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Making waves

Bridget Riley's paintings writhe with life – and paired with works by Raphael, Seurat and Mantegna, they create a kind of encounter with time

The circles fill the wall. I cannot count them. There is not one that does not overlap another. There seems to be a system to the clusterings and overlappings, but I can't grasp that either. It is like a word on the tip of your tongue. I keep getting lost; my eye won't be still. Each circle seems to have a relation to the body that made it – the radius of each circle might be the distance from the elbow to the fingertip – but I am not sure. The white wall is flat and smooth, as if painting began with the wall itself, and the circles on it are almost perfect outlines, perhaps as broad as a woman's finger. I look for where the line – so even, so dispassionate – falters, some human touch. There. But that's not why it doesn't feel mechanical, or a trick. It's more than spinning plates, or a conjuror with his interlocking metal hoops.

Getting up close, each open "O" feels like an invitation. Something more than pattern is inscribed here. Very often, Bridget Riley's art blows me away. Sometimes she stirs me and makes me want to sit and look for hours, just to be here, in this light with this work. The huge drawing that fills the white wall of the Sunley Room at the National Gallery is the high point of Riley's exhibition. Never mind that we have walked past Mantegna, Raphael and Seurat, these touchstones of Riley's thinking, to get here. Suddenly they are forgotten. Riley's exhibition, which juxtaposes her pictures with work she has picked from the National Gallery collection, is more than a confrontation with her forebears, or even with herself. She brings together works from all periods of her own career. There is 1960s optical art and 1970s stripes, the complex recursive scimitar, flame and sail shapes, and compound curves of the works from the last two decades, with their close-toned saturated colour and compacted compositions. Yet this is less a lesson in history than one of presence, and presentness, of being in the now. The confrontation is really between ourselves and Riley's work.

You don't so much look at Bridget Riley's paintings as watch them, as their configurations and forms jostle and shift and change before you. They refuse to settle down and resist easy assimilation. At their best, her works seem alive. Can the same be said of Raphael's St Catherine (1507), with her dirty fingernails, and the wheel on which she was martyred, that imploring big-eyed heavenward look that reminds me of Goya's dog, drowning in quicksand? Can it be said of the mythologies and ancient histories in Mantegna, or of Seurat's working-class loafers beside the Seine on an imaginary Sunday in the late 19th century? Don't they all speak of an elsewhere?

Riley is 80 now. When she was making her application to Goldsmiths college in 1949 she made a copy of Jan van Eyck's Portrait of a Man, which is presumed to be a self-portrait. Weirdly, it looks not unlike Riley herself in old age, and stares across at the Raphael and the three Seurat studies for his Bathers at Asnières (1883). Somehow all these works – which are as distant from one another as they are from Riley's own art – seem to form a diagram of some sort, a cat's cradle in which you are trapped between different ideas of presence, and between things that have mattered in different ways to Riley throughout her long working life. It feels such a generous, intimate moment. I hesitate there.

Riley would probably see it differently, and ask us to look for concordances of rhythm and colour and enduring formal preoccupations. Putting it bluntly, I cannot think like her. When Riley tried to understand Bonnard's colour, and attempted to analyse Mondrian's Broadway Boogie-Woogie, she encountered her own difficulties, and couldn't follow their logic. Riley's thinking has a kind of clarity I lack, which is why I admire what she does – in her art and her writing – as much as I do. Encounters with difference are important and instructive. But when you look, you have to read the work your own way.

Mantegna's frieze-like 1505-6 Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome hangs in a heavy gilded frame on an oxblood wall opposite a wave-like Riley from 1965, which is unframed and hung on a white wall. It's a face-off, not just between very different kinds of art, but between display manners – clarity versus gloom, heaviness versus light, mustiness versus Modern. The attendant guarding this moment told me he'd counted 14 figures in the foreground of the Mantegna, and 14 ribbon-like stripes in the Riley. But we're not looking here for one-to-one relationships, between stripes and figures, or even between the Mantegna, with its linear depictions of drapery and processional composition, and Riley's optical flows and counterflows. You look at the figures in the Mantegna as though you were walking along a carved stone relief. The Riley opposite has its own kind of relief-like illusion of sculpted visual space, but it sings and flows in a way that the Mantegna doesn't, and never could.

As much as anything else, it's an encounter with time. Looking at Riley is also an encounter with the activity of your own perceptions: the way a curve will torque and twist, the bright penumbras flickering at the edge between two simultaneously contrasting colours, the way sensory overload forces attention away from one moment in a painting to another, the way colours wince and blink as your eye slides across a surface. It is an existential as much as a phenomenological encounter.

Riley knows her art history, and treats the past as though it were present in her art. In her work, she tries to make it new every time. She doesn't always succeed, but that's also why, and how, she's good. Her paintings, uninflected and dispassionate, without trace of a brushstroke, a human twitch or slither, are completed by assistants. Those foolish persons who demand the human touch of the artist are looking in the wrong place. It isn't the object that matters so much as the artist's thought, their sensibility and culture. It isn't the artist's hand that writhes with life. It's the art itself.

The stone-sucking system

How far her art might appear from painting's history. It seems so distinctively modern and of our time. All those Riley paintings appropriated for optical-art dresses and T-shirts, with their stark black-and-whites, and as the covers of LPs (The Faust Tapes from 1973 springs to mind) located her works as an adjunct to fashion. But Riley didn't have to escape fashion. Her work was strong enough to do that by itself. And being used as album artwork never did an artist any harm (think of Gerhard Richter and Sonic Youth), so long as the music was of the right order – not that I really imagine Richter much liking Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation (1988), or Riley getting off on Faust. But you never know with Riley. She has written as brilliantly and perceptively on Bruce Nauman's videos as she has on Cézanne.

Artists make their own connections across history, cultures and civilisations, and create their own lineages and narratives, however apparently far-fetched. Riley has said she admires the stone-sucking scene in Samuel Beckett's Molloy, in which Molloy has to invent a system whereby he can suck the stones in his pockets equally. Riley invents her own arcane systems but she surely also admires Beckett's humanity. It is locked in the language and revealed in the imagery, in the jokes as well as the form of Beckett's writing. And so it is with Mantegna or Raphael, as much as in Riley's own art.

So many contemporary art shows at the National Gallery have been depressing, let's-get-down-and-dirty with history affairs, self-conscious and embarrassing suck-ups to the old masters. Riley's show is something else.

Join the dots: See images from the show, with commentary by the National Gallery's Colin Wiggins, at © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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