Perceptual Abstraction: A Reflection

  • Bridget Riley

I first met William Seitz when he came to my studio in Warwick Road, London in 1964 (fig. 1). He introduced himself and said that he had come to tell me about an exhibition he was organizing for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York to show the use of perception in the figurative painting of the past and the abstract painting of the present day. This was a very exciting premise for an exhibition and one that appealed to me immediately, as it crossed the same boundary that I had crossed in my own work and by the same bridge, perception.

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Bridget Riley in her Warwick Road studio, London, 1964

At that time I had pinned up in the studio a large reproduction of Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, a detail of the upper half of Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto, and a Ben Day dot poster from the United States. My first abstract painting, Kiss, hung on a wall nearby and leaning up against another wall was my just completed curve painting, Current, along with a large group of black-and-white working drawings. Bill Seitz asked if he could have this new curve painting for his exhibition. I was delighted, and so Current duly left the studio for New York.

Later I learned that Philip Johnson, the American architect, bought Current and presented it to MoMA. He had visited my second exhibition at Gallery One in London the previous year and bought Fission, later giving it to MoMA. Although this gift may well have led to Bill’s visit, I don’t think it was the only connection. George Rickey, the American kinetic artist who used natural forces such as wind and gravity in his sculpture, also knew of my paintings and had bought a small piece of mine. I later met George and his wife when he was in West Berlin taking part in DAAD, an international artist-in-residence scheme.

I remember seeing a photograph of American artists in which Rickey is standing next to Ad Reinhardt outside MoMA in New York, demanding attention. To us in London, MoMA had the “crown jewels” of the modern movement in art. We regarded it as a place of pilgrimage, that is, if one were fortunate enough to get to New York in the first place!

It was well known that many distinguished artists had sought and been granted refuge from persecution in the United States and that they had brought with them a lively sense of avant-garde practice. Art was no longer just something that happened elsewhere but was there, living and vigorous in their midst. Recognizing this, Jackson Pollock had answered a questionnaire, which was published in Art and Architecture in 1944. The questioner was anonymous, later understood to probably have been Robert Motherwell.

Q: Do you find it important that many famous European artists are living in this country?

JP: Yes. I accept the fact that many of the most important paintings of the last hundred years have been made in France. American painters have generally missed the point of modern painting — from beginning to end. . . .

Q: Do you think there can be a purely American art?

JP: The idea of an isolated American painting, so popular in this country during the thirties seems absurd to me, just as the idea of creating a purely American mathematics or physics would seem absurd. . . . And in another sense, the problem doesn’t exist at all; or, if it did, would solve itself: An American is an American and his painting would naturally be qualified by that fact, whether he wills it or not. But the basic problems of contemporary painting are independent of any one country.1

In the late 1950s, the Tate Gallery held two exhibitions of American painting to which we all went and which were very much discussed. We were eager to see more of the work of American artists and were able to do so at the Whitechapel Gallery of which Bryan Robertson was director. I saw there Jackson Pollock’s deeply moving exhibition (fig. 2) and Mark Rothko’s hauntingly beautiful paintings. These were followed a little later by exhibitions of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.

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Jackson Pollock (curated by Bryan Robertson) at Whitechapel Gallery, London, 1958

There had also just arrived in London a new acquisition at the National Gallery of a late waterlily painting by Claude Monet. I was thrilled to discover that Bill Seitz had been one of the small group sent by MoMA to visit Monet’s studio at Giverny soon after the end of the war and had in 1960 curated for MoMA Seasons and Moments, a touring exhibition of Monet’s paintings, reports of which sent shock waves through the art world on both sides of the Atlantic (fig. 3). He wrote for the catalogue, introducing Monet’s life and work to a wider audience and focusing in particular on the artist’s late waterlily paintings.2 These monumental paintings, sometimes across two or three canvases at a time, had been discovered by MoMA’s team in Monet’s war-battered studio in Giverny. André Masson, one of the well-known European artists resident in the United States, described Monet’s water landscapes in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris as “the Sistine Chapel of Impressionism.”3

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Claude Monet: Seasons and Monuments (curated by William Seitz) at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1960

The waterlily paintings resonated with me for both aesthetic and personal reasons. It just so happened that during the 1950s my parents — reunited after the war and returned to Lincolnshire — bought a disused watermill, which they renovated and turned into our family home. Now there was water everywhere: rivers, canals, streams, torrents, pools, ponds, and, of course, reflections — shining, sparkling, glittering, moving, flowing. It brought Monet vividly to life not only for me but for the whole family. I spent as much time as I could painting and drawing there.

