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Bridget Riley

British Painter

Movement: Op Art

Born: April 24, 1931 - London, UK

Bridget Riley Timeline

Quotes

"Fashion always plays a part in the art world, but when it gets the upper hand it spells a vacuum."
Bridget Riley
"The music of colour, that's what I want"
Bridget Riley
"The marks on the canvas are sole and essential agents in a series of relationships which form the structure of the painting."
Bridget Riley
"I always took care to learn from the past, to look carefully at what other painters had done and why, at how they got there."
Bridget Riley
"Contrast is a very basic principle of my work, but I use a mixture of colour harmonies and colour contrasts to activate effects."
Bridget Riley
"For me nature is not landscape, but the dynamism of visual forces."
Bridget Riley
"Painters have always needed a sort of veil upon which they can focus their attention. It's as though the more fully the consciousness is absorbed, the