It's a time thing. The venerable DIA is hosting a judicious but satisfying Bridget Riley retrospective - her first solo exhibition to originate in the United States - which begins, as retrospectives tend to do, at the beginning. On view is Movement in Squares (1961), the picture that was painted in the year Sir Winston Churchill joined Aristotle Onassis' yacht at Gibraltar for a dawdling holiday in the Caribbean and along the US coast. On the day the first Russian cosmonaut went into space, Churchill arrived in New York Harbour for the final time. It was also the year Adolf Eichmann stood trial for his role in the Holocaust, and when President Kennedy's Cuban exile forces were trounced in the Bay of Pigs, a turning point in the Cold War.
Strolling down Tenth Avenue near DIA with a cheerful former student who adored the Riley retrospective, it occurred to me that a great part of Riley's new audience - let's just say those entering university this year - would have no memory of the Cold War, the Iron Curtain or Aristotle Onassis. They have never been alarmed by the prospect of a nuclear war and were adolescents when the Gulf War was conducted; Atari predates them and Michael Jackson has always been white. And yet, Riley's pictures seem awfully familiar to them, perhaps because the edges of entertainment and high-minded art, optical poster art and Riley's fine art have disappeared into one another, blurred into an absence of historical consciousness. They cannot separate entertainment and art, and thus adore Riley plain and simple. And why not?
Op Art rocketing along the tracks of phenomenology, making perception itself the medium of art and thereby furthering Modernism's noble motives, is not the first thing that might spring to mind when looking at Riley's paintings. With her pictorial rigour and exquisite charm, remarkable, subtle and complex play between colour, light and space spinning away with paradox and harmony, Riley's art, which held its rightful place 40 years ago along the leading edge of the avant-garde, has become the stuff of foundation studies from Goldsmith's (where she studied) to Yale. It can be taught and is reproduced at will. And now you can even 'turn dull images into partial Op-Art paintings by Bridget Riley' on the web: The Bridget Riley Effect at www.ransen.com/repligator /Riley.htm.
But her new audience finds none of this disquieting: they do not see her efforts as simply art school lessons, or decoration - 'visual musak', as Lucy Lippard once remarked. This represents the mainstream of their own culture, where entertainment and art have merged. To borrow Flannery O'Connor's fine title to make a point, they seem to know that 'everything that rises must converge'. Here is the interest Riley holds for us now, a sturdy test case for where the culture has taken itself. Her pictures, for whatever else they have been, mark a moment of convergence between distinct avenues of an earlier culture that could have coincided but were never meant to overlap. In this respect we can see the new upper registers of contemporary culture at DIA where we were only supposed to have witnessed the summation of a life's work.