Inevitably, I longed to see Monet’s great waterlily installation in Paris, which he had worked on during the final decades of his life. In 1954 I flew with my sister, Sally, and two friends to Orly to see it at l’Orangerie. The installation was understandably in a sorry state, the galleries dark and gloomy with only one or two visitors and a keeper who followed us around. But even in that state the paintings were glorious, the greatness and grandeur clearly apparent. This visit made a deep impression on me, and I drew inspiration from it ten years later in making Continuum, a painted environment in which the viewer is surrounded by the image. Continuum was included in my second exhibition at Gallery One (see Stratton essay, fig. 3).

William Seitz came a second time to see me at the Warwick Road studio. He was returning from a visit to Italy where he had been with his wife, who was unwell, to see their favorite Italian Renaissance paintings. I asked if he thought that art could help in such situations and he replied, “Yes, I am sure of it.” I always remembered this. We talked about Piero della Francesca. He asked me if there was anyone I would like to meet in New York when I came over for the opening of his exhibition. I said I would love to meet Mark Rothko, remembering the beautiful exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery that Bryan had put on (fig. 4). He said he knew Mark well and thought that this could be arranged. He asked me if I knew Jesus Raphael Soto, the South American artist, because he wanted to include him in his exhibition. I said, “Unfortunately, only by name but I know that he lived and worked in Paris before the war.”

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Mark Rothko (curated by Bryan Robertson) at Whitechapel Gallery, London, 1961

We talked about “perceptual abstraction,” the name that Bill preferred for the new movement he was launching. He said, “This is an opportunity to get the name right,” adding, “all too often in the history of modern art, artists have had titles attached to their work which have little or nothing to do with it.”

Although the exhibition was still some way off, it was beginning to be talked about with a certain amount of speculation. Just before I left for New York, a supportive critic, William Packer, who wrote for Financial Times, said to me, “I hope it goes all right over there.” This seemed rather strange to me. Why should it not? But I must admit I was surprised that I had heard nothing from Bill Seitz. I didn’t know, for instance, that the exhibition was to be called The Responsive Eye or that my painting, Current, would be on the cover of the catalogue.

The interest in perception was international and, in every case, had stemmed from nineteenth-century Paris. Although the two World Wars had interrupted its growth and development, the avant-garde in many countries (in South America as in Eastern Europe) pursued it with intelligence and enthusiasm — producing remarkably similar works of art, which simply showed how strong and well-founded the initial stimulus was. When the term “optical mixture,” or rather mélange optique (as it was called in France), entered the world of studio talk, it signaled an important shift: the significance of the viewer rose to conscious recognition and with it a new, wider audience emerged.

Bill Seitz was as good as his word and, although I hardly saw him during the opening period of The Responsive Eye (fig. 5), he extended an invitation to dine with him in his old studio. I was delighted to discover that he had been a painter too. This studio was a characteristic New York loft apartment with a large window at the end of a long narrow space. Above the bookshelves lining the walls were some small canvases that showed a great feeling for Pierre Bonnard.

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The Responsive Eye (curated by William Seitz) at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1965, with Bridget Riley’s Hesitate at the end of the corridor

Bill said that he and Rothko both loved Bonnard and had studied his work. I was even more delighted by this as I also admired Bonnard and had tried to copy one of his paintings. I had just sat down at the table by the window when the doorbell rang, and Bill opened the door to Mark Rothko. He came in and stopped dead when he saw me. He turned to Bill and said, “You didn’t tell me she would be here!” Bill said, “It’s all right, Mark. Bridget loves your work, she only wants to meet you.” Mark looked doubtful, even disbelieving, and turned to go. Bill said, “Don’t go,” and put his hand on Mark’s arm. All this was very embarrassing and painful and so, to ease matters, I said, “No, it’s my mistake. It was impertinent of me to ask to see you, but when Bill asked me in London if there was anyone I would like to meet when I came to New York, I chose you because I had seen your work at Whitechapel Gallery and loved it. I am so sorry. I had better go.” At this, Bill put his hand on my arm and said, “No, you stay.” Then he turned again to Mark and began to remonstrate, explaining that I had seen his show and only wanted to tell him. But Mark interrupted. “She’s like all the others,” he said, “she just wants to push me out.”

