More than meets the eye 

It was a curiously hot and rough morning on Lake St. Clair, with winds out of the northeast creating a good chop on the water. Five of us were fishing over on the Canadian side, in the shallows of the Belle River hump. Other than one huge ugly muskie, we weren’t catching a thing. About noon, the wind started to subside and an ominous, rhythmical wave pattern on the water became mesmerizing. Everyone else was fishing, but I lost interest. Instead, while pretending to lure that illusive walleye, I studied this foot-high wave. As far as I could see, and in every direction, the symmetrical precision of the wave was stunning.

Slowly, a light breeze shifted out of the west, picking up a slight surface nap, a counter wave that ran across the bias of the one that dominated. It was thrilling to see this allegorical demonstration of two independent energy systems, seemingly in opposition, resolving into a complex but totally coherent relief on the surface of the water.

Clearly Bridget Riley’s paintings have nothing directly to do with lake surfaces or wind — or fishing, for that matter. But what has made Riley renowned is that she translates observations of the natural world into abstract paintings. Without exception, Riley makes abstract paintings that, as she says, “obey the laws of painting ... and paintings are an invented and independent space, separate and apart from nature.” But there is no doubt that she recognizes the energizing of the mind that we all experience when we are in our natural environment.

In 1968, Riley won the 34th Venice Biennale International Prize for painting, the first woman and the first British contemporary painter to do so. But this was only her beginning. Over the past 45 years, she has earnestly developed a concise pictorial language of line and color. Today, the Cranbrook Art Museum has mounted an exceptional exhibition of Riley’s paintings, Bridget Riley: Paintings and Works on Paper, 1963-2005. This show illustrates her as the sole survivor of the Op Art movement.

Born in London in 1931, Riley gained immediate and immense notoriety in 1965 after being invited to show her paintings in the Museum of Modern Art’s famed Op Art exhibition The Responsive Eye, a seminal exploration of “perceptual abstraction” (aka paintings that mess with the mechanics of the eye). One of Riley’s paintings in particular caught the attention of curator William Seitz, and it secured her invitation. “Blaze 3” is an iconic Op Art painting. Its alternating black and white spokes compose a tier of widening and narrowing concentric rings that radiate. The effect is dizzying but deliciously stimulating for beholders, whose pupils dilate and contract in their quest to find a place to rest or focus. It was such a dramatic viewing experience that fashion designers plagarized her paintings, turning Op Art into a fashion trend that popularized the movement for the moment but eventually reduced it to a fad.

Guarding the entrance to Riley’s exhibition at Cranbrook is a separate show intended to put it in the context of art history. “The Responsive Eye” Revisited is a selection of paintings by artists who were also showcased in that seminal 1965 show. There’s an Agnes Martin painting — one that’s less optically slick but still atmospheric and ethereal — which heightens the sensitivity of the eye while at the same time providing a restful solace. There’s a piece by the grand old man of Op Art: Josef Albers. His “Homage to the Square: Festive” is a sustained color experimentation featuring concentric squares. There are also the vibratory paintings of Richard Anuskiewicz, Julian Stanczak and Victor Vasarely, whose explorations of repetitive shapes in grids and tonal contrasts set the stage for the movement.

We indeed experience optical effects in works by these artists. Paintings by Vasarely and Anuskiewicz bring about a sense of disorientation, and even vertigo. As in Riley’s work, viewers also get a sense of a buzzing chromatic vibration, and see what’s known as the moiré effect, that blurry pattern on silk fabric. But there’s a fundamental difference between Riley’s paintings and the work by her contemporaries: She reduces the world she sees into a systematic analysis of color, line and form, and her profound lyrical connection to the real world conjures a celebration of human consciousness.

Arguably the two best paintings in the Cranbrook exhibition are “Ch’I-Yun” (1974) and “Shih-Li” (1975). They are cornerstones, and their importance resides in the fact that they were part of the Dr. John and Rose M. Shuey Collection, which was given to the Cranbrook Art Museum in 2001. This gift ultimately inspired museum director Greg Wittkopp to curate this brilliantly concise retrospective exhibition for the Detroit community.

