- Bridget Riley
- Horizontal Vibration
- signed and dated '61 on the side edge; signed, titled and dated 1961 on the reverse
- emulsion on board
Eric Stein, Sussex
Juda Rowan Gallery, London
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1986
Hanover, Kunstverein; Bern, Kunsthalle; Düsseldorf, Kunsthalle; Turin, Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna; London, Hayward Gallery; Prague, National Gallery, Bridget Riley: Paintings and Drawings 1951-71, 1971, no. 10
Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery; Dallas, Museum of Fine Arts; New York, Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College; Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales; Perth, Art Gallery of Western Australia; Tokyo, National Museum of Modern Art, Bridget Riley: Works 1959-78, 1978-80, no. 4
London, Serpentine Gallery, Bridget Riley: Paintings from the 1960s and 70s, 1999, pp. 50-51, no. 3, illustrated
Maurice de Sausmarez, Bridget Riley, London 1970, pp. 114-115, no. 84, illustrated
Frances Follin, Embodied Visions: Bridget Riley, Op Art and the Sixties, London 2004, pp. 12-13, no. 2, illustrated
Executed in 1961 at the moment when Bridget Riley first discovered the optical energies that would define the course of her artistic career, Horizontal Vibration is a seminal painting in the strictest sense of the word, providing the matrix for her subsequent work. In his contribution to the catalogue for the Tate retrospective in 2003, Paul Moorehouse identifies Horizontal Vibration as one of two landmark works: “In terms of genealogy, the starting points for much of that which followed were the paintings Horizontal Vibration, 1961, (to which successive generations of paintings using lines and then curves can be traced) and White Discs, 1962”. (Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Gallery, Bridget Riley, 2003, p. 15).
Exhibited at Riley’s first solo exhibition in the West End, Horizontal Vibration was the fruit of a year of prodigious creative activity in which Riley had a newfound clarity of aim. Recognising the formal and expressive potential that derived from restricting her means, Riley embarked on a body of works which investigated the fertile ground of the black/white dichotomy. Her break came towards the end of 1961 when she met Victor Musgrave, director of London’s Gallery One, while sheltering from a downpour in a shop doorway. After a studio visit, Musgrave offered Riley a solo exhibition at his gallery in spring 1962. The show comprised nine works which, according to Maurice de Sausmarez, “all have proved of seminal importance.” (Maurice de Sausmarez, Bridget Riley, London 1970, p. 29). In his introduction to the 1962 catalogue, de Sausmarez describes this new visual phenomenon as follows: “The paintings act like electrical discharges of energy making immediate contact with our neural mechanism. Bridget Riley treats what has been termed ‘optical illusion’ as a ‘real’ system of visual dynamics… But these works are not to be explained as demonstrations of a theory of perception; in addition to their teasing ambiguities, they have a lyricism, a structural strength, an immaculate and vibrating freshness that is the clearest evidence of a creative sensibility, an acutely refined judgment”. (Ibid, p. 29) After the show she rapidly garnered international recognition, leading to a follow-up show two years later and her inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark ‘The Responsive Eye’ exhibition in 1965, which positioned her at the head of a prestigious phalanx of international artists who explored optical devices and the ambiguities of perception.
All the paintings in the first Gallery One exhibition took as their premise a perceptual effect. In the present work, Riley uses continuous bars of black and white lines, carefully serialised in progressively compressed movements from top to bottom, reaching a vibratory climax at the point where the lines are at their narrowest and most compressed. Using only black and white – the most elemental binary system – and the simplest of formal means, Riley succeeds in creating an instant sensation of flux and movement. At the point of climax, the picture surface appears to buckle inwards, opening the picture plane into the third dimension. What is surprising is the extreme economy of means responsible for this quantum leap in Riley’s work which would be her continued site of investigation for the next six years. Interestingly, the fundamental principle that engenders the vacillating effect is the same as in another major work from the same year, Movement in Squares (fig. 2). In that work, the dynamic axis is rotated to a vertical position, and the continuous bars are substituted with repeating units of the black and white squares. In both works, the resulting optical disruption indicates a source of energy inherent in pictorial relations that hitherto had not been exposed in art.
The format of the present work was unusual for the time and diverged from Riley’s then preference for square format supports. Each of her works was the product of sustained investigations in which the artist developed complex experiments in the drawing and preparatory phases. Through her intricate studies, Riley quickly realised that the optical effect of the present work is amplified by the length of the line. Here, Riley stretches the horizontal format to heighten the painting’s perceptual impact. This quickly became a favourite in Riley’s subsequent oeuvre, often executed on a huge scale. Towards the end of the 1960s, she moved away from an exclusively black and white palette to interrogate the dynamics of colour, using the same device of the elongated horizontal line juxtaposed against other lines of varying hues to create intense chromatic displays.
On a formal level, the loss of fixity and the denial of focus engendered by Riley’s compositions declared an aesthetic of instability, which opened up a new range of experience in art which had important consequences for the contemporaneous discourse on abstraction. Clement Greenberg was vociferously championing the singleness and clarity of post-painterly, hard-edged abstraction, an art form that insisted on its own ineluctable flatness. Riley’s work, however, shifted the area of dramatic confrontation away from the surface of the canvas to the space between the viewer and the work of art, an interpolation of the viewer that Riley called ‘virtual movement’. Crucially, however, Riley’s understanding of ‘virtual movement’ was more than a purely formal concern and sought to elicit an emotional response.
Riley’s search for Virtual Movement took its impetus from a broad range of art historical precedents, most notably the rhythmic visual language that she found in the work of the Italian Futurists which she experienced at the XXX Venice Biennale in 1960, the year before the present work was executed. The Futurists, with their overriding desire to register and render eternal the sensation of speed and its emotional character, sought an active engagement between the work and the viewer, a form of communion that Riley translates in her own inimitable way. Riley studied the pictorial solutions of Giacomo Balla in paintings such as Velocità di Motocicletta, injecting the Italian’s sense of sequence and rhythm and the visual pulse that stretches across the entire canvas into her own work. Concomitantly Riley was fascinated by the work of the Abstract Expressionists and Jackson Pollock in particular, whose work she experienced at Tate’s Modern Art in the United States in 1956 and at Pollock’s solo show at the Whitechapel two years later. Riley’s precise, rhythmic visual language is in many ways antithetical to Pollock’s gestural technique, however she nonetheless admired his exploration of the architectonic potential of the picture plane and the stress he laid on the eveness of expressive emphasis. Pollock’s open, multi-focal surface appealed much more to Riley than the focally centred situation of the European tradition.
Today, the potency of Riley’s compositions remains undiminished. Instantly evocative and synonymous with 1960s culture, they continue to influence younger generations of artists, among them Damien Hirst. Horizontal Vibration holds a privileged place among these black and white paintings, an early and important masterpiece whose compulsive visual experience sewed the seeds of an inspired artistic career.