After some months of discussion by phone and email, and a long studio visit in the fall of 2019, Bridget Riley began explaining her conception of the survey that she envisioned for the Yale Center for British Art. The show would explore her feelings about the United States. She holds an enormous fondness for this country, particularly New York, and this — her first major survey in the US — would acknowledge her gratitude for the transformative impact it has had on her career following her first visit in 1965.
That initial trip brought her to New York after being invited to show two paintings in the groundbreaking exhibition featuring “recent works with primarily visual emphasis”: The Responsive Eye, at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). In the lead-up to the show, she developed a close working relationship with William Seitz, the exhibition’s curator, which resulted in the acquisition of Current (1964), one of the two paintings included — funded by architect, collector, and founder of MoMA’s architecture department, Philip Johnson. Current was also incorporated into the design of the exhibition catalogue and used for much of the press, which, in turn, lauded the show and Riley’s work in it. The exhibition proved to be a catalyst for the artist, both professionally and personally, and the prominence of the painting and of Riley set the tone for how she would come to view this experience nearly sixty years later.
Supportive of Riley, Johnson later gave the museum another one of her paintings, Fission (1962). This further bolstered the perception that MoMA considered her on par with US and European peers and within an international roster of modernists decades removed from her in time. At the events surrounding the show and in the weeks that followed, when she remained in the city, Riley met some of those peers, who brought her into their studios and social circles. To Jasper Johns, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, and many others, she was a serious, unwavering abstractionist, despite her youth, gender, and nationality. The success of the show in all of its five touring venues across the United States (New York to Baltimore, St. Louis, Seattle, and, finally, Pasadena), and the reception of her work by artists, collectors, and the public outside of New York, gave her a sense that the whole country was indeed supportive of her. As Riley relayed to me, she found something so open and warm about Americans and their response to her work, which gave her a true sense of confidence in pushing her practice forward. That feeling continues to this day.
From an art-historical perspective, the use of Current on the front and back covers of MoMA’s publication has always seemed, to me, to be a metaphor for how Riley defined not only that show but also that moment in contemporary art internationally. For someone who has long used mid-twentieth-century Britain as a way to understand the art of the rest of the world, this representation of Riley’s painting catalyzed my sense of her as a codex for the ways in which art (even if seemingly apolitical or deeply formalist) conceptualizes all that is happening at a specific moment. Seitz’s opening acknowledgments in the catalogue also recognize the work of the designer, Joseph Bourke Del Valle, which seems all the more auspicious for this same reason: clearly, Bourke Del Valle equally understood the import of Riley in that show at that time — not so much as mascot, but as beacon.
Consequently, Riley has chosen Perceptual Abstraction as the show’s title. Seitz used the phrase to describe how the advancement of art from nineteenth-century Impressionism to the 1960s was predicated upon the artist’s perception carefully evolving, not simply “[changing] aimlessly”1 — to such a degree that recent abstract art was being purposefully, if not relentlessly, driven by refinements to “color, tone, line, and shape.”2 Riley’s own early studies of nineteenth-century representational painters, like Georges Seurat, as part of her process to achieve full geometric abstraction resonated with Seitz’s concept. And although his show took a reduced version of this idea as its title — The Responsive Eye — Riley has held onto Seitz’s more nuanced original intent.
Central to our exhibition are two of her Late Morning paintings: Late Morning 1 (1967) and Late Morning (1967–68). Completed just as she transitioned from an achromatic palette of black and white into full color, these pieces also mark the elongation of the square support to the horizontal and the visual variables created by the lines or stripes in each. Riley finished these works after returning to London from New York and settling into her newfound success (which had, by then, become global), and they demonstrate what she was clearly experiencing after 1965: mastery of skill, confidence in her practice, surety of decisions, and, perhaps most important, the drive to innovate. It is a rarity for the YCBA to give over multiple floors to a single artist, let alone a living one, and yet, I can think of no better way to explore these facets of her practice from the 1960s to the present.
Listening to Riley’s stories of her early visits to the United States and her deep, intellectual concerns with and about painting has given me optimism over the last three years about both the world and the field of art history — the latter being one of the things I hold most dear. During some of the strangest days of 2020 and 2021, I have had Riley’s reasoned, thoughtful approach to the past as well as the present to rely on, even as the America that she describes is being challenged every day. I am grateful to her for making 1960s New York (the backdrop for this show) and present-day London (where she was born and still creates, and in which I have spent so much of my life) seem near, despite the obvious, untenable distances of both at this moment.
Riley’s lifelong confidence in her own vision, reinforced through her early experiences in the United States, is as inspiring as her indomitable spirit during the pandemic, which coincided with the evolution of this exhibition. As much as she is thankful for the support of US audiences in the 1960s, I am grateful for her commitment to seeing this project through, despite considerable complications caused by the global health crisis. From the beginning, she has shaped every aspect of this show (even responding to Louis Kahn’s design of the space), and the dedicated YCBA team facilitated the process by listening intently to how she wished her work to be presented. As a result, what you see is very much her show — her vision.
— Courtney J. Martin, Paul Mellon Director, Yale Center for British Art