As a portrait painter, I've always held to the feeling that portraits are the most demanding area of art there is for the realistic painter. I'm sure painters specializing in other realistic pursuits would probably argue with me on this. And, I suppose, I might be persuaded by a really outstanding presentation that maybe tromp l'oeil still-lifes might be more difficult. Of course in either case I might be a tad bit bias, having done both. To the other extreme, in the area of nonrepresentational art, my personal feeling is that the debate might be a little more cut and dried. All one has to do is take a look at the work of the British painter Bridget Riley to see my point. Op Art, as it's called, would win hands down.
Consider "Fall." Painted by Riley in 1963, it's a wonder the artist didn't go blind. Certainly more than a few viewers have come to question their eyesight in seeing it. Strangely enough, it (and related works) are unique in the fact that though painted strictly in black and white, they are works in which our eyes often see color. The painting works because of the undulating precision of the dozens of carefully spaced and black lines which rhythmically snake vertically up and down the canvas. Abstract artists talk often about the physical and emotional sensations they hope to exact from their viewers. I'm not sure about emotions in this case, but she certainly incites physical sensations. Nausea and vertigo come to mind.
Yet, it's all cold, calculated, hard science. Op works because of the physiological phenomena known as retinal fatigue. Our eyes can only take so much. When overwhelmed by repeated patterns such as Riley produces, they cop out and begin sending to the brain false patterns of movement and yes, of color where in fact, there is neither. We're most familiar with this in the fact that when deluged with images approaching 24 per second, the optical senses give up trying to discern individual pictures and report MOVEMENT instead. Of course in today's video-rich world, maybe we're NOT all that familiar with this trait. We take it for granted.
Bridget Louise Riley was born in 1931 in London, she grew up knowing the worst terrors of the WW II bombing blitz. After the war she studied at Goldsmith's College of Art and then at the Royal College of Art. She was forced to quit school before graduating however to care for her father. One of her earliest works involved the color scheme for the hallways of the Liverpool Royal Hospital. Her bands of soft, pastel colors had the effect of all but eliminating vandalism in that institution. She studied in depth the Pointillistic work of Seurat and was also influenced by Victor Vasarely, often considered the "inventor" of Op Art. Later trips to Egypt and Italy introduced her to the use of color in her optical exercises. In 1968, she won the Grand Prize for Painting at the Venice Biennale. Her 1992 painting, "Conversation" illustrates her ability to excite the eyes using hardedged color juxtapositions. Is this the most challenging form of nonrepresentational art? Look at her work. I'm sold. What about you?