Bridget Riley. (First Break).
IT'S THE MEREST COMMONPLACE to say that rain is a nourishing force, and when we do we're usually speaking of the fruits of the earth, not the fruits of art-except, perhaps, in the case of Bridget Riley, which takes us back to a late autumn afternoon in London, 1961. She was still unknown.
Riley was thirty, laboring as a draftsman in the offices of the advertising powerhouse J. Walter Thompson. As she made her way from work that day through the narrow streets of Soho, passing Grosvenor Square with its polite sward of green, the sky opened in a torrent. She rushed into the sheltering doorway at 16 North Audley Street and turned out of curiosity to look inside. The man who peered back came over. "Why don't you come in and look properly?" he said. His name was Victor Musgrave, and the place, by a stroke of what would turn out to be good fortune, was a small avant-garde art space called Gallery One. The gallery was bohemian and bare-bones; Musgrave, who ran the place, was a pioneer in the 1950s--the first in London to show Yves Klein and the high-flying whimsies of Fluxus--and his eye remained adventurous.
Riley was well prepared for the encounter. In boarding school at Cheltenham Ladies' College, then at Goldsmiths College of Art from 1949 to '52, and finally at the Royal College of Art the three years following, she had devoted herself to making pictures, inspired over time by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists--Seurat for her a king among them. Her own art reflected the paintings she loved, but the summer before the deluge on North Audley Street, she had found herself in another downpour, this one in the Tuscan city of Siena, and it would change her pictures. She was standing in a courtyard paved in a geometric pattern, when suddenly it rained. "I remember the appearance of the pattern and the quite deep water that disturbed it, then the sun coming out and quickly drying the paving," she says. it was something being there, then being disturbed, then being returned to its original form."
The young artist returned to London, to a capital finally emerging from long privations after World War II. What was happening elsewhere in the world of contemporary painting and sculpture had something of discovery and exoticism about it. The Tate Gallery had put on "Modern Art in the United States," in 1956, giving Londoners their first large-scale look at Abstract Expressionism. From the mid-'50s on, the Whitechapel Art Gallery mounted full-blown surveys of Mondrian, Pollock, Malevich, Rothko, and others. The living English luminaries were a handful of names: Henry Moore, Victor Pasmore, Ben Nicholson, Francis Bacon, Richard Hamilton. The young were pouring out of art schools, yet they would likely end up as poorly paid teachers or leave the art world entirely. Career? Not a word one thought of.
Riley was poor the day she found herself inside Gallery One. She lived in South Kensington in a single room, where she painted by the heat of a paraffin stove. Now she turned to Musgrave. "I gave him a very stiff review of what I saw. I don't recall the work anymore," she says. "And he said, 'Well, what makes you so sure, and what have you got there?' I undid this bundle, and I had some of my black-and-white gouaches in it.
These were studies for what would become the famous art of Bridget Riley. Somewhere amid the creative crossroads of Seurat and Pollock, of Sienese patterns writhing and re-forming, of hard-edged abstraction and the deeply thoughtful way Riley apprehends the particularities of sight, she had made her way to the syncopated imagery that Musgrave shortly afterward offered to show in May 1962.
There was one review of that first solo flight (in the New Statesman, by the rising critic David Sylvester, who compared the work to a good actor's timing--"at once unexpected and inevitable"), and only a dozen people turned up for the opening. Just one work sold, the classic Movement in Squares, 1961, a painting that must have more than a little to do with that rain-soaked courtyard in Siena. Yet Riley was on her way. She showed again at Gallery One in 1963, and there were more reviews, more works sold. In 1965, her art starred on the catalogue cover for MOMA'S legendary exhibition "The Responsive Eye," and three years later, representing England in the Venice Biennale, she was the first woman and the first contemporary Briton to win the international prize for painting.
Everything had opened up in those years: the sound of the Beatles, the poetry of Ted Hughes, Peter Brook's landmark staging of Marat/Sade, and, oh yes, the miniskirt. "We were children of the war and had grown up in those austerity years," Riley recalls. "And then at the beginning of the '60s there seemed a new possibility in things. It was an out-of-the-war party, and so our celebration had a particular hat to fling at the moon." But her own celebration began one late afternoon. She was coming home from work, and it was raining.
Steven Henry Madoff is a frequent contributor to Artforum.