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26 Sep, 2009

Bridget Riley, last of the modernists

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

She’s a master of abstract art, the exception to every rule – beating the big boys of high modernism at their own game

Bridget Riley, whose exhibition Flashback opens this weekend at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, is an exception to every rule. She is an abstract painter in a nation that has always favoured the figurative, a serious modernist in a culture that has gone from backwoods conservatism to vulgar postmodernism. She seems a character from the upper reaches of British society, and yet in the late 1960s she led a radical movement to find space for artists. And – oh yes – she’s a woman who has beaten the big boys at their own game.

In the early 1960s, when Riley started making eye-fooling abstractions that appeared to actually move and warp as you looked at them, abstract art was at its zenith. But where Mark Rothko and Morris Louis demanded a poetic engagement, Riley insisted on a physical one: “action painting”, the term misleadingly applied to New York abstraction, actually did apply to her paintings.

It was natural at the time – and it is still de rigueur for academic art historians – to see Riley as “subverting” abstract art’s pretensions. But time changes perspectives. From today’s point of view, Riley’s proximity to the high modernists is surely more intriguing than her distance from them. She was not interested in giving birth to pop irony. She abhorred the use of her designs on dresses. In short, she was not attacking serious abstract painting, but finding her own way to be a serious abstract painter.

She has continued to be just that, with strange rewards. It’s impossible to imagine a museum being pilloried for buying a picture by David Hockney or Lucian Freud, as Southampton City Art Gallery was in the local press for purchasing a Riley. And yet the classic modern quality of Riley’s art – its very elegance – prevents her from becoming a hero to the dadaist young. So she goes on, eternally new yet strangely untouched by the times: a master if ever there was one.

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