‘I wanted something which operated on more levels, was capable of more development, had a more “grey’d” quality, like the indeterminate nature of reality’ (B. Riley, quoted in ‘Into Colour: In Conversation with Robert Kudielka’, in R. Kudielka (ed.), The Eye’s Mind: Bridget Riley, Collected Writings, 1965-1999, London 1999, p. 90).
With its tightly-packed surface of delicate curvilinear undulations, Untitled (Diagonal Curve) is a mesmerizing composition that marks a critical turning point in Bridget Riley’s ground-breaking Op Art practice. Executed in 1966, it represents the culmination of her investigations into the relationship between black and white, and is one of the final works she completed before her first foray into colour the following year. From a distance, the work’s intricate surface dissolves into a surging mass of grey, pulsating across the picture plane in thick, rhythmic arcs that appear to oscillate in three dimensions. Up close, however, it resolves into a meticulous series of thread-like strands that traverse the canvas in perfect, carefully-constructed unison. Created during a period of outstanding professional triumph, during which she took her place on a new international stage, Untitled (Diagonal Curve) belongs to one of Riley’s most celebrated and virtuosic series of works. Included in the artist’s 1971 solo show at the Hayward Gallery in London, it is one of only a handful of black and white paintings featuring her distinctive densely-banded linear curves, and takes its place alongside examples held in the collections of Tate, London, the British Council, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. ‘I wanted something which operated on more levels, was capable of more development, had a more “grey’d” quality, like the indeterminate nature of reality’, Riley explained (B. Riley, quoted in ‘Into Colour: In Conversation with Robert Kudielka’, in R. Kudielka (ed.), The Eye’s Mind: Bridget Riley, Collected Writings, 1965-1999, London 1999, p. 90). In the present work, Riley’s deft command of tonal gradation shatters the binary opposition of black and white, creating an image that exists in a perpetual state of flux.
The mid-1960s saw a complete change of fortune in Riley’s early career, marked by a dramatic surge of creative and commercial success. In 1965, William Seitz curated the seminal exhibition The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, drawing together artists whose work challenged the nature of vision and perception. Riley’s inclusion in this revolutionary show – and the illustration of her work Current on the front cover – brought her to the attention of a new global audience. Concurrent with this exhibition was Riley’s first solo show in America at the Richard Feigen Gallery which, by the time its doors opened to the public, had completely sold out. Buoyed by her newfound success in both Europe and America, Riley took her place at the forefront of the so-called Op Art movement, whose proponents harnessed optical illusion to animate static geometric forms and incite psychological responses. In her quest for dynamic equilibrium, it was Riley’s introduction of greyscale effect – the mid-point between black and white – that had the greatest impact on the development of her oeuvre. By varying tonal quality, Riley not only brought the picture plane into the third dimension, but also created what she called ‘virtual movement’: an illusive sense of motion that acts directly upon the retina, agitating it to a point at which the image begins to vibrate. In the present work, executed in the signature square format that dominated her oeuvre until 1967, Riley creates a tempo of fast and slow rhythms, generating a dizzying pattern of tension and release. The effect upon the viewer is not only optical, but sensory, emotive and even – at its most extreme – visceral. By playing with standard models of human perception, Riley invites us to recalibrate every aspect of our physical being.
Riley’s practice drew inspiration from a wide variety of art historical sources, most notably the work of the Italian Futurists. She had first encountered them at the 1960 Venice Biennale, and found that their rhythmic visual language, as well as their desire to register and provoke physical sensation, resonated deeply with her own aesthetic aims. The work of Giacomo Balla in particular, with its distinctive sequential pulse, had a profound impact on the evolution of Riley’s search for ‘virtual movement’. Four years earlier, Riley had also been inspired by the Tate Modern’s exhibition Modern Art in the United States, where she had admired the work of Jackson Pollock and his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries. Whilst Pollock’s chance-orientated, gestural language was in many ways at odds with the calculative precision of Riley’s canvases, she was fascinated by his dispersion of focal points, and his rejection of traditional perspectival laws in favour of an all-over, multi-sensory perceptual field. In Untitled (Diagonal Curve), both of these influences come together to create an image that is at once ordered and chaotic, rigorously structured and profoundly disorientating.