At war with seeing visual art: Do I get it or does it get me?

Deception is in the eye of the beholder, the beauty of which can be seen in the work of Bridget Riley.

For example, take her painting Cantus Firmus, 1972-3, presently on view in ‘Bridget Riley: Paintings and drawings 1961-2004’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Sydney. From a distance we see a vertically aligned painting of white and black stripes of seemingly equal width. Take a few steps forward and zoom, that painting has gone and before us is a corrugated depth of ultra-luminous white stripes fluctuating in warmth and intensity, separated by velvety dark undulations. In the next pace or two we see a true blue come into the picture that was not there before, then zap, in a few steps more we see there is no blue at all but black lined with aqua. When finally one is close enough to name the colours of the individual stripes that comprise the painting – green, rose, aqua… . What! – green, rose, aqua…? One can’t help but find things a little incongruous. So one retraces one’s steps from fusion to individual colours, from colour form to its analysis, or from deception to its unravelling again and again in hope of finding a reconcilable truth – a defining picture – amidst the numerous fugitive versions.

At this point an Art Judge’s gavel can be heard hammering frantically, ‘Order, order in the court please, I said order – sit down immediately’, bang goes the gavel, ‘I said immediately’. The commotion settles and every possible version of the above painting – depending on the distance seen, the proportion of cones to rods in one’s eyes and ratio of red cones to blue and green of different eyes – all take their seats (yes, you read correctly, all the possible Cantus Firmus take their seats). ‘So’, says the Art Judge, ‘will the true, the authentic, the real, the one we can include in art history, the unrepeatable one and only Cantus Firmus please step forward’. All the possible Cantus Firmus that could fit into court that day turn to each other, blink blindly, slightly bow in acknowledgement before returning their blind eye back to the Art Judge fully aware that if one steps forward, so must they all – but if not one, then none at all.

This is what might be termed an ‘art stand off’ between a work’s encapsulating judgement and all its possible and incomparable versions. Is this, perhaps, why aesthetic arguments in art schools these days seem to have closed down? Each student’s version of a work is incomparable to another’s, given its subjective impression cannot be calibrated for being ‘subjective’. Or is there still a ‘something’ by which one’s version can be compared and a difference accorded; a process by which art might still be debated? Ah, the dilemma.

Bridget Riley’s earliest works in this exhibition date back to 1961, at the height of modernism – a ‘something’ within which art could be compared. For many it was not only modernism, but a Greenbergian modernism whereby each medium, such as painting, honed in on its specific characteristics through a reflexive criticism of accepted conventions — to continually discover what is most essential, most indispensable, most distinguishable of that medium. Once distinguished, it was then extinguished in the late 1960s as modernism supposedly came to an end, and the above contemporary dilemma set in.

Given Bridget Riley’s practice spans the years from then to now, is there a ‘something’ to be seen in this present exhibition that might hint at an answer?

Well, to begin with, to say ‘seen’, here, is to cut the experience of Bridget Riley’s paintings short. Riley’s works are not just seen, but felt. They often evoke stomach wrenching, leg warbling and eye-disjunctive experiences by just the twist of a colour strand tightly bound to another (2), or through the opening of a virtual colour space that is neither real nor an illusion, but threatens to engulf one no matter. 3 And yet, perhaps most fascinating is that there is nothing actually to look at in a work by Bridget Riley. That is to say, Riley’s paintings are empty of recognisable ‘content’: there are no representations to justify the extensive time spent by the many viewers I observed at the MCA looking at the paintings. What, then, are we all looking at – and for so long? A painted field of geometric patterns, no doubt. But, not quite. Certainly, what is painted can be broadly described as such, but to paraphrase Paul Moorhouse, who curated the survey exhibition of Riley’s work for the Tate in London last year and from which this current exhibition at the MCA is derived, what one encounters in the work of Bridget Riley is the experience of seeing, ‘itself, made apparent’. 4

Is this some quaint curatorial notion designed to hoodwink a conviction in a somewhat intangible integrity given the work’s medium – ‘perception’ (as broadcasted by promotional paraphernalia) – is, ostensibly, invisible? No. Without illusionistic detail to ensconce a viewer in a fantasy realm that pictorially describes another place, another time – a perspectival depth beyond the canvas such as a space seen through a window – the eyes of these viewers seemed instead to meet the surface of these paintings and be captivated by a here and now: where one’s seeing can be noticed and felt; where one’s seeing can be witnessed.

