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Known for her large scale ‘Op-Art’ works, Bridgit Riley plays with optical and chromatic phenomena, and is a key figure in modern and abstract art. Imploring the viewer to consider how it physically feels to look, Riley constructs geometric patterns which cause perceptual disruption. There is a timelessness inherent to Riley’s wholly modern works, both in their conception and execution.
Born in Norwood, London in 1931, Riley spent most of her childhood in Cornwall and Lincolnshire, going on to study at the Royal College of Art from 1952 to 1955. Painting figurative subjects in a semi-impressionist manner, Riley’s style evolved to one which resembled Pointillism in around 1958. From 1960, Riley developed her iconic style that she is known for today. This unique style explores the dynamic potentialities of optical phenomena and produces a disorientating, dizzying effect on the eye.
Working exclusively in monochrome until the late 1960s, Riley’s early works integrate optical, scientific effects into the language of painting. Typically featuring repeated geometric shapes, Riley created the effect of movement on two-dimensional surfaces, stimulating the viewer’s eyes into sharper attention as the canvases appear to move and oscillate. Riley’s first works demonstrate her desire to capture the dazzling brilliance of nature in non-figurative abstraction: rendering the sensations and emotions generated when regarding nature in paint, rather than the natural landscapes themselves.
Throughout the 1960s, Riley developed her practice by incorporating grey hues into her works. Yet, it was these exclusively black and white works which initially propelled Riley to international acclaim following the artist’s inaugural solo show at Gallery One in 1962.
Following Riley’s precipitous rise to fame in the 1960s, her zingy geometric designs were quickly appropriated by the fashion industry. Concerned this would damage her artistic reputation, Riley was perturbed. However, as the artist continued to formally innovate and expand the bounds of her painting, her reputation never suffered.
Deceptively simple from the beginning, Riley’s jazzy, psychedelic work is instantly recognisable and continues to define contemporary British art.
The Stripes series is Riley’s most iconic beginning in 1971. Introducing colour into her work in 1967, Riley expanded the perceptual and optical possibilities of her compositions. Despite being a relatively constrained art form: repeated stripes of plain colour, Riley’s successive horizontal bars provide a disruptive surge of visual information. These works represent Riley’s philosophy: that complexity lurks beneath the surface of simplicity, if only we take the time to notice.
The stability of the repeated stripe form enabled Riley to explore the visual effects of colour and varying colour combinations in greater depth. Distinctive and optically vibrant, the works comprising the Stripes series are instantly recognisable.
Riley credits her fervent interest in colour and form with the work of the Italian Futurists and French Masters such as Henri Matisse and Georges Seurat. Pointillism and Divisionism also underpin Riley’s practice: both modern art movements that rely on the capacity of the eye to regard colours laid side by side in order to achieve a fuller spectrum of colour. Like many artists before Riley, including Sonia Delaunay and Josef Albers, Riley was keen to explore the emotional reactions colours could evoke in the viewer.
On Seurat’s work Riley confessed: 'his work gave me a sense of the viewer’s importance as an active participant. Perception became the medium'. This reflects Riley’s utopian view of the function of art: the viewer completes the experience of painting by regarding the artwork.
Despite being regarded as a pioneer of Op Art, Riley regards her painting as less about creating optical illusions, from which the term lends its name, but more about stimulating the viewer’s imagination. Riley’s style has developed in stages throughout her career, from monochromatic, simplified geometric shapes to more colourful, complex rhomboids. Yet, her commitment to exploring the potentialities of colour, shape and form have remained constant throughout.
A painter and screen printer, Riley’s works are the result of lengthy sketching and meticulous planning, enacted with mathematical precision.
In 1965, Riley was featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition The Responsive Eye in New York; the exhibition that first drew world-wide attention to her work. In 1968, Riley represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale and was the first woman to receive the International Painting Prize.
In 1998, Riley became one of only 65 Companions of Honor in Britain. In 2019 the Hayward Gallery opened a 70-year retrospective of Riley’s life and oeuvre. Now at the age of 90, Riley continues to inspire younger generations of artists from Damien Hirst to Rachel Whiteread.
In 2006, Untitled (Diagonal Curve) (1966) a black and white canvas of dizzying curves, sold at Sotheby’s for $2.1 million, nearly three times its $730,000 high estimate, becoming a new record for the artist. In 2008, Chant 2 (1967), which won Riley the 1968 Venice Biennale prize, sold for £2,561,250 at Sotheby’s.
As an iconic British artist, Riley’s works sell well on the primary and secondary markets.
Image © Christie's / Untitled (Diagonal Curve) © Bridget Riley 1971
A stand-out example of British artist Bridget Riley’s visually arresting illusionist œuvre, Untitled (Diagonal Curve) (1966) smashed its price estimate (between £2,500,00 and £3,500,000), realising £4,338,500 at Christie’s London in June of 2016. Performing markedly stronger than some of its straight-lined counterparts, such as Zing 2 (1971), which realised £3,262,500 in June 2021, this dynamic, monochrome work reminds us of Riley’s position at the centre point of the Op Art movement.
Comprising a vertigo-inducing assemblage of seemingly oscillatory form, this optically challenging piece is one of the artist’s last experimentations with black and white; the next year, Riley would go on to make her first bold steps in the world of colour.
Image © Christie's / Zing 2 © Bridget Riley 1971
A work typical of British artist Bridget Riley’s œuvre during the ‘60s and ‘70s, Zing 2 (1971) has remained hidden from the public eye since the time of its production. Significantly outstripping its auction price estimate of £1,800,00 - £2,200,000, the work realised £3,262,500 in June 2021 at Christie’s auction house in London.
In contrast with the markedly more serpentine elements of Riley’s work, such as those vibrant paintings the artist created during the 1980s and beyond, Riley’s use of colour appears somewhat muted. Ever present, however, is the artist’s highly technical, semi-illusionist approach to geometric form – a hallmark of the so-called Op Art movement.
Image © Christie's / Chant 2 © Bridget Riley 1967
Painted in 1967, the year in which British artist Bridget Riley began creating artworks with colour, Chant 2 is a bold work that was first shown at the Venice Biennale in 1968. A conceptual bridge between the artist’s previous experiments with dizzying, optically activated monochrome works, it realised over £2.8 million in February of 2014 at Christie’s auction house in London. A rare example of Riley’s early œuvre, the piece was previously housed in the collection of German art collectors Alfred and Elisabeth Hoh, a pair well-known for their large portfolio of 20th-century European paintings and prints.
Image © Christie's / Orphean Elegy 7 © Bridget Riley 1979