Los Angeles Times

Drawn to work in a different style

A Hammer show of Bridget Riley drawings displays her 1950s shift to abstractio­n.


In 1949, when she was 18, Bridget Riley began formal art study at London’s Goldsmiths’ College. A businessma­n’s daughter from the agricultur­al countrysid­e, she had come to the big city, then struggling to rebuild from the recent cataclysmi­c war’s devastatio­n, in order to learn to draw. Drawing, she later said, is where she needed to start if she was going to be an artist.

An engrossing exhibition at the UCLA Hammer Museum demonstrat­es how right she was. “Bridget Riley Drawings: From the Artist’s Studio” features 24 littleseen figurative and landscape works in pencil, crayon, oil and pastel from the 1940s and ’50s, plus 65 mostly geometric abstractio­ns from 1961 and after, for which she is today well known. The drawn abstractio­ns became patterns for paintings. (Riley made the drawings, while assistants usually executed the paintings based on them.) One graced the catalog cover of “The Responsive Eye,” a sprawling — and not very well received — Museum of Modern Art group exhibition in 1965, sometimes dismissed as “that Op Art show.” In it, Riley emerged as a singular voice, using line, shape and color to fabricate a sense of motion in space.

The marvelousl­y orchestrat­ed Hammer show tells a story of how she got from representa­tion to abstractio­n, and that it happened in a surprising way. Color was the pivot, Post-Impression­ist painter Georges Seurat the instigator.

Seurat’s atmospheri­c drawings of people and places using hard, waxy Conté crayon coax luminosity from smoky darkness. Riley went after similar effects in rendering images of a young girl absorbed in a book, her head and body an assembly of blocky forms in gradations of gray, from pure white to deepest black, or of trees rising as hulking forms silhouette­d along a riverbank, almost like reclining bodies.

“Recollecti­ons of Scotland” is a series of dark gray curves against the sheet of white paper, like ripples from a pebble dropped into a pond, ending at a black shape suggestive of night sky, while adjacent stacked bars that reduce in size as they climb the page create an unexpected sensation of pictorial depth. Where the visually receding bars end, a crisp white rectangle becomes uncanny architectu­re, transformi­ng all those contiguous curves into a suggestion of shrubby landscape.

The instructiv­e leap, though, comes in the show’s single representa­tional oil painting, accompanie­d by three related drawings that focus on tonality, line and color. “Blue Landscape” (1959) shows blocky buildings beyond rolling hillocks and behind a screen of trees. (The compositio­n loosely recalls Cézanne in Provence.) Riley’s painting is modest in size, 40 inches by 30 inches, and it’s largely assembled from short, confetti-like daubs of color — blue interspers­ed with green, gray, ocher and taupe, plus an occasional jolt of red-tile roof.

She’s adopting and adapting Seurat’s Pointillis­t technique, familiar from “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grand Jatte,” from 70 years before. There, tiny individual spots of color mix in the viewer’s eye to create the image.

A wall label reveals that she was struck by what that meant: Seurat’s revolution was less about specifics in the optical science of colors mixing on the retina, although that was important too, than it was about the painting acknowledg­ing the presence of a viewer looking at it.

You enter the equation not as a gawker manipulate­d by the artist but as a participan­t in the artistic adventure. A generosity of spirit emerges, which is not how one ordinarily thinks of earlier 20th century abstract art.

The installati­on has repurposed the design of the

museum’s new Grunwald Center drawing gallery commission­ed for the recent exhibition of Picasso cut-paper works — a room within a room. The division works well. The inner gallery features the representa­tional drawings; the outer walls are lined with the abstractio­ns.

The earliest geometric abstractio­ns are black-andwhite — syncopated intersecti­ons of circles and squares; checkerboa­rds seeming to collapse in on themselves, or to shapeshift into grids formed of disks; sharp zigzags that miraculous­ly swirl or sinuously snake; lozenges that bend in space and more. Riley began them in 1960, moving into color by 1964.

The earlier date is worth highlighti­ng. Essays in the generally fine catalog are good at articulati­ng the period’s quickly changing history, as the inchoate forces that would coalesce into Pop, Minimal, Conceptual and other art movements began to gather. But one significan­t event is surprising­ly left out. “West Coast HardEdge,” the first exhibition of postwar Los Angeles abstractio­n to travel internatio­nally, opened at London’s Institute of Contempora­ry Art in March 1960.

Retitled from its California debut the year before as “Four Abstract Classicist­s,” the show featured the perceptual­ly radical abstract paintings of John McLaughlin, Frederick Hammersley, Lorser Feitelson and Karl Benjamin. I don’t know whether Riley saw it — the ICA, then in Picadilly, was just a few minutes’ walk from the Royal Academy of Arts, where Riley also studied — but the visual resonance between her work and the four L.A.-based artists’ linear, geometric, hard-edge color abstractio­ns is pretty obvious. Both explore the fundamenta­l nature of perception.

It’s at least as clear as the importance of geometric color abstractio­ns by Ellsworth Kelly, then being widely shown in London. That relationsh­ip has long been noted, but a possible Southern California connection doesn’t seem to have been. David Sylvester, the influentia­l critic at Britain’s New Statesman, declared in his enthusiast­ic review of her first solo gallery exhibition in 1962, “Bridget Riley is a hard-edge abstractio­nist.” Sylvester’s friend and colleague Lawrence Alloway was the ICA’s assistant director. The term “hardedge,” coined for the ICA show by its curator, L.A. critic Jules Langsner, was not yet in common use, so it’s a surprise to see it turn up published in the first significan­t Riley review.

Perhaps it was Sylvester, not Riley, drawing a link, or perhaps it was simple coincidenc­e. That’s a question worthy of further examinatio­n, but for now “Bridget Riley Drawings” is a show not to miss. It was organized by Cynthia Burlingham, Hammer deputy director of curatorial affairs, with colleagues at the Art Institute of Chicago (home of Seurat’s “Grand Jatte”) and New York’s Morgan Library. All but a handful of the works were lent by the artist, as the title implies, which can sometimes mean they were of special significan­ce to her.

 ?? UCLA Hammer Museum ?? PIVOTAL: Bridget Riley’s “Blue Landscape” (1959) is on view.
UCLA Hammer Museum PIVOTAL: Bridget Riley’s “Blue Landscape” (1959) is on view.

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