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Review: The Hammer pulls off a marvelously orchestrated show of Bridget Riley’s drawings


In 1949, when she was 18, Bridget Riley began formal art studies at London’s Goldsmiths’ College. The daughter of a businessman from the rural countryside, she had come to the big city to learn to draw after the devastation of the recent disastrous war. Drawing, she later said, was where she had to start if she wanted to be an artist.

A captivating exhibit at the UCLA Hammer Museum shows just how right she was. “Bridget Riley Drawings: From the Artist’s Studio” contains 24 little-seen figurative and landscape works in pencil, crayon, oil and pastel from the 1940s and 1950s, plus 65 mostly geometric abstractions from 1961 and after, for which she is known today. The drawn abstractions became patterns for paintings. (Riley did the drawings, while assistants usually created the paintings from them.) One graced the catalog cover of “The Responsive Eye,” a sprawling—and not very well received—Museum of Modern Art group show in 1965, sometimes dismissed like “that Op Art show.” In it, Riley emerged as a unique voice, using line, shape and color to fabricate a sense of movement in space.

The beautifully orchestrated Hammer show tells a story of how she moved from representation to abstraction, and how it happened in surprising ways. Color was the linchpin, the post-impressionist painter Georges Seurat the instigator.

Bridget Riley, ‘Blue Landscape’ (1959), oil on canvas.

(© Bridget Riley / UCLA Hammer Museum)

Seurat’s atmospheric drawings of people and places with hard, waxy Conté crayons bring the brightness out of the smoky darkness. Riley aimed for similar effects when depicting images of a young girl engrossed in a book, her head and body an assembly of angular shapes in gradations of grey, from pure white to deep black, or of trees rising like colossal shapes that emerge along a river bank. 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 falling into a pond, ending in a black shape reminiscent of a night sky, while adjacent stacked bars shrink as they rise climbing the page creates an unexpected sense of pictorial depth. Where the visually receding beams end, a fresh white rectangle becomes an eerie architecture, transforming all those connected curves into a suggestion of a bushy landscape.

The instructive leap, however, comes in the show’s only representative oil painting, accompanied by three related drawings that focus on tonality, line, and color. “Blue Landscape” (1959) shows blocky buildings behind rolling hills 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 composed of short, confetti-like blobs of color — blue interspersed with green, gray, ocher, and taupe, plus an occasional jolt of a red tiled roof. She applies and applies Seurat’s pointillist technique, known from ‘A Sunday afternoon on the island of the Grand Jatte’ from 70 years earlier. There, small individual flecks of color mix in the viewer’s eye to create the image.

A label on the wall reveals she was struck by what that meant: Seurat’s revolution was less about details in the optical science of color mixing on the retina, though that was also important, than about the painting acknowledging the presence of a viewer who looked at it. It. After all, it’s your “responsive eye” that appeals to the artist.

You enter the equation, not as a gawker manipulated by the artist, but as a participant in the artistic adventure. There is a generosity of spirit that one does not usually think of early 20th century abstract art.

At the Hammer, the installation has reused the design of the museum’s new drawing gallery in the Grunwald Centre, commissioned for the recent exhibition of Picasso works on paper – a room within a room. The department works well. The inner gallery contains the representative drawings; the outer walls are lined with the abstractions. The earliest geometric abstractions are black and white – syncopated intersections of circles and squares; chessboards that seem to collapse in on themselves or change shape into grids formed from checkers; sharp zigzags that swirl or meander in a miraculous way; lozenges that bend in space and more. Riley started it in 1960 and switched to color in 1964.

The earlier date is worth noting. Essays in the generally beautiful catalog are good at articulating the rapidly changing history of the period, as the nascent forces that would coalesce into Pop, Minimal, Conceptual, and other art movements began to gather. But one important event is surprisingly omitted. “West Coast Hard-Edge”, the first exhibition of postwar Los Angeles abstraction to travel internationally, opened at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art in March 1960.

An artwork has geometric shapes in blue, teal, yellow and white

Bridget Riley, “New Curves — Jan. 2. ’99,” 1999, pencil and gouache on paper.

(© Bridget Riley / UCLA Hammer Museum)

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 if Riley saw it – the ICA, then in Picadilly, was only a few minutes’ walk from the Royal Academy of Arts, where Riley also studied – but the visual resonance between her work and the four LA-based artists’ linear , geometric, hard color abstractions are quite obvious. Both explore the fundamental nature of perception.

It is at least as evident as the importance of Ellsworth Kelly’s geometric color abstractions, then widely displayed in London. That relationship has long been noted, but a possible connection in Southern California appears not to have been. David Sylvester, the influential critic of Britain’s New Statesman, stated in his enthusiastic review of her first solo gallery exhibition in 1962, “Bridget Riley is a hard-hitting abstractionist.” Sylvester’s friend and colleague Lawrence Alloway was deputy director of the ICA. Coined for the ICA show by the curator, LA critic Jules Langsner, the term “hard-edge” hadn’t been widely used yet, so it’s a surprise to see it published in the first major Riley review.

Maybe it was Sylvester, not Riley, who made the connection, or maybe it was just a coincidence. That’s a question worth exploring further, but for now, “Bridget Riley Drawings: From the Artist’s Studio” is a show not to be missed. It was organized by Cynthia Burlingham, Hammer’s deputy director of curatorial affairs, with colleagues from the Art Institute of Chicago (home of Seurat’s “Grand Jatte”), where it debuted in September, and the Morgan Library in New York, where it June. All but a handful of works have been loaned by the artist, as the title suggests, which can sometimes mean that they were of special significance to her.

“Bridget Riley Drawings: From the Artist’s Studio”

Where: UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd, Westwood

When: Tuesday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Until May 28.

Contact: (310) 443-7000, hammer.ucla.edu

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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