Bridget Riley and Lee Mullican and the ‘60s

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A catchy name gives traction to an art movement: Abstraction Expressionism (AbX), Pop Art, or Op Art, short for “optical art One of the artists most associated with the latter was the English painter Bridget Riley, born in 1931, who was catapulted to success in the early 1960s.

Her narrow lines of colored paint, arranged horizontally or vertically, seemed to vibrate in front of the eye. Circular dots were painted in such close proximity that it was hard to focus on them individually. The tsunami of media attention that had swamped the Pop artists soaked Riley, as well. Op Art showed up on dresses and sheets. For many artists, such attention would be a gift and Riley did indeed find herself a great success. Yet, her own view of her intentions had a more historical bent.

Bridget Riley: Painting Now, the first survey of her art in 50 years, is at Sprüth Magers gallery in the mid-Wilshire district. Organized with writer Michael Bracewell, it refers to the 1996 lecture given by Riley at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. It was a defense of the value of painting, the value of looking and seeing.

Bridget Riley Horizontal Vibration, 1961 Tempera on hardboard 44,5 x 141 cm 17 1/2 x 55 1/2 inches © Bridget Riley 2018. All rights reserved. Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers

Those early ‘60s paintings still give a good smack, as though shouting, “Pay attention.” Horizontal Vibration (1961) on the ground floor level of the gallery is almost five feet long but only a foot and a half tall with black and white bands of unequal width painted meticulously to mesmerizing effect. Paintings of horizontal stripes in sunset hues from 2014 hang nearby and emphasize the continuity of her practice.

Bridget Riley Pink Landscape, 1960 Oil on canvas 101,5 x 101,5 cm 40 x 40 inches © Bridget Riley 2018. All rights reserved. Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers

On the second floor of the two-story gallery, there are two pictures that define her beginnings. Pink Landscape (1960) depicts rolling hills in dappled pastel, an obvious connection to the Pointillism of an artist like Georges Seurat. Inexplicably, except by those leaps of faith available in art, the very next year Riley was painting Study for Black Discs (1961). In that canvas, there are no references to landscapes or figures, only individual circles painted with a scientific specificity. The dots are darker in the center and lighter at the edges but together form a diamond shape. This gallery also includes her wall painting of circular dots made this year, Measure for Measure (2018). These graphic explorations may indicate consistency but they are far from dull.

Bridget Riley Study for Black to White Discs, 1961 Emulsion on board 88,9 x 88,9 cm 35 x 35 inches © Bridget Riley 2018. All rights reserved. Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers

Riley’s pictures will be forever seen in the context of Op Art but a visit to the show proves that they are operate beyond the constraints of such easy definition. The show is on view through January 26, 2019.

Bridget Riley Untitled 2 (Measure for Measure Wall Painting), 2017-18 Graphite and acrylic on plaster wall 170,2 x 382 cm 67 x 150 3/8 inches © Bridget Riley 2018. All rights reserved. Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers

Coincidentally, another show, this one at Marc Selwyn Fine Art in Beverly Hills, explores similar ideas.

Riley’s art emerged out of a preoccupation with geometric abstraction that dates back to the early 20th century. L.A.-based Lee Mullican (1919-1998) was similarly committed and his paintings have received international recognition over the years.

However, a recently discovered group of pastel drawings have a noticeable connection to those of Riley, though his work first gained attention in the 1951 Dynaton exhibition in San Francisco.

Lee Mullican: The Marble Drawings 1966-1970 don’t play with optical illusion but they do engage the eye in a curious game of discovery. In the late 1960s, Mullican turned his attention to intricate patterns of subtly colored marbles. The lines of red, blue, yellow or green marbles, (or pearls or beads or molecular structures) are definitely dimensional. Reflecting points of light, they are interlaced as compositions without beginning or end points.

Mullican was fascinated by the pre-Columbian art of the Americas so they could be inspired by the bead work of indigenous art. Or by rosaries. They certainly glow, especially the richly colored globes floating on dark backgrounds.

Whatever their source, they are uplifting, pointing towards transcendence, and reveal a previously unknown aspect of the well-known artist’s work. At Marc Selwyn Fine Art through February 2, 2019