“White Discs”? The title is somewhat puzzling because the painting consists of black discs on a white ground. The round forms occur in three different sizes: small, medium and large. Their disconnected arrangement seems to be random. But it doesn’t take long before the objective appearance gives way to another perception: in the open intervals between the black discs, luminous phantoms pop up, white discs which are brighter than the ground colour and instantly vanish the moment one tries to focus on them – only to re-emerge in other places, forming clusters or partially overlapping with the black positions. Though the effect is fleeting, this lively activity continues unabated as long as we keep looking at the painting.
Of course, there is a scientific explanation for this phenomenon: the white discs are optical “after-images” of the black ones. But quite apart from the difficulty of re-enacting this physiological law in a convincing experimental set-up, the difference between the optical phenomenon as such and its manifestation in Riley’s painting is as radical as the disparity between a colour in the spectrum and its pictorial function. It is the upshot of a particular compositional device that the white after-images emerge in a clear and sustained manner. Each of the three variously sized black discs is anchored discretely in a linear vertical grid, the painting’s formal backbone, as it were, against which a powerful diagonal movement is directed from bottom left to top right. Kicked off by three full sequences (small-medium-large-medium-small) in the lower-left quarter of the painting, it takes on its dynamism from the very fact that it is not extended formally. Instead, it breaks up, fragments and partly dissolves the vertical framework. The pulsation of the white after-images is generated in the empty spaces. Thus, the almost square picture is transformed into a field of visual energies, in which order and disorder keep each other in balance.
Far from being confronted with a finished result, we are prompted to perform and complete the meaning of the painting with our own eyes. Bridget Riley recalls, “People at the time thought, and some people still seem to think, that they were paintings having to do with optical experiment (and with what was called ‘Op art’ later on); really they were an attempt to say something about stabilities and instabilities, certainties and uncertainties” (1988).1
1 Bridget Riley, The Experience of Painting , in: Robert Kudielka (ed.), The Eye’s Mind: Bridget Riley, Collected Writings 1965–1999, 3rd ed., London, 2009, pp. 195–201, here p. 200.
In the exhibition:
Bridget Riley White Disc 2, 1964 Acrylic on hard fibre 104 x 99 cm Kunstmuseum Den Haag, Niederlande
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