The British painter Bridget Riley, who is the subject of an exhibition at the Christchurch Art Gallery in New Zealand (Bridget Riley: Cosmos, until 17 November) has long held an interest in perceptual phenomena. In this essay, which is adapted from its original publication in the gallery’s Bulletin magazine, the art historian Richard Shiff explains how Georges Seuart proved to be a crucial guide.

What does Bridget Riley’s art mean? We might imagine that a wall painting titled Cosmos (2017) refers to life within a cosmos, an order that encompasses us, whether natural or divine. The designation connotes a degree of philosophical speculation, unlike the direct descriptions that Riley occasionally employs as titles, such asComposition with Circles. But whatever meaning we derive from viewing Cosmos will be no more intrinsic to it than its name. Attribution of meaning comes after the fact and requires our participation in a social discourse. Every object or event to which a culture attends acquires meaning; and Riley’s art will have the meanings we give it, which may change as our projection of history changes. Meaning, in this social and cultural sense, is hardly her concern.

At an early stage of her career, Riley wilfully stepped outside history: “While one has to accept that the role of art and its subjects do change, the practical problems do not. … True Modern painting, I believe, should always be a beginning—its own re-invention, if you like.” She has been exceptionally strict about avoiding aesthetic trends. During the 1960s, works such as Black to White Discs (1962) may have initiated a fashion for bold optical effects; but this historical consequence was inadvertent, and Riley shunned its significance. Part of, and yet apart from, her era, she aims to function as an artist, not an agent of history. To understand her attitude, we need to accept that art and history run separate courses, though the notion will seem paradoxical, especially to those convinced that a social practice like art cannot remain independent of historical forces such as economics, politics and ideological contestation. Read more