The Art of Illusion (Yale Center for British Art) by Daily Nutmeg

We think we’re in control of how we see things, but the paintings of Bridget Riley, including the many now on view at the Yale Center for British Art, remind us our eyes possess a mind of their own.


The suggested journey through Bridget Riley: Perceptual Abstraction, which opened yesterday along with the Center, begins on the third floor in the manner of Riley’s decades-long career in optical (or op) art: with works in black and white. In the show’s dramatic first painting, slender black lines—169 of them—slither in northwesterly unison across a huge white canvas. My brain wanted to see the lines as perfectly uniform, but my eyes, being rumbled and squeezed by some unknown force, wouldn’t agree. I drew close to find the source of the tension, discovering that the painting’s positive and negative spaces gradually narrow or widen just a little as they meander, shifting the ratio of black to white and explaining why, from a distance, some sections of black seem to drift into gray. Standing back to appreciate this illusion revealed an effect that’s harder to explain: a humming crosscurrent of candy cane stripes, emerging along the valleys of the painting’s parallel curves.

Feeling properly primed, I rounded a corner and came to Static 4 (1966), whose tiny black dots form a grid like a pegboard on a square white background. This painting seemed simple, even boring, before I sensed a funny swelling at its core. Wondering if the dots were set more widely as they approached the middle, I moved in to better eyeball the distances, noticing instead that the dots are really ovals, and, actually, they’re pointing in different directions, and, hey, most or maybe all of them are angled in sequence, rotated by consistent intervals along the rows and columns of the grid. Thinking I was onto Riley’s secret game, I figured the orientational logic of these tiny black eggs must be producing the bulge; but no, each row and column seemed to have its own quirks that couldn’t possibly build into a symmetrical optical effect. So I returned to the first hypothesis, which undistracted inspection seemed to confirm, then stepped back to survey the puzzle I thought I’d solved. But now, keyed into the directions of the ovals, my eyes began to dart uncontrollably around the canvas, the ovals now buzzing bees.

It turns out Riley—who at 90 years old selected the works for this display (and also painted something new for the show)—is a merciful god of op: Sometimes she gives your eyes a break. Broken Circle (1963), also on the third floor, is more an academic exercise than an optical one, inviting you to repair its titular circle and thus devise Riley’s clever method of destruction. Around the bend, a connected trio—Climax (1963), Suspension (1964) and Shuttle 2 (1964)—get right back to toying with your sense of reality, conducting a lenticular electricity from their custom-shaped canvases filled with flat, hard facets of black and white. The works shimmer and float like holograms or ghosts, none more than Climax, which boasts the tightest angles and alleys.

Down on the second floor, Riley’s paintings break through into color, a move she began making in 1968. The layout here is open, airy, long, wide—all the better for gaining perspective on a number of very large paintings. Streak 3(1980) and Cataract 3 (1967)—the latter being larger yet more subtle, with a blush of red materializing in a river of purple-green-blue-gray—ripple and breathe as you train your gaze but shift your body, an effect you can supercharge by moving in parallel with the canvases. To get the most out of the thin vertical lines in works such as Late Morning 1(1967) and Late Morning (1967-68), back away or walk straight on, and watch the colors meld or, in the opposite direction, crystallize. Some of the neighboring works are as remarkable for their gorgeous array of colors as for their optical effects, such as New Day (1988) and Reflection 2 (1994).

Unlike so many of the art world’s late or posthumous success stories, Riley and her works have been recognized in their time. The watershed moment happened in 1965, in her 30s, when Current, one of the works now on view in this exhibition, appeared not just in the seminal MoMA op art survey The Responsive Eye but also on the cover of the catalog. That year—the same year she started using grays among her blacks and whites—an ArtNews review of a separate solo exhibition casually called her “Bridget Riley, leading Op-tress.”

Though she was, in the movement’s heyday, one of several leading op artists (with Victor Vasarely, Jesús Rafael Soto, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Richard Anuszkiewicz), Riley seems to have emerged as op art’s sole leading historical figure—judging, at least, by what collectors are willing to pay to acquire her work. Unlike the paintings of her closest peers, whose most desirable examples achieve hammer prices ranging from a decent condo to a very nice house, Riley’s monumental works routinely go for millions.

And thanks to the Yale Center for British Art, you can experience and contemplate their million-dollar mysteries for free, at leisure, through July 24, right here in New Haven.


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