabulary of geometry, Bridget Riley’s works, for me, at least, have always retained an intense organicism that somewhat belies their reputation for formal rigour and embrace of the realms of Platonic clarity. The exhibition, Recent Paintings 2014-2017, at David Zwirner demonstrates that Riley, now well into her ninth decade, remains as determined as ever to challenge her aesthetic and her medium. The show is expansive, covering three floors of Zwirner’s spacious gallery and it is encompassing, demanding the viewer’s attention and paying it back more generously than the most durable pyramid scheme. To describe Riley’s work, as always, is somehow to belie it, but this is one of the jobs of a critic so, for what it’s worth, the paintings on show are a mix of works on canvas and direct applications of paint to the walls of the space. The press materials emphasise the use of black and white and the form of the “disc”. All this is true enough, but the use of the term “disc” is a case in point for why describing Riley’s work doesn’t do it justice. The definition of a disc in mathematics is the following: “the region in a plane bounded by a circle”. They come in “open” and “closed” do discs. The open kind contain the circle that constitutes their boundary; the closed kind do not. Are Riley’s discs open or closed? It depends on what you mean by the term. Does the white of the canvas constitute an invisible boundary around her green, purple and brown dots, or are the boundaries open and the circles include them? By the time you’ve even started asking the question the interplay of colour and shape has already made the question irrelevant. All of this is before you even begin to think about art historical dialogues between discs, circles, dots and points. The compositional tightness and subtle modulation that made Riley’s name in her early career is robustly on show in the new works, and, particularly, in the works that are applied directly to the walls. The notion of the boundary again is transcended, or, perhaps, abolished as is the distinction between ground and figure.

Bridget Riley
Cosmos 2
Graphite and acrylic on plaster wall
65 x 220 7/8 inches
165 x 561 cm
© Bridget Riley 2017, all rights reserved. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London

The other geometric shape that dominates the exhibition is the triangle, and it is in these works that some of the most generous organicity of Riley’s works can be seen. No doubt one could lose oneself in the optical fireworks produced by pieces like “Quiver 3” or “Rustle”, evoking the early “Op Art” effects that made Riley famous, but the movement they seem to imply is as much across time as space. Looking at “Quiver 3” for example, it was hard not to be put in mind of the works of another artist whose works were showing at the same time as Riley’s in London, Paul Cezanne. Riley’s triangles evoke the transience of perception that Cezanne’s views (or visions) of Mont Sainte-Victoire also document. The journey of the eye is always the journey of the mind, and as a lesson to take from impressionism, this would be one of the best and most durable. Such specific dialogues are perhaps intended or unintended – though, to wit, Riley remains one of the most skillful interlocutors with art history of any contemporary painter – but their effect manages to be both general and specific at once: the images are exactly what they are, shapes in arrangement on a canvas or wall (or a canvas on a wall), but they cannot be reduced to this fact; they exert a gravitational force that draws the entirety of one’s consciousness in. No description or reproduction will suffice for the direct viewing of these works, and, therefore, they testify to the continued relevance of painting as a medium on grounds younger artists rarely even pretend to attempt. They are masterful works by a master, perhaps the greatest living British artist.  

Bridget Riley: Recent Paintings 2014-2017
David Zwirner
24 Grafton Street
London W1S 4EZ
Until 10 March

Images: Installation shot of Bridget Riley: Recent Paintings 2014-2017 at David Zwirner
© Bridget Riley 2017, all rights reserved. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London