This remark was shocking. I protested that this was not the case at all and in fact I very greatly admired his work and use of color and now felt especially close to him through a shared love of French painting, which I had just discovered on this very visit to Bill’s studio. This did go some way to reassure him and, after ever quieter exchanges, we sat down and talked more and more easily. He told me how much he had enjoyed his visit to London, and we learned we both appreciated Bryan Robertson’s gift for hanging paintings. I told him that in England his work was greatly admired and respected. Bryan always tried to understand what artists were trying to do, especially when he was showing their work. He took a great deal of trouble with Mark’s show because the artist wanted a particularly low level of light. Bryan managed to achieve this, and Mark’s colors deepened and glowed, appearing to float free of the picture plane. Mark was delighted by Bryan’s skill and wrote later to inquire about the precise spacing between the paintings.

Bill was very pleased and relieved by the way the evening developed, and we parted with promises to meet again and good wishes. Sadly, I never saw Bill again. Unfortunately, he was in grave trouble at MoMA, which I didn’t know about, and he resigned, leaving New York for good. However, he wrote an essay for American Vogue in which he deplored the reception accorded to The Responsive Eye, claiming that what had been missed was a movement as significant to the development of modern art as Cubism had been and stating his belief in the validity of its thesis.4

On my next visit to New York, I saw Mark Rothko again. The American sculptor Louise Nevelson gave a party for me to which she invited Mark, and we renewed our conversation about England and about Bryan Robertson. I had the feeling that his work was going well; he seemed more confident and certainly happier with life in general.

Back in my Warwick Road studio, I got on with my work, continuing to develop the use of grays and colored grays, and pushed on toward color. Encouraged by critics and supporters in England, I wrote “Perception is the Medium,” published in Art News in October 1965.5

I returned to the United States in the autumn of 1965 for a show in Los Angeles with Feigen Palmer — of which I have many happy memories. I visited Las Vegas with Patrick Proctor and David Hockney and was entertained by the actor Dennis Hopper, who, although a fervent collector of surrealism, took a considerable interest in me and my work. Tony Curtis bought Shiver and often carried the painting with him on his travels in a bespoke leather suitcase he had made to accommodate it.

Meanwhile, MoMA had prepared the exhibition Bridget Riley: Drawings, which circulated in the United States in 1966. Gene Baro, the American critic, reviewed it for Studio International in July, subtitling his article “Drawing for Painting” and reproducing many of the works. As Baro put it,

Bridget Riley’s paintings are visual events. They are not images; they are not symbols; they are actions; and the artistic intention is that they offer a visual equivalent to psycho-physical states. The ideal response to these paintings would perhaps be unconscious — a sense of inexplicable identification with their inner dynamics.6


  1. Anonymous, “Jackson Pollock: A Questionnaire,” Arts and Architecture 61, no. 2 (February 1944): 14. It has also been suggested that the interviewer was the artist himself, who had formulated the questions with the help of Howard Putzel. ↩︎

  2. William C. Seitz’s Claude Monet: Seasons and Moments was reprinted in 1969, and I bought that edition. ↩︎

  3. André Masson, “Monet” (1952), reprinted in Impressionism in Perspective, ed. Barbara Ehrlich White (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1978), 61. ↩︎

  4. William C. Seitz, “The New Perceptual Art,” Vogue, February 15, 1965, 141–42. ↩︎

  5. Bridget Riley, “Perception Is the Medium,” Art News 64, no. 6 (October 1965): 32–33. ↩︎

  6. Gene Baro, “Bridget Riley: Drawing for Painting,” Studio International 172, no. 879 (July 1966): 12–13. ↩︎