But to notice one’s seeing is no easy task. Although, admittedly, I did overhear countless say things like, ‘fun, fun, this is total fun’. In fact, observing this made me ask why am I – an artist and Bridget Riley preacher who has not let a moment pass with art students without mentioning the tenets of her work at least three times – blindly passing these paintings by only to leave the exhibition frustrated for feeling there had been nothing, really, to see? I ask this for a second reason also. In mind of writing this 5P piece, I searched the internet and read reviews of Riley’s Tate (2004) and earlier Dia:Chelsea (2000/1) and Serpentine Gallery (1999) exhibitions, only to read in some instances similarly expressed disappointments. Each writer generally acknowledges an indebtedness to Riley’s work in terms of its art historical relevance, but similarly left the exhibition feeling unsatisfied; with one writer saying let’s face it, her work is just graphic design. Screech…: the world just stopped: did I read just ‘graphic design’? 5 That, it is not. Yet why do we, who are trained to see and therefore pronounce such statements authoritatively, dismiss her art as such when those who are not trained appear absolutely fascinated?

This question touches upon the practice, I feel, of many professionals involved in the visual arts here: artists, curators, writers, art administrators, reviewers, dealers, the lot. To answer it, all I can do is endeavour and hope someone might either right, wrong or complete it. The question, again, is: Just how ‘visible’ is the ‘visual’ in art, and why is it that quite a number of us trained to see it in Australia, perhaps can’t?

Shall we start from modernism’s start? The Enlightenment, writer Peter de Bolla points out in his text ‘The Visibility of Visuality’, is most commonly invoked as the ground, ‘upon which modern conceptions of the visual field are constructed’. 6 ‘Visuality’, for de Bolla, ‘encompasses social and cultural productions and practices as well as philosophical and technical descriptions of optics’. 7 Although countlessly stated that Bridget Riley has not studied optics even though her work is so optically charged, the Enlightenment is also referred to by Riley in the catalogue conversation with Jenny Harper who asks Riley what specific problems and issues of modernity retain her interest now. Riley replies:

To put it as simply as possible – the dominant feature of the modern era has been a steady dropping away of the old stable hierarchies. This became apparent intellectually in the Age of Enlightenment and simultaneously, on the social front, in the Industrial Revolution. Traditional values and pre-ordained structures were continually questioned, replaced or even abandoned. This process inevitably affected the practice of art. Artists found that they could no longer expect – or be expected – to communicate through a commonly agreed imagery, alternative routes had to be discovered. The experiences and responsibilities of the individual had become important in ways they had never been before.8

Let’s pause to consider these hierarchies Riley is perhaps referring to by considering also the hierarchies of ‘visuality’ during the Enlightenment as put forward by de Bolla. For de Bolla writes that although contemporary arguments concerning the distinction between high and low culture were not articulated during the Enlightenment given the notion of ‘culture’ itself was just forming, these however might be understood as a continuation of the divided opinion at the time between ‘the requirement that one be educated in some shape or form in order to be able to “see” the works of culture and the notion that any response as long as it be in some sense “genuine” is as valid as any other’.9 This dichotomy of seeing, writes de Bolla, is the kind of argument, ‘obsessively repeated in the face of nonrepresentational art in which the viewer has no ground of vraisemblance [resemblance to a represented object] to stand upon in order to direct the eye. The point of division, then, occurs around an affective response, however this is made apparent, versus an educated and usually classifying gaze: the regime of the eye versus the regime of the picture’.10 Riley’s nonrepresentational work and its insistence upon the sensation of seeing clearly fits within the regime of the eye, that of affective vision.

Also termed ‘sentimental vision’ by de Bolla, he adds that interest in affective vision both during the Enlightenment period and now is ‘based in a levelling and potentially democratic conceptual fold: all who have eyes to see are able to experience an affective response, to “feel,” as an eighteenth-century theorist would have it’. 11

Yet contrary to many an art commentator’s take in Australia on nonrepresentational art as being ‘elitist’, ‘only something the learned can know about to experience’, and even most bizarrely ‘unfeeling’ hence ‘fascistic’ or ‘unrelated to society’, ‘sentimental vision’ as staked since the Enlightenment is potentially the most democratic form of visual fields one can engage in given all one needs in order to enter is not a certificate that declares one has read at least five art history books, but just eyes with which to see.

How is it then that some of us in Australia with not only eyes to see but who have read those five art history books to see better with, have become blind to modernist works such as Riley’s?  We either pass them by, unnoticed, or declare them design; which, I might add, is akin to saying that ‘sentimental vision’ is of a lower, not higher, art. One answer might be that given the current emphasis on contemporary works of art needing to be ‘about’ something – for example ‘about cloning’, or about inequality (gender, race, sexuality, class, religion – rights, generally) – when looking at a work of art one is now most primarily concerned with ‘getting it’; as though it is but a medium through which an artist imparts a ‘message’ concerning a controversial, current or artistically hip issue, topic or theory. In fact, we seem so consumed with ‘getting it’ that if we don’t, we perhaps presume we haven’t read the right book or article – which makes ‘getting it’ always seem just out of reach. What we tend to feel, then, before much art today is not our seeing, but our inadequacy.

