Associated with the Op Art movement, Bridget Riley rose to fame in the ’60s when she began to challenge traditional modes of painting and ways of seeing. Embracing abstraction, Riley opposed the search for meaning in her work, 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.” Today her work remains just as captivating and elusive as it was then, and is highly sought after by collectors around the world.
Riley’s clever manipulation of her canvases brought her to 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. With this exhibition, Riley’s work captured the public’s imagination and inspired the fashion, design and advertising industries – a piece of hers was even worn by Keith Moon, the drummer of The Who. In 1968 Riley became the first woman to win the coveted International Painting Prize at the Venice Biennale. Her ground-breaking experiments with colour and shape continue to be acknowledged through grand commissions such as the 56-meter-long mural she made for St Mary’s Hospital in London in 2014 and major retrospectives.
Though she is 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 Man when applying 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 later deviation 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 her potential to expand out of this framework. In 1960 she explored Impressionism, particularly the Pointillist techniques of Georges Seurat, which would also 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 Courbevoie taught her of colour and colour organisation, which she explored in Pink Landscape. Here, using larger dots than Seurat, Riley attempts to understand the manner in which the pointillists exploited complementary colours by depicting the light and heat of a Sienese landscape.
Landscapes and the natural world are important influences for Riley. Fleeing the dangers London faced during the war, Riley spent her childhood in Cornwall walking through the countryside. Here, she observed the changing light and cloud formations as well as the movements of nature such as a breeze brushing against the 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, where the waves of pastel pink, blue, brown and green are reminiscent of wind moving across a body of water 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 in the early ’60s, Riley worked as an art teacher, notably at Hornsey College of Art. In her spare time she began to form her ideas around Op Art, exploring the interplay of shape, line and light to create what would become her trademark black and white paintings. Perhaps her most famous early work 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 the 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. However, 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 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 preparatory drawings, pasted together coloured papers and screen prints. Riley also employed printmaking to create artworks in their own right; 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 and the inks used created the luminosity and gradations she so desired.
Standing before a work by Riley, viewers are reminded that vision is subjective and draws on our unique experience within the world. Entrancing in their pattern and colour, Riley’s works constantly pull you back into the world she has created, drawing the viewer into a manner of looking so intensely that everything else falls away.