In a period of abstraction and challenges to traditional modes of painting, in 1961 British artist Bridget Riley began her career of pushing boundaries even further with her paintings and prints which challenge the ways in which we see.
Riley’s works are captivating and certainly experiential. Dynamic in design and eye catching in colour, reproductions do no justice to the optical illusions that are created when standing before a Riley work. Her subject matter is perception and the way in which we see, therefore removing from her work the possibility of a higher meaning. In fact, Riley opposed the assumption that abstraction must represent something, stating that “colours, lines, shapes and spaces don’t have to stand in for double duty. They are and can be themselves. Then one is curious about what they can do, allowed to stand on their own two feet.”
Riley’s clever manipulation of her canvases and papers caught international attention in 1965, when she exhibited her Op Art paintings alongside Victor Vasarely at an exhibition called The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. From this exhibition, Riley’s work captured the public’s imagination and inspired the fashion, design and advertising industries – her artwork even being worn by Keith Moon, the drummer of The Who. Her ground-breaking experiments with colour and shape continue to be acknowledged through grand commissions such as the 56-meter-long mural for St Mary’s Hospital in London and awards. Notably, in 1968 Riley became the first woman to win the coveted International Painting Prize at the Venice Biennale.
Though largely known for her work with colour fields and patterns, crucial to Riley’s work is drawing. A skilled draughtswoman, Riley famously submitted her copy of Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of a Manfrom the National Gallery for admission to Goldsmiths. Throughout her education at Goldsmiths and the Royal College of Art, Riley was a figurative artist, often using her mother as her model. Despite the deviation she would later make from her formal training, Riley still relies on drawing when preparing her work, recognising it as “an exercise in looking.”
Riley struggled with figuration and the old-fashioned teachings she encountered at the RCA, but after visiting a Jackson Pollock exhibition in London in 1958 Riley recognised the capability to expand out of this framework. In 1960 she explored Impressionism, particularly the Pointillist techniques of Georges Seurat, which would become an important source of inspiration. Riley was mesmerised by Seurat’s Bridge at Courbevoie and would continually analyse and reproduce it in her own form. Riley asserts that Bridge at Courbevoietaught her of colour and colour organization, those which she explored in Pink Landscape. Here, using more fulsome dots than Seurat, Riley attempts to understand the manner in which pointillists exploit complimentary colours through depicting the light and heat of the Sienna landscape.
Landscapes and the natural world are important influences for her. Fleeing the dangers London faced during the war, Riley spent her childhood in Cornwall walking through the countryside. Here, she observed the changing colours of nature, light and cloud formations as well as the movements of nature such as a breeze hitting leaves on a tree. These close interactions with the landscape translate into her works which attempt to capture the sensations of the natural world. This is particularly true of Evoë 3, the waves of pastel pink, blue, brown and green are reminiscent of wind carrying waves or passing through leaves and flowers. Riley termed her intense encounters with nature that resulted in her dynamic works “phenomena hunting.”
After leaving art school Riley worked as an art teacher, notably at Hornsey College of Art in the early 60s when she first began to create Op Art. She began exploring the interplay of shape, line and light to create what would become her trademark black and white paintings. Notable of these early works is Movement in Squares, a black and white checkerboard on a flat canvas that nonetheless gives the allusion of collapsing and folding into depth. These Op Art images present a variety of geometric forms that produce similar sensations of movement and, beginning in 1967, colour.
By the mid-60s Riley realised that optical effects created through her black and white works already implied colour. Her transition from black and white into colour began with simple stripes in basic colours and transitioned into wavy lines. Yet, in the 1980s, following a trip to Egypt, Riley transitioned back to the simple stripes in favour of a focus on colour. Using her “Egyptian palette,” Riley began to mimic the “light-mirroring desert” effect created by the ancient Egyptians through the use of few colours. Riley’s success in this manipulation of colour is clear in Nataraja which is uses a diagonal organisation of colour to create a unified field of visual sensation.
Running in parallel to Riley’s developments in painting were those in printmaking. Since the early 60s Riley has worked with the help of assistants who create her pictures based on the preparatory drawings, pasted together coloured papers and screen prints. Still, Riley employed printmaking to create artworks in their own right, beyond preparatory stages. In fact, her painting February 15 ’89 served as the preparatory work for her screen print Fête. Riley believed that a sheet of paper was more appropriate to what she was establishing through her art than a large canvas. Screen printing allowed Riley to achieve the effects desired in painting without the issue of production. Even further, the inks used created the luminosity and gradations she so desired.
Before a work by Riley, viewers are reminded that vision is subjective and draws on our unique experience within the world. Entrancing, Riley’s works constantly pull you back into the world she has created. They transport in that they draw viewers into a manner of looking so intensely that viewers completely look away from everything else as they change and evolve each time you return into something new and exciting.