Optical movement

Imagine standing in front of a geometric black and white painting with a repeating pattern, a zigzag for example, and wondering why it attracted your attention. At first you do not understand, but as your eyes examine the paintings surface you will start to see movement in there. You do not believe your eyes since it is only paint on a canvas, or is it a trick? No, this is what meeting an early Bridget Riley painting is like. The Gemeentemuseum in The Hague currently houses an exhibition where you can experience this for yourself.

Bridget Riley (1931) was educated as a classical figurative artist, but inspired by the American abstract expressionists, the Italian Futurists and the pointillism of Georges Seurat (1859-1891) among others. It wasn’t until she associated with artists who were part of a movement which was later called Op Art (or Optical Art), that she reached her signature style and international acknowledgement.

The intention of the Op Art artists was to make paintings which deceive visual perception. You are probably familiar with the image of a white grid against a black background, where in the corner of your eye you see dots appearing on the crossing of the white lines, but when you focus on them they disappear, that is the principle of Op Art. For many people sight is the most important of the senses and they start to question it when confronted with this phenomenon.

The exhibition shows Riley’s curve paintings, spanning a period of more than five decades. The earlier works are in black and white but over time the artist gradually added color. In all of the works shape, pattern and repetition are very important to get the idea of movement. Riley has an almost mathematical precision when it comes to proportions and placement of each color.

In Current (1964) for example we see a repetition of vertically curved lines in black and white, the smaller and bigger curves and the changing thickness of the lines causes an optical movement in opposing directions.

Bridget Riley, Current, 1964. © Bridget Riley 2016.

And then in Streak 2 (1979) the lines are horizontal and in color, the sense of motion here is different, more like the flowing of water.

Bridget Riley, Streak 2, 1979. © Bridget Riley 2016.

In Reve (1999) the thin lines gave way to curved shapes and the feel is more of a group of slowly dancing people.

Bridget Riley, Reve, 1999. © Bridget Riley 2016.

Two Reds with Violet (2008) shows straight lines which seem to provide a background to the curved shapes, with which they also mingle. The movement here is even more slow, more like a soft breathing, created by the contrast of warm and cold colors.

Bridget Riley, Two Reds with Violet, 2008, Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag. Bought with the support of the friends of the Paleiswinkel. © Bridget Riley 2016.

Rajasthan (2012) seems to pick up the pace again, there are now slanted lines which add a new layer to the painting and the motion accordingly. It conveys the sense of walking in a busy market square, where your eyes are attracted by one thing after another.

Bridget Riley, Rajasthan (installation view), 2012, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart – loan of the Freunde der Staatsgalerie. © Bridget Riley 2016.

Bridget Riley the Curve Paintings. 1961-2014.
June 25th until October 23rd of 2016.

Gemeentemuseum Den Haag
Stadhouderslaan 43
2517 HV Den Haag

Photographs: courtesy of the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag.

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