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“It’s nauseating,” remarked one viewer at Dia, eyeing the queasy undulations of a candy-colored stripe painting with barely suppressed glee. “Didn’t Vasarely do stuff like that first?” queried another ambivalent admirer, equally unable to admit to a sudden infatuation with the old eye-popping art. As far as the New York art scene was concerned, British artist Bridget Riley long ago vanished into oblivion, along with Richard Anuszkiewicz, Julian Stanczak, and a hundred or so other practitioners of Op Art, some of whom hopped aboard the optical express after word got out that MOMA was seeking work for its 1965 exhibition “The Responsive Eye.” Thirty-five years later, Riley alone is back in a big way. Her perfectly timed comeback at Dia, titled “Reconnaissance,” has only 18 canvases, most from the ’60s and ’70s, and one wall work. But it’s a knockout. And the queasy delight inspired by her work no longer has anything to do with a careening bandwagon.
Op Art was one of those moments in 20th-century art history (like the equally short-lived Abstract Illusionism) deserving of a Rodney Dangerfield prize. It appeared out of nowhere, wedged itself between Pop and Minimalism and Color Field, and—after the proverbial 15 minutes—derailed so quickly into fabric patterns and druggy psychedelia that no one quite knew if it had been a movement, a fad, or an aberration. In its wake, the notion of perceptual art was left dangling in thin air, together with afterimage mirages and cheap color-wheel tricks. The New York art world has cringed at the mention of pure opticality ever since.
Yet here is Roberta Smith in the Times calling Bridget Riley’s show at Dia “a sight for sore eyes.” And there is Dave Hickey, in a catalog essay for Riley’s other current show (graph-paper drawings and recent works at PaceWildenstein, 32 East 57th Street, through October 21), enthusing about the artist’s “clean, fresh, virtually authorless modernism” and “vigorous destabilizing controls.” Neither Dia nor Pace dares to breathe the word Op in their press material. No wonder. “The Responsive Eye” exhibition was nearly as controversial in its day as the Brooklyn Museum’s “Sensation” has been in ours. “An optometrist’s nightmare” and worse, wrote one critic. Another advised taking Dramamine. It was reported with special horror that Riley hired people to execute her work. Max Kozloff, in The Nation, mentioned the “radical gimmickry” and “archaic syntax” of Op, and also its “programmatic matrix of sensations.” Hinting at a near-Pavlovian tyranny of sensation, both physical and psychic, Kozloff stated: “To reduce the viewer to a helpless scoreboard of sensations, to deprive him of his will, is a fundamental breach of propriety, committed by many artists through an appalling scientistic innocence.”
That may have something to do with why Riley’s work suddenly resonates now. The quasi-totalitarian implications of an art of calculated manipulation and maniacal visual control strike a different chord today. In hindsight one might wonder if—aeons before The Matrix was filmed, decades before the Internet existed, and a few short years before the pivotal antiauthoritarian uprisings of 1968—this no-brainer optical art was about enthralling the eye, or enslaving it.
But who would have imagined a 21st-century apotheosis? Who would have suspected that in the year 2000 the work of the high priestess of Op would look not only classic but classy and impeccable? Who would have guessed that Riley, prime practitioner of tricky geometrics, would suddenly get such respect? She never painted straightforward he-man stripes or squares like the male artists. Her tilted, twisted, roiling ones (in high-key color combinations like pink, yellow, and blue) are more unpredictable, more confounding.
Her quavery moirés and canted ellipses have the allure of Venetian glass as well as a mathematical savvy that veers into mysticism. Her sliding scales of warm and cool grays violate the formerly inviolable picture plane with panache. On the surface of a painting cannily called Cataract 3, Riley’s perfectly calibrated curves surf the crests and hollows of parabolic space. When you recover your visual equilibrium, you notice that the ribboning bands on this canvas also fade imperceptibly from red and aqua to tones of gray, like a video monitor on the blink. On a less spectacular canvas, diagonal green stripes march neatly across the surface, subliminally outlined in alternating auras of violet and orange.
The improbable color gradations and unfocusable space warps aren’t mere eye candy. They’re imbued with mind-boggling perceptual subtleties that now speak more to the new physics of photon accelerators, superstring theory, and fuzzy logic than to any old-fashioned optics or psychedelia. And because Riley hails from London, which has made an impressive bid for recognition as the newest “center” of the thoroughly decentered global scene, her work can also be seen as a historical counterweight, balancing the unsubtle physicality of the sensation-oriented trendy YBAs.
But the ultimate question isn’t Why? Or Why now? It’s: What’s this work doing at Dia, which has always had its own rigorously ascetic Minimalistic aesthetic? (For that matter, what’s Jorge Pardo’s radically decorative lobby installation doing at Dia?) It can’t be a belated response to sporadic sightings of Neo-Op tendencies over the past couple of decades. It’s unlikely that it has anything to do with the more existential and sculptural optical illusions of James Turrell or Anish Kapoor. However, given the Dia venue, it’s possible to note that Riley’s work adds another dimension to this institution’s beloved vision of Minimalism.
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 ’66—Right 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.
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.