- Bridget Riley
- Primitive Blaze
- signed on the left edge; signed, titled and dated 1963-4 on the reverse
- emulsion on board
Feigen Palmer Gallery, Los Angeles
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1965
"Looking at Blaze... involves being drawn, instantly, into a dynamic relationship with a work of art." (Paul Moorhouse in Exhibition Catalogue, Sydney, Museum of Contemporary Art, Bridget Riley: Paintings and Drawings 1961-2004, 2004-05, p. 15).
"The visceral element in Riley's early works is at its most potent in the works produced between 1961 and 1962, reaching its zenith in Blaze I." (Paul Moorhouse in Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate, Bridget Riley, 2003, p. 16).
Seen publicly for the first time since it was acquired by the present owner from the Feigen Palmer Gallery, Los Angeles in 1965, Primitive Blaze is without question one of the most important early works by Bridget Riley ever to come to auction. One of only five known variations of the Blaze motif, all of which are housed in major museum or prestigious private collections, the present work offers today's collector the rare opportunity to acquire the jewel-in-the-crown of Riley's vintage black and white compositions.
Executed in 1963-4 shortly after Riley's second solo show at London's Gallery One in September that year, Primitive Blaze is a stunning version of the iconic Blaze motif, a variant of which has been included in all Riley's major retrospective exhibitions to date. As Paul Moorhouse explains in his essay for her Sydney retrospective in 2004-5 which included Blaze 1, this work is the epitome of Riley's unique aesthetic: "Looking at Blaze... involves being drawn, instantly, into a dynamic relationship with a work of art. In that relationship, the painting does not exist simply as an arrangement of shapes which undergo disinterested inspection. Instead, the process of looking 'activates' the painting. Its formal structure is catalyzed and destabilized by the viewer's gaze. As the mind struggles to interpret the sensory information with which it is presented, it veers from one visual hypothesis to another, vainly trying to fix the image. This state of flux generates vivid perceptual experiences of movement and light, which are the defining characteristics of Riley's early work." (Exhibition Catalogue, Sydney, Museum of Contemporary Art, Bridget Riley: Paintings and Drawings 1961-2004, 2004-05, p. 15). Blaze 1 is currently on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Blaze 3 is included in the Optic Nerve: Perceptual Art from the 1960s exhibition at the Columbus Museum of Art in Columbus, Ohio. Showing in tandem, the Op Art survey exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Munich, which also includes works by Riley, shows the growing international acclaim for this pioneer of perceptual abstract art.
The Blaze motif made its debut at Riley's second show at Victor Musgrave's Gallery One in London in 1963, which included two variants, Blaze I and Blaze II. Whereas her 1962 exhibition had for the most part comprised of works based on a rectangular format, such as the premonitory Movement in Squares, the 1963 show was dominated by circular format works that explored the theme first announced by Circle with a Loose Centre in the previous show. In that work, visual disorientation resulted from shifting centres of implied cyclical structures within a circle. The Blaze compositions were foremost among the new group of works, which also included Uneasy Centre and Broken Circle, both 1963, which achieved visual disruption through an internal spiralling movement deriving from the shifting centres of the circular forms involved. The show was an unmitigated success and as Maurice de Sausmarez explains, "the Blaze variants were quick to establish themselves as the most frequently reproduced examples of her work" (Maurice de Sausmarez, Bridget Riley, London 1970, p. 30).
One of Riley's most explosive structures, the alternating black and white spokes in Primitive Blaze compose a tier of six widening and narrowing concentric rings that radiate energy. Reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp's motorised 'rotory reliefs' in which off-centred concentric circles create an optical effect when set in motion, Riley manages to create a kinetic visual effect from a static picture plane. The chevrons seemingly shuttle back and forth in alternating directions around the white centre which appears far away from the viewer whose retina, caught in this enveloping effect of dizzying perceptual ambiguity, struggles in vain to find an anchor to rest or focus. 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. It is just below the white centre, where the spokes are most compressed, that the perceptual effect - an almost hallucinatory experience - is at its most intense.
It was the Blaze composition which won Riley the John Moores Competition in 1964 and first drew the critical attention of the curator William C. Seitz who invited her to participate the following year in the Museum of Modern Art's landmark exhibition The Responsive Eye which cemented her international reputation. That same year, her first solo show outside Britain at the Richard Feigen Gallery, New York, was a sell-out success. Maurice de Sausmarez describes the furore that surrounded the artist: "From the first her paintings excited a great deal of interest and admiration, but the extent of the success of her own show could not have been predicted from this initial response. On the opening day at Feigen's gallery all sixteen works on exhibition were sold and a waiting list compiled of collectors anxious to have one of her works" (Ibid., p. 34). The present work, first exhibited at a follow up show at Richard Feigen's sister gallery in Los Angeles in October that year, was bought by the present owner before the gallery opened its doors to the public.
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. In America, 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'. One of the first of her works to have been seen in America, Primitive Blaze offers a visual thesis in Riley's unique artistic vision. It is beyond question an art historical landmark, a beacon in the landscape of twentieth-century abstraction, whose scintillating clarity remains undiminished today.