The Institute's cryptically titled Deny IV is one of the most subtly powerful works to come out of so-called optical-art movement of the 1960s. Executed about 1966 by the British artist Bridget Riley, this painting displays formal elements that are pared down to the strictest essentials of color, tone, and geometry. One of the few major works by Riley in an American public collection, Deny IV presents a volatile and mysteriously charged field that plays with our perception and creates new states of awareness.Riley's international reputation as a leading optical artist was secured in 1965 when she gained popular recognition in the "Responsive Eye" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The year before, Riley had been dubbed the "queen of Op Art," and in 1968 she represented Britain at the 34th Venice Biennale, where she was the first British artist to win the International Prize for Painting. This enthusiastic response was an exceptional honor at a time when critics rarely accorded women more than minor roles in any mainstream avant-garde art movement. But Riley soon discovered the mixed blessing of this celebrity: Her association, from a popular and critical viewpoint, with the facile optical-art label greatly obscured the larger intentions behind her work.Although effects of optical illusion are a cornerstone of her paintings, Riley regards them only as essential means to a greater expressive end. By careful manipulation, she intends to elicit from the viewer "something akin to a sense of recognition . . . so that the spectator experiences at one and the same time something known and something unknown." Physical states, ambiguous moods, or her response to the fleeting atmospheric effect in a landscape frequently inspire and breathe life into Riley's paintings, as the following titles, like Deny, testify: Climax, Breathe, Loss, Intake, Vapour, and Late Morning. By imbuing the abstract structures of her work with her own personal experience, Riley encourages her audience to respond similarly—or, at least, offers them that option.A few years before she began to produce purely optical work, Riley discovered the paintings of the French Neo-Impressionist Georges Seurat. Seurat had formalized his Impressionist predecessors' concern with light and atmospheric effects into a tightly organized divisionist technique: Tiny dots of pure colors juxtaposed on the canvas optically mix in the viewer's eye and fuse into a light-filled and atmospheric resolution of the figures and scene depicted. Riley was intrigued by the underlying "abstract" structure of Seurat's painting and avidly explored the puzzling correlation between viewers' emotions and their perception of shapes, colors, and lines. At the end of the 1950s she executed a meticulous life-size copy of Seurat's 1886 Bridge at Courbevoie (Courtauld Institute Galleries, London) and produced several landscapes in his divisionist manner.In 1961 Riley transferred Seurat's investigations to the contemporary realm of pure geometrical abstraction. The results were her first optical paintings. Like many British artists of the fifties and sixties, she embraced the liberating, expansive space found in such American painting as the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock, as well as the new, encompassing relationship it forged between the spectator and the work of art. Instead of depicting a recognizable subject, Riley sought to release the potential visual—and subliminal—energy of pure forms by focusing exclusively on the emotional potential of optics that had so intrigued Seurat.At first Riley limited her abstract paintings to black and white. Soon, however, she introduced various shades of gray, and later, with works like Deny series, she added tinges of warm- and cool-colored hues. On the level of pure design, Riley opposes in Deny IV the regularized grid structure of ovals to the progressive realignment of the ovals along the grid. Simultaneously, a third opposition exists in the transition from light and warm-colored gray ovals to dark, cool-colored ones.Riley's primary concern, of course, is the resulting illusory, intangible effects—of implied movement, change, light, atmosphere, even form—that the painted surface has on the spectator's eye. She fuses these contradictory illusions into a tense, fragile equilibrium that speaks powerfully and directly to the viewer.As the spectator approaches, retreats from, and moves around Deny IV, the painting sparks myriad illusions that play off, dissolve, and bleed into one another. The viewer who stands at a distance from the canvas, for example, detects the metallic shimmering effect of the white ovals and perceives a buckling of the canvas induced by groupings of the variously aligned ovals. One of the most enigmatic effects is the vaporous zigzag that divides the canvas vertically. At first this insubstantial shape seems to be caused by external lighting, but it is actually a more permanent illusion, created by the equivalent tones found in the blue-gray ovals and in the uniform gray ground. Likewise, the overall grid of ovals suggests to our eyes a complementary grid of vertical and horizontal gray bars running across the surface and disappearing almost as soon as we apprehend them. Although rigorously constructed of elemental forms and the simplest nuances of restricted tone and color, Deny IV suggestively teases the viewer's eyes and mind by continually assuming new configurations as we move around it and try to establish conventional perceptual resolutions.Bridget Riley, who lives and works in London, continues her empirical investigations of optical phenomena and their emotional potential. Soon after she introduced colored hues into the grays of her mid-sixties paintings like Deny IV, she began to use increasingly vibrant shades of pure color. Newer works, evolving naturally from previous studies, are notable for bold stripes of optically mixed color with glowing halos that spread around them on white-painted areas. They show that optical illusion, more than just a passing fad for Riley, continues to offer her new paths for expressive exploration, justifying the title of "op-art queen" that newspapers bestowed upon the artist early in her career.Patrick Shaw Cable was an intern in the Paintings department and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.Deny IV is on display in Gallery 203.Related ImagesA Camera Press photograph of Bridget Riley with Continuum, a 28-foot-long mazelike spiral she constructed in the early 1960s. Deny IV, about 1966
Acrylic on canvas
Gift of Mr. Willard M. Bollenbach, Jr.