Both of these “curve” paintings rely upon the methodical and precise shortening and lengthening of lines to create a unified pictorial space. They also elicit a mildly euphoric, perhaps even erotic, undulation. “Shih-Li”’s wide rectangular format and intense palette of green, blue, raspberry and white rushes the eye along horizontally while the color combinations create wildly active patterns, like those seen when sunlight dances off the surface of a lake. “Ch’I-Yun” is composed of softer tones from the same palette but its square format affects a gentler, soothing mood. Both paintings call for metaphoric response, and “Ch’I-Yun” evokes the poetics of light and movement on an early spring day. In a similar way “Late Morning” (1967), composed of alternating stripes of white, red, green, blue and turquoise, effects a glowing yellow center as if sun has washed away all shadow.

Then there is the painting “Temple Music,” (1982) translating the troughs and waves of her earlier work into geometric lozenges that offer the first sense of illusory space. The interactivity of the diagonal and the vertical arrangements of multicolored lozenges lead to her most recent paintings.

As the final act of this exhibition “Blues and Greens” (2001) and “Out There” (2004) seem a triumphant summary and resolution to all of Riley’s work to date. With its dance of newly added, arabesque shapes, reminiscent of Matisse’s “La Dance,” Riley’s “Out There,” as the title suggests, seems to assert the pleasure of the day and the primacy of the human senses — outside of us but perceived by us — as a brilliant play of aslant light and mingling curves. Within the great tradition of secular modern art, Bridget Riley’s paintings — and they are paintings, not Op Art experiments — are, quite simply, terribly real. They affirm the engagement and the primacy of the human mind and senses with the material world, freeing us, at least for a moment, to enjoy the mysteries and the pleasures of the day.


Opening Reception

Bridget Riley: Paintings and Work on Paper, 1963-2005
6:30-8:30 p.m., Friday, Sept. 23
Show runs through Oct. 30
Bridget Riley joins guests for the reception. Live music by Donnie Wilson’s Jazz Trio.

Artist Talk

Bridget Riley in Conversation with Lynne Cooke
4 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 24
Riley travels to Cranbrook Art Museum from London for an artist talk in the deSalle Auditorium (lower level of Cranbrook Art Museum) with Lynne Cooke, curator of New York’s Dia Art Foundation, who curated Riley’s last North American museum survey in 2000. Free with museum admission.

Weekend Afternoon Film Series
Films shown every Saturday and Sunday through Oct. 30 in the deSalle Auditorium (lower level of Cranbrook Art Museum). Free with museum admission.

1:30 p.m. The Responsive Eye, 1966
This film by Brian De Palma (Carrie; Scarface; Mission to Mars), commemorates the Op Art exhibition at New York’s MoMA, which brought international recognition to the young Riley. De Palma records the artwork in the exhibition as well as the reaction on the faces of those who attended it.

2:05 p.m. Bridget Riley, 1999

Perceptual art is concerned with the effects and processes of what Bridget Riley calls “the great privilege of sight.” The film shows the inspiration she draws from nature, and from the work of such artists as Van Gogh, Seurat, Monet and the Futurists.

2:40 p.m. The Artist’s Eye: Bridget Riley’s Selection from The National Gallery, 1989
In 1989, Riley was invited to curate an exhibition from the collection of the National Gallery in London. In this film, she discusses the power of color as a structural element in picture-making, and questions central to her own work.

Art After Hours

7 p.m., Friday, Oct. 28
As part of fourth-Friday social events, tour the Bridget Riley exhibition with Cranbrook Art Museum Director Gregory Wittkopp, with live music in the galleries, featuring The Sixties Revisited by Detroit musician Cliff Erickson, 7:30-8:30 p.m.

Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to

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