Except as an example of how to illustrate the collapse in standards caused by the worst excesses of Modernism, and the concomitant low expectations of easily pleased critics, I can’t explain why London’s National Gallery would have commissioned a wall painting for its newish entrance lobby by the 88-year-old Bridget Riley. For those of us schooled in the decorative cycles of Pompeii, San Vitale and the Renaissance, Riley’s spots are a disappointment for being a tad short on content. The obligatory accompanying sales pitch for this misguided project – lest we should not immediately recognise its significance for ourselves – includes the description of Riley as “one of Britain’s most distinguished artists”. Well, if you saw this and you didn’t know you certainly wouldn’t suspect it.
I’ve had to watch Riley’s career develop. The ﬁrst proper exhibition I ever visited, Op Art at the Tate (c.1966) on a school trip, featured her work. She was by then already a Swinging celebrity, her dazzle designs everywhere counterfeited on skirts and curtains. This cultural trip, allowed only to the most artistically inclined of Lancashire’s Iouts, was memorable mainly because on our return to school we were publicly dressed down by the head for straﬁng pedestrians with lemon curd butties from the chara. We young blades cased the show using our self-invented yardstick that the best pictures must be those which made us feel the dizziest. It was, unanimously agreed that the King of Op was not Riley but one Jesus Raphael Soto, an ace Venezuelan with a cracking name.
From wiggly black and white stripes, through Pantone charts and multi-coloured harlequin diamonds, Riley has now graduated to spots, while still trying to fiddle with our eyes. There’s nothing wrong with this except that it no longer enjoys the limited appeal of novelty her works once had. It’s something she can do, so she does it. Her spots at the National Gallery London are a massive design of dull matte green, blue and brown, ten inches in diameter and set in diagonal lines, all of which are lovingly painted – as with the rest of her work – by someone else. As braille, we are informed, the wall reads “The blind leading the blind”, while as morse code it translates as “I’m very inﬂuenced by Old Masters therefore I must be as good as them”. So, there’s more to it than meets the eye – oh yes, far more than just an arrangement of flickering discs. It’s all to do with Constable and his clouds, apparently. And don’t forget Seurat; oh no, young Boy Georges, as we all know, was a devil for dots. Heavy stuff then.
Curiously (or not) Riley’s spots in London have their ‘own ‘curator’, or at least some self-important fool who calls themself by that name. How can something not yet in existence be ‘curated’? As usual with State Art and its army of charlatan hangers-on we enter Wonderland, where words mean… whatever. Once upon a time a curator was a scholar who researched and explained an object, and used a breadth of knowledge to situate it precisely inside an oeuvre. It was never a jobsworth who orders the Prosecco and makes sure the ladder’s held properly before sitting down to scribble a page of bollocks about it.
By the way, among the ﬁrst examples of a ‘curator’ I’ve recently come across was Julius Caesar. As a young man he was appointed curator (carer, steward) of the via Appia, the revolutionary all-weather highway (already two centuries old in his day) from Rome to Brindisi. He did a ﬁne job. Long lengths of it can still be walked a mere 2,400 years after it was first laid. I wonder where Riley’s ‘curated’ spots will be in 2,400 years?
On the scale of artistic quality in which zero is a Formula 1 trophy, and ten the Kenwood Rembrandt, Bridget Riley doesn’t even make the subs’ bench. Astonishing really for one who sounds and writes so sensibly, that she should herself produce such empty work. It’s not as though these spots are attractive or entertaining even as a pattern. As with most of state-sponsored contemporary art we are here, yet again, asked to play a game of ‘Let’s Pretend’.
Scottish National Gallery
Sat 15 Jun 2019 - Sun 22 September 2019
Open daily, 10am-5pm, Thursdays until 7pm
£15 – £13 (concessions available)
25 & under £10 – £8.50
David Lee is Editor of The Jackdaw, an Independent bi-monthly paper on the visual arts with a rarely updated website. Former Editor of Art Review magazine, he also supports Manchester City, and occasionally contributes content to Art North magazine.