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Bridget Riley

British Painter

Movement: Op Art

Born: April 24, 1931 - London, UK

Bridget Riley Timeline

Important Art by Bridget Riley

The below artworks are the most important by Bridget Riley - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Kiss (1961)
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Kiss (1961)

Artwork description & Analysis: Riley started work on Kiss after her relationship with Maurice de Sausmarez ended. While with de Sausmarez, she enthusiastically studied Futurist art in Italy and painted the Italian countryside. She made careful studies of paintings by the Neo-Impressionist Georges Seurat and the abstractionist Piet Mondrian. While working in this manner, Riley wanted to go further than these modern masters in investigating optical experience. In her words she wanted "to dismember, to dissect, the visual experience." With Kiss, Riley found her own forms to explore the vibrating and oscillating space she was so drawn to in these modern painters.

The black and white composition enacts a visual drama on the canvas. The two black forms almost touch, and the white space diminishes toward the center between the two sensuous black forms and then crescendos at the right edge. She said, "I decided on two black shapes, one with a curve, the other with a straight line, opposites, nearly touching, but not touching, the white spaces between them making almost a flash of light." She felt it was a success, and although she had told herself it would be her last painting, the painting pointed to further explorations.

The work is abstract, drawing on the open and shallow pictorial space established by Mondrian and the Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock. She activated that space with minimal means: sharply delineated black and white forms often asymmetrically arranged. With these means she embarked on a series of numerous black and white paintings that came to define the Op Art of the early 1960s.

Oil on canvas - Private Collection

Movement in Squares (1961)
Artwork Images

Movement in Squares (1961)

Artwork description & Analysis: Riley cites Movement in Squares as the first major step, after Kiss, towards her breakthrough into abstraction. During a difficult time in her art making, and in an attempt to make a new start, she began with the simple square. She said "Everyone knows what a square looks like and how to make one in geometric terms. It is a monumental, highly conceptualized form: stable and symmetrical, equal angles, equal size. I drew the first few squares. No discoveries there. Was there anything to be found in a square? But as I drew, things began to change." She created the design for Movement in Squares in one sitting without stopping, and then painted each alternate square black to provide contrast. When she stepped back to look, she was "surprised and elated" by what she saw.

Riley establishes the square as the basic unit and then modulates it across the canvas, maintaining its height but changing its width. The square's width diminishes toward the center of the canvas until it becomes a sliver, and then increases again toward the right edge. It's as if two planes are coming together and bending into each other, not unlike the pages of a bound book lying open. The progression of shapes intensifies, climaxes, and then de-escalates, provoking the viewer to confront their perceptual senses as well as their ideas of "stabilities and instabilities, certainties and uncertainties." Riley's exploration of how we see came to be rooted in her own experience and experimentation, her own intuition, and not on theories of optics.

Acrylic on canvas - Arts Council Collection, London

Current (1964)
Artwork Images

Current (1964)

Artwork description & Analysis: Current graced the cover of the catalog for the seminal 1965 MoMA exhibition of Op Art, "The Responsive Eye," that launched Riley's notoriety in the United States. Working in black and white, Riley repeats a wavy black line at regular intervals across the canvas. The curve and the proximity of the lines make the painting appear to vibrate and move, as the viewer attempts to process the forms.

This composition confounds the usual foreground/background arrangement of pictorial space by not privileging one over the other. It is difficult to ascertain if the black is on top of the white or the white on top of the black, and instead the relation between the two colors never settles into an easy harmony. Riley has always been a little skeptical of the label "Op Art" because of its "gimmicky" sound. While her work produces optical illusions, of movement for instance, Riley insists that her paintings are not mechanical or depersonalized. She stresses the subjectivity of her own decision-making process in creating the forms.

In addition to the vibratory space created by the contrasting black and white forms, the viewer will also notice another phenomenon: colors not painted on the canvas begin to appear. One critic described them as "strangely iridescent disembodied colors, like St. Elmo's fires" that occur around points of tension in the composition. Where a light color meets a dark one, the brain creates color out of the juxtaposed lightness and darkness. Through stimulating our visual and mental processes, Riley fulfills her aim for "the space between the picture plane and the spectator to be active."

Synthetic polymer paint on composition board - MoMA, New York

Cataract 3 (1967)
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Cataract 3 (1967)

Artwork description & Analysis: This work is part of a series of cataract paintings Riley made in 1967, which constitute her first explorations into the use of color, just before the 1968 Venice Biennale, where Riley became the first British painter and the first woman to win the International Prize for Painting. As with the careful, studied exploration of form Riley pursued in her earliest abstract paintings, she had to take on color in a similar manner. She said "I had to work through the Black and White paintings before I could even begin to think about possibilities of color. There are no short cuts. I had to go step by step, testing the ground before making a move." What she discovered was that "the basis of colour was its instability." That is, color is never entirely "pure"; adjacent colors always affect it. She could now explore the dynamism, repetition, contrast, and harmony found in the earlier paintings in color.

To create Cataract 3, Riley painted a repeated pattern of vermillion and turquoise stripes, which wave like ribbons across the canvas. This strong warm and cold color contrast plays with the viewer's sense of vision to create a plethora of other colors that appear at the edges of where the vermillion and turquoise meet. The whole canvas appears to shift and move, creating a degree of dynamism, which feels at odds with the fundamentally static nature of traditional painting. There is a concentration of vermillion pigment towards the center of the canvas, which simultaneously draws the viewer in and repels them outward, invoking the sensation of simultaneous tension and dissolution.