Has Enlightenment’s ‘educated eye’ become a black blind hole, dug by an unavoidable lack in one’s knowledge? For it can also act, at times, as an excuse, or alibi, for not ‘getting it’; given the shame of feeling uneducated can cause a self-righteous reaction where one disqualifies certain work unnecessarily. This ‘about’ in contemporary art is the new vraisemblance : both refer to something outside of the work which, if one is not keyed into, one feels locked out of. Contemporary art institutions that propagate this ‘about’ in art seem only to deride even further our confidence to see. As a result ‘sentimental vision’ today, in Australia, is considerably overlooked. 12

For fundamentally, it is not we who ‘get’ the art but the art that gets us. This comes close to the 1960s American critic Clement Greenberg’s formalism where a work of art engenders an automatic response in a viewer, a feeling or thought of some sort (although Greenberg’s formalism is admittedly more prescriptive here), no matter what. 13 All one need do is witness one’s seeing by seeing ‘how’ the work gets you – how certain feelings and thoughts arise in connection to the work – no matter the work’s litany of references or hip subject matter. One can then compare this ‘how’ to the work’s ‘form’ and see if there is any specific resonance. It is here that the work can ‘get you’ in a second sense where one can feel oddly understood; where it is not the work that is understood (we get it, we walk away much smarter), but the viewer who feels understood (it gets us).

What evidence do I have to suggest, then, that sentimental vision is predominantly overlooked in Australia; and isn’t this current exhibition of Bridget Riley’s enough to refute such a claim? No. Although Riley’s work is in itself empty of the ‘about’ syndrome – much to Riley’s credit given the difficulty to maintain this no doubt increases as the work grows in notoriety and promotional pressure – her work’s world fame offers enough of an ‘about’ to bridge the work’s awkward but necessary ‘gap’ for the MCA to exhibit it.

One has only to pick up the recent catalogue of Virginia Coventry’s survey exhibition in October last year at the ANU Drill Hall Gallery in Canberra – an exhibition comparatively locked away given the extensive access to Riley’s work here at present – to feel utterly frustrated by the wasteful disregard Australia has of certain of its own artists’ exceptional brilliance who likewise make nonrepresentational art. 14

‘The Light of Open Spaces: A Survey of Virginia Coventry’s Work’, was curated by Terence Maloon and spanned nearly 40 years of Coventry’s work, from 1965 to 2003 (Riley’s exhibition spans 1961 to 2004). Unable to visit the exhibition I am relying here upon observations made in the catalogue text, where Maloon writes:

 Coventry’s abstract paintings in the 1960s came out of a well established tradition of modern art which was interested in simplification and streamlining, which aspired to harmonise with and complement the elegance of functionalist design and modern architecture, echoing the latter’s aesthetic of clarity and spaciousness (‘the light of open spaces’). Her works stemmed from a visual tradition that shared its idealism and its historical self-consciousness with other ‘progressive’ philosophies and rationalisations of modernity.’ 15

Maloon points out that artists of Coventry’s generation ‘understand the syntax and the synthesis of abstract compositions in aesthetic and intellectual terms, as well as in rapport with the intangible, inexplicable realm of human feeling. [Coventry’s] works are conceived almost entirely by ‘feel’. Because of this, as Mondrian once pointed out, abstract work such as hers ‘can never be empty, because the opposition of its constructive elements and its execution arouse emotion’ – emotion of a subtle, measured, reflective, wry, mostly quite upbeat kind in her case’. 16

And interestingly, although an embracing glow radiates from the ‘open’ colour spaces in Coventry’s work, Maloon most perceptively argues that the notion of ‘Openness’ has also its closed darkness:

In the visual arts, the idea of Openness gave energy and authority to the trends that have had the most impact on the Biennales, art schools and art magazines of today: neo-Dada, mixed-media, pluralist, ‘anything goes’, de-defining, de-materialising, feminist, post-modern, post-colonial, new media, and so on. The ideology of Openness ushered in the much maligned reign of ‘political correctness’, and in the process made the art world less sexist, racist, homophobic and xenophobic. However, if the art world has grown more democratic and accountable in recent decades, the political system grew ominously less so, as [Allan Bloom’s book ‘The Closing of the American Mind’] attests.  . . . Yet some of the most destructive and discredible consequences of this ideology stem from ‘longing for the unlimited, the unconstrained’, Bloom contends. This seems all too true in relation to the visual arts. It might explain why so many painters stopped painting in recent decades, bucking at the limitations of a homogenous medium, a flat surface and a rectangular format, and why so many others ‘went off’, paralysed by the absurdity of limitless possibilities and limitless relativity, or prompted by the dilemma to go soft, silly, arbitrary and atavistic.’ 17

