The main lesson I learned from this museum-scale exhibition of works by Bridget Riley from 1983 to 2010 was that in abstract painting, comedy can reside in a single dot. The dot in question isn’t laugh-out-loud funny but rather silently and pleasantly awkward (perhaps in the British sense of the comedic). And in order to work as a quasi-punch line, it needs a long and slightly elaborate story leading up to it (so bear with me until I return to the dot).
The word ‘story’ might be misleading, as Riley has been concerned for five decades with the idea of pitching colour, shape and rhythm not against narrative content – like the old masters she so keenly studies – but against themselves. Riley considers herself lucky to be able to draw on painting’s history, although, in Berlin, the ‘story’ of the gradual shifts and turns of her abstraction was told without summoning its predecessors (as in her concurrent show at The National Gallery in London, which includes pieces by Andrea Mantegna, Raphael and Georges Seurat alongside her own), yet still with a Modernist sense of elliptical clarity. Beginning in her stripe paintings from the 1980s, colour is submitted to a simple, rigid system of thin vertical stripes on portrait-format canvases. In Delos (1983), for example, blue, turquoise and emerald hues alternate with rich yellows, reds and white. It draws you in while also deflecting your view like translucent gauze; the effect is one of dense compression working against the exuberance of the colours, like an unnervingly steady frequency throbbing in your head on a sunny day. The huge wall drawing Composition with Circles 4 (2004) involves an irregularly syncopated pattern of interlocking black circles on a white ground, which, similarly to the striped paintings, lets your gaze swing between immersion and deflection by means of sparseness rather than density.
What is missing in most pop-cultural adaptations of Riley’s work – like the mid-1960s ‘brash carpets’ Hanif Kureishi describes in his memoir My Ear at His Heart (2004) as his parents’ ‘Bridget Riley phase’, or fashion designer Paul Smith’s trademark stripes – is precisely this kind of tension. It would be silly to expect pop culture not to fall for the allure of Riley’s work or to provide accurate viewing conditions to experience it, but it would be even sillier to ignore the importance of display for its perception. Seen reprinted in a magazine, paitings such as Debut (1988) or In Attendance (1994), with their streams of multi-coloured parallelograms, could be mistaken for random patchworks. But look closer and longer and you will feel as if you’re watching an extremely low-resolution, pixelated version of a figurative painting – aren’t these oranges and light lavenders, which are distributed across In Attendance, shades of flesh? And yet you’ll realize that this is an allusion to pictorial illusion, not pictorial illusion itself.
Painting with Circle 1 (2010) presents you, finally, with a composition of curved orange and green shapes juxtaposed with a single pinkish lavender dot on baby-blue ground on the left-hand side of the image. It sits there like a fly in the ointment, the sudden singular occurrence that makes life interesting. I probably wouldn’t have noticed it without having seen most of the other work in the show first. When I first looked at the painting I happened to be standing next to a renowned illustrator; he pointed out the little triangular form at the top of the painting, the same colour as the dot and resembling an impish hat pushed out of its cover by the dot’s intervention. The act of seeing is just as much about control as it is about losing control; with its witty timing, Riley’s work provides plenty of occasions to hold that tension instead of losing it.