Riley claims that the curve, which she frequently uses in her work, relates to the fundamental human condition. Underscoring the somatic nature of vision, Riley explains "The curve is frozen movement. It relates to the way we walk. This side contracts, this side extends. When we see a painted curve we somehow recognize that."

Emulsion PVA on linen - Arts Council Collection, London

Cantus Firmus (1972-73)
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Cantus Firmus (1972-73)

Artwork description & Analysis: After Riley introduced color to her work in 1967, she began to expand her palette to include a range of hues. In Cantus Firmus, Riley paints a repeated pattern of straight lines of varying widths in pink, turquoise, and lime green set between additional lines of black, white and grey across the canvas. This variation of width and shade provides the work with a sense of movement that develops across the work, and also with a depth that seems to defy the flat plane of the canvas.

The title of the work is a musical term referring to a fixed musical theme that is then transformed in various ways through changes in melody, rhythm, or instruments. The effect of Riley's painting is similarly rhythmical, and the concept of musical variation is echoed in the way in which Riley's bold and deliberate placement of different colors affects what the viewer is seeing. The lime-green and pink stripes placed next to white or grey cause the eye to mix these colors in the mind, while the black bands instead intensify the colors and their positions, demonstrating the mutability of colors depending on their surroundings.

Riley discovered that using stripes didn't distract the viewer from her exploration of light and color because the stripes are "unassertive forms." She said that "form and colour seem to be fundamentally incompatible; they destroy each other... Colour energies need a virtually neutral vehicle if they are to develop uninhibited. The repeated stripe seems to meet these conditions."

Acrylic paint on canvas - Tate Modern, London

Achaean (1981)
Artwork Images

Achaean (1981)

Artwork description & Analysis: Achaean is one of the striped paintings that Riley created after her 1979 visit to Egypt. She was taken with the colors of the landscape and those she saw in Egyptian tomb paintings, and subsequently began working in what she referred to as her "Egyptian palette". The colors that characterize works like Achaean are richer and more intense than those used in her earlier works, enhanced by her switching from acrylic and synthetic paints to more traditional oil paints, which tend to capture and refract light on the surface of the canvas.

With this series of paintings, Riley found a new sense of freedom in placing the stripes irregularly, without pattern, across the surface of the canvas. Beginning in the 1960s with her Black and White paintings, Riley drew and sketched multiple iterations of a composition before committing it to canvas. Riley continued the process but transformed it into more of a collage-like activity, creating strips of paper painted with gouache and rearranging them before settling on a final composition.

Riley has suggested that the painting should be read horizontally, looking across the stripes from left to right in order to appreciate the variations between warmer and cooler colors amongst the darker accents. The title refers to ancient Greek peoples, who according to Riley created "the finest early sculpture - vigorous but simple." Riley translated that vigorous simplicity into a two dimensional painting. To this day, Riley's paintings continue to evolve, as she further explores the interrelations of colors and various shapes.

Oil on canvas - Tate Modern, London



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Bridget Riley Photo

Related Art and Artists

The Woman with a Hat (1905)
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The Woman with a Hat (1905)

Artist: Henri Matisse

Artwork description & Analysis: Matisse attacked conventional portraiture with this image of his wife. Amelie's pose and dress are typical for the day, but Matisse roughly applied brilliant color across her face, hat, dress, and even the background. This shocked his contemporaries when he sent the picture to the 1905 Salon d'Automne. Leo Stein called it, "the nastiest smear of paint I had ever seen," yet he and Gertrude bought it for the importance they knew it would have to modern painting.

Oil on canvas - The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Autumn Rhythm: Number 30 (1950)
Artwork Images

Autumn Rhythm: Number 30 (1950)

Artist: Jackson Pollock

Artwork description & Analysis: While only one painting from Pollock's 1950 solo exhibition was actually sold, the show gained much attention. It was described by Art News as one of the three best exhibitions of the year, and Cecil Beaton staged a famous fashion shoot in the exhibition space, which subsequently appeared in Vogue. Autumn Rhythm was one of the major works which appeared in that show. As with many of Pollock's paintings, he began it with a linear framework of diluted black paint which in many areas soaked through the unprimed canvas. Over this he applied more skeins of paint in various colors - lines thick and thin, light and dark, straight and curved, horizontal and vertical. As the title suggests, the coloring, horizontal orientation, and sense of ground and space in Autumn Rhythm are strongly evocative of nature. The balance between control and chance that Pollock maintained throughout his working process produced compositions that can have as much calm tranquillity as some works by Rothko.

Oil on canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art

Duo- 2 (1967)
Artwork Images

Duo- 2 (1967)

Movement: Op Art

Artist: Victor Vasarely

Artwork description & Analysis: The contrasting warm and cool shades here create the ambiguous illusion of three-dimensional structures. Are they concave, or convex? The illusion is so effective that we are almost led to forget that it is a painted image, and made to think it is a volumetric construction. Although black and white delivered perhaps the most memorable Op images, color also intrigued many Op artists. The scientific study of color had been central to teaching at the Bauhaus, and Vasarely certainly benefited from his education at what was often called the "Budapest Bauhaus." Bauhaus teachers such as Joseph Albers encouraged students to think not of the associations or symbolism of colors, which had so often been important in art, but simply of the effects they had on the eye.

Gouache and acrylic on board - Private Collection

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