Op art pioneer Bridget Riley's first U.S. solo exhibition in 15 years is at the Art Institute | Bleader

Op art pioneer Bridget Riley's first U.S. solo exhibition in 15 years is at the Art Institute


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Continuum by Bridget Riley
  • Courtesy Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin
  • Continuum by Bridget Riley

When op art attained a faddish popularity in the mid-1960s, its leading figure was Bridget Riley (b. 1931). The British painter's early canvases, featuring fields of dynamic black-and-white patterns, were the purest expressions of the movement's mind-bending aesthetic. And yet Riley has always been uncomfortable with the label's application to her work. "It was one that was imposed on me, one I dislike very much," she has said, "because it implies an emphasis on visual tricks rather than actual perceptual experience."

Shifting the emphasis toward individual perception, Riley's paintings seem to defy scholarly interpretation. Her central interest is visual sensation: through geometric repetition, tonal inversion, compression, and expansion, she's able to exploit what she calls "visual energy" to produce striking optical phenomena.

Some prime examples from Riley's career are on view at the Art Institute in a single-gallery presentation of four pieces, the artist's first solo exhibition at a U.S. museum in close to 15 years. Ascending and Descending Hero (1963-1965), for instance, looks like a seismometer reading of an earthquake flipped vertically, the stack of variously sized black triangles warped in just such a way as to give off a disorienting feeling of motion. Horizontal Vibration (1961) achieves a similar discernible throb via a meticulous arrangement of differently weighted black lines. A trip to Egypt in the early 1980s set Riley on the path of experimenting more with color, which can be seen in the diptych Red Modulation (Yellow and Orange), finished last year.

Op art's critics dismissed much of the work as gimmickry, and Riley's Continuum (1963) could've been held up as part of the problem: viewers walk into the spiral-shaped sculpture and are enveloped by Riley's dizzying designs. It's an attraction that would maybe be more at home in a fun house, but everyone exits pop-eyed and smiling.

"Bridget Riley" runs through 3/8 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan, 312-443-3600, artinstituteofchicago.org.

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