This dark side of ‘Openness’ has perhaps resulted in the surge of contemporary work ‘about’ something external to itself these days. Lament of a tendency comparable to this can also be traced in the remaining part of Riley’s earlier response to Jenny Harper’s question; where one will find Maloon’s argument with ‘Openness’ is not too dissimilar to Riley’s concern over the lack ‘of a more objective framework’. It reads:

. . . It was – and is still – impossible to retreat from this modern achievement. Only by accepting this situation can artistic insight find echoes and responses in a wider public. But relying solely on one’s individual resources is not quite enough. To give your work more than a personal validity you need the support of a more objective framework. Where can one find this if not in the past? I believe that it is possible to rediscover principles and laws in older work quite independently of the styles in which they initially appeared. 18

The principle of ‘sentimental vision’ certainly deserves rediscovery here, regardless of the accompanying animosity. Not, as Riley suggests, in complete adoption of the style to which this past principle pertains, but rather in accordance with the work considered most necessary to make now. By doing so maybe, just maybe, we might begin to see that vision’s visibility now resides in neither the regime of the eye nor the regime of the picture – but the intersubjective space between, the regime in which you and I take our stride and let our eyes take in the scene.

Ah! Before I go there, though, there is still the Art Judge’s gavel to contend with. For presently, it is poised high in the air threatening to proclaim final judgement. But wait, yes, I do believe things have changed. It seems there is a third element now, an eyewitness. This eyewitness is taking a few steps back, and a few more. And with each distance gained the many possible Cantus Firmus fuse until, with the eyewitness’ back now against the wall, there is only one Cantus Firmus remaining. Yet the obverse can be said of the Art Judge. Instead of there being just one as before, the court is now teeming; each with their gavel poised high in the air and eye cocked at the others fully aware that if one lets their gavel fall, so must they all – but if not one, then none at all.

Having now, I hope, de-educated my previous blindness to Riley’s work, I will return to the exhibition this time to see it. (Though quickly, before the clamour of those gavels falls.)


1. Cantus Firmus , 1972-3, acrylic on canvas, 241.3×214.6cm, Tate Gallery collection, London

2. In particular look at ‘Streak 2’, 1979

3. Mostly experienced for me when looking at ‘From Here’, 1994, in front of which I overheard someone say ‘Fun, fun, total fun’.

5. Paul Moorhouse, ‘The ultimate secret of things: Perception and sensation in Bridget Riley’s art’, in the exhibition catalogue Bridget Riley: Paintings and drawings 1961-2004 , Ridinghouse, London, 2004, p. 18.

nb. Please excuse any mistakes in my quotes from this catalogue as I noted the quotes while visiting the exhibition unable to purchase a catalogue, so expect I may at times have miscopied.

5. A review of Riley’s Serpentine Gallery exhibition (18.06–30.08.1999) by the London-based art historian and writer David Cohen,  artnet magazine

6. Peter de Bolla, ‘The Visibility of Visuality’, in Vision in Context: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Sight , ed. Teresa Brennan and Martin Jay, Routledge, New York, 1996, p. 65.

7. ibid., p.65

8. Jenny Harper, Bridget Riley, ‘Bridget Riley in conversation with Jenny Harper, April 2004’, in the exhibition catalogue Bridget Riley: Paintings and drawings 1961-2004 , Ridinghouse, London, 2004, p. 95.

9. Peter de Bolla, op. cit. , p. 69

10. ibid. 

11. ibid. , p. 70.

12. Certain curators and institutions are, however, proactive in this area.

13. This differentiation of formalism from modernism is based on observations by Thierry de Duve in ‘The Monochrome and the Blank Canvas’, Kant after Duchamp , MIT Press, Massachusetts, 1996, p. 199.

14. Said neither to begrudge the Riley exhibition at the MCA nor overlook acknowledgement of the ANU Drill Hall Gallery for having the informed depth to host the exhibition of Coventry’s work in the first place.

15. Terence Maloon, ‘The Light of Open Spaces: A Survey of Virginia Coventry’s Work’ (exhibition catalogue), ANU Drill Hall Gallery, Canberra, 2004, p. 12.

16. ibid. , p. 10.

17. ibid. , p. 13-14.

18. Jenny Harper, Bridget Riley, op. cit. 


5P is a discussion space for SASS commentary on exhibited artworks recently seen. 

The views expressed in 5P are those of the writer and not necessarily of SASS. 

All SASS members are invited to contribute an article. 

posted Wednesday, 2 February 2005

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