Against the Curve …

Bridget Riley: “Crest” 1964

Until Saturday 6th September, the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill is hosting a small but impressive Bridget Riley retrospective: The Curve Paintings 1961 – 2014. Turn the first corner of the gallery and you come face to face with three of the black and white OpArt pieces from the 60s with which Riley first made her name – the work which, if Jonathan James is to be believed [and occasionally, beneath all that manufactured bluster and bad grace he does strike the truth] makes her, along with Howard Hodgkin, an artist of a very different abstraction, one of the two most important British artists of the modern age.

These pieces are extraordinary. [“Awesome!” as the small boy managed to shout before his parents dragged him back out in search of something else fattening to eat.] Let your eye for one minute engage and they will not let you go. They move. They do. You shift your eyeline, change your position, and still they move. Stare at them long enough and your eyes begin to ache; any longer and the floor beneath you seems to lurch, uncertain.

Well, she couldn’t carry on doing that forever.

What this show majors on are the larger, brightly coloured paintings of more recent years … no longer black and white but full, startling colour, which I thought must be done in acrylic, but no, it’s oil on linen; and curves which overlap and inter-connect. Most of the pieces large enough, bright enough to command the eye. I found them pleasurable, beautifully made, but little more than grandly decorative and though the pleasure they give is real, for me it was no longer lasting than the excellent Italian ice cream from the Di Paulo Café across the road.

Bridget Riley: Reve, 1999
Bridget Riley: Reve, 1999

Back in London, I made my third visit to the exhibition of Agnes Martin’s paintings at Tate Modern. Although she and Riley are both working within the field of what could loosely be called geometric abstraction, the work could scarcely be more different. Martin makes little attempt to stop you in your tracks, to claim your eye – should you choose to, and, sadly, people, too many people, do, you can stroll on by with hardly a second glance. There is no shout, no clamour; these paintings whisper, shift small degrees in an unseen breeze.

I Love the Whole World 1999 Agnes Martin 1912-2004 ARTIST ROOMS  Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d'Offay 2010
I Love the Whole World 1999 Agnes Martin 1912-2004 ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010

Somewhere between her early days sharing Manhattan studio space and coffee with the likes of Ellsworth Kelly, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, and her time living in a self-built adobe outside Taos, New Mexico, Martin turned her back on the curve in favour of the grid. Square canvasses, lines crossing the left to right, hand-drawn, at differing widths; bands of pale pastel colours, rose pink and blue grey – so pale sometimes it’s as if she begrudged them being colours at all. Something glimpsed in the first light of dawn, perhaps, or the last light of the sun. If people are content to stand and stare at clouds, Martin says, or the shifting patterns of waves on the sea, they should look at my paintings in the same way. Stand long enough, give yourself and the work time enough and the surface starts gradually to move, as do the sea or the sky. Not the violent, challenging movement of a Bridget Riley, but something smaller, calmer; a small vibration as the paint moves in and out of focus, as the minute breaks in the hand-drawn lines appear then disappear.

My paintings have neither objects nor space nor time nor anything – no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form.

Agnes Martin, 1966

My formats are square, but the grids never are absolutely square; they are rectangles, a little bit off square, making a sort of contradiction, a dissonance, though I didn’t set out to do it that way.

Agnes Martin: Writings, 1991


Agnes Martin: "Untitled" 1977
Agnes Martin: “Untitled” 1977

Most memorable is an installation of twelve large paintings, “The Islands”, which with its contemplative atmosphere is comparable to the Rothko Chapel in Houston. When you first enter the room, all twelve pieces seem to be the same square, ghostly white, lacking definition, lacking difference; stand a while and details begin to emerge, taking on shifting shape and form like islands that appear gradually, in and out of the mist; a wavering line here, a differing shade there – blues, greys and yellows – Martin’s colours – that seem to shimmer their way through the over-riding white and then just as strangely disappear.

Agnes Martin is at Tate Modern until October 11th.




Author: John Harvey


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