Bridget Riley's subtle and entrancing Static 2 belongs to the early series of groundbreaking black and white paintings produced between 1961-66 in which Riley began her sustained research into visual phenomena. Few other artists have so thoroughly engaged in an analysis of the sensation of vision, which Riley has pursued by exploring the parameters of abstract art, its forms and language. Riley's soft geometries are systematic but not predetermined, they eschew optical systems based on scientific theory and are discovered by the eye through patient research and inquiry. By designing images that destabilise perceptual experience she draws the viewer into a visual dialogue with the painting. 'I wanted the space between the picture plane and the spectator to be active,' she explained of her early paintings, and 'It was in that space, paradoxically, the painting 'took place'' (B. Riley, 'The Experience of Painting', in ed. R. Kudielka The Eye's Mind: Bridget Riley. Collected Writings 1965-1999, 1999, London, p. 122).
In order to achieve this 'active space' and to enhance the feeling of seeing, as one gets to feel the sense of hearing when one listens to music, Riley relies on the manipulation of geometric constants to create the illusion of vibratory movement. The apparently symmetrical grid of Static 2 is cunningly subverted by gradually oscillating ellipses that turn in different directions at different speeds, causing the eye to wander around the composition without direction. Each small oval rotates from a vertical placement to horizontal, with separate systems of revolution for the horizontal and vertical gridlines. The effect, though visually unsettling, is seductive rather than overwhelming, with its flashes of disturbance held in check by the regularity of its overall structure. Experiences encountered in the phenomenal world offer points of comparison for the sensations evoked by Riley's paintings and 'poetic' titles are employed as prompts, or hints, to further elicit such sensations. The title Static indicates the painting's materiality. It is an inert, two dimensional painted object, with fixed, concrete elements. But the title also refers to the hum and crackle produced by the illusion of its shifting parts, similar to 'a field of static electricity', Riley has acknowledged. 'It is visual prickles. But I don't find that a painful physical thing. It's a quality: as velvet is smooth, so this is a sparkling texture-visually' (Riley cited in R. Shiff. 'The Edge of Animation', ed. P. Moorhouse, Bridget Riley, exh. cat, London, 2003, p. 85). Riley has never intended to deliberately replicate or capture natural effects or phenomena in her artwork however, and such analogies are usually recognised after the fact. The concession made by her titles to sensations formed in the external world indicates her wider concerns, which lie outside the mere exploration of austere formal arrangements on canvas or a simple mechanistic interest in optics, but to the implications of perception itself.
Through the extensive study of the optical discoveries of Neo-Impressionist painters like Seurat and the energy and motion of the Italian Futurists, Riley had come to discover that sight works together with the mind to effect perception. Riley began to explore the way sensory perception controls our understanding of reality, and to challenge the reliability of our senses through the volatile nature of her abstract images, expanding on the perceptual theories that played a central role in post-war philosophical and artistic debate. By founding her practice on these principles, and creating paintings in which kinesis is only made manifest in the mind of the viewer, Riley effectively embraces an existential uncertainty, a condition she later aligned with the loss of an overarching belief system in modern society: 'In general, my paintings are multifocal. You can't call it unfocused space, but not being fixed to a single focus is very much of our time. It's something that seems to have come about in the last hundred years or so. Focusing isn't just an optical activity, it is also a mental one. I think this lack of a centre has something to do with the loss of certainties that Christianity had to offer. There was a time when meanings were focused and reality could be fixed; when that sort of belief disappeared, things became uncertain and open to interpretation. We can no longer hope as the Renaissance did that 'man is the measure of all things' (Riley cited in L. Cooke, Bridget Riley: Reconnaissance reproduced on http://www.diacenter.org).
The depth and intelligence that lies behind works like Static 2 rapidly brought Riley wide-reaching recognition. The year prior to its production, a number of her black and white paintings had been included in the landmark exhibition The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in which she was cast as the leading light of a new modern art movement, categorised as Op Art. The exhibition encompassed artists with vastly different practices, including Josef Albers, Elsworth Kelly, Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland among others - artists the curator William Seitz believed were creating works that 'exist less as objects than as generators of perceptual responses' (Jon Borgzinner, 'Op Art: Pictures That Attack the Eye', Time, October 23, 1964). The show launched her international career, but it also brought her a certain amount of unwanted attention. Riley quickly discovered that due to the lack of copyright laws protecting artists from appropriation in the United States at the time, her unique monochromatic compositions were adopted by popular culture. Op-style became ubiquitous, and came to symbolise the hip, avant-garde 1960s zeitgeist. Riley felt this sudden commodification violated the integrity of her art, but the giddy visceral and psychological responses stimulated by confronting the real thing could not be subsumed, and she was chosen to represent Britain in the 1968 Venice Biennale. Static 2 was a prominent feature of Riley's exhibition in Venice, and her rigorous investigations into the impacts of visual dynamics won her the International Prize for Painting, for which she was the first woman, and the first living British painter, to achieve the distinction.