Like Minimalism, Riley's art of the '60s and '70s had everything to do with the sequential transformation of modules and grids. Her work didn't come out of Albers's square the way American Op did, and it didn't depend on tricky afterimages. It didn't sit in wait to trap the unwary eye with pitiless symmetries, but expanded with capricious rigor, as if to evade the skirmishes between perceptual and conceptual art. And yet it remained absolutely literal. Like Stella's famed dictum, what you saw was pretty much what you got. "It turned me off," says an artist who was a student at the time. But even he can't stop talking now about Riley's paintings. "She was the Rubens of Op Art. Her workwasn't about the old in-and-out of Albers and the guys. Her stripes and checks undulate like a belly dancer. They have this rolling feeling. Just thinking about them makes me seasick."
Yet at heart Riley's work is as diagrammatic and logical as the modular plans of any Minimalist. The compressions that send her units reeling through space, and the warps that suck her grids into the hazy abyss of some alternative universe, are as cerebral and dematerialized as any conceptualist's wildest idea. The working titles of her graph-paper drawings (at Pace), such as Study '66Right Angle Curves, Later Revised to Make an Asymmetry, suggest more than a passing affinity with Sol LeWitt. So does the untouched-by-artist's-hands facture of her surfaces.
photo: Robin Holland
A mathematical savvy that veers into mysticism: The Dia installation, with Movement in Squares (1961) at left
Dia Center for the Arts
548 West 22nd Street
Through June 17
Riley's work is much too pristine to give rise to thoughts of hallucinatory girlish bliss, à la Pipilotti Rist. And yet, her rediscovery couldn't be more timely. Damien Hirst's pale ping-pong dots and Ugo Rondinone's cockeyed targets may or may not have had anything to do with it, though surely they didn't hurt. With or without their help, Riley's "Reconnaissance" pulls the future into its irresistible antigravitational field. It's essential viewing. Just don't try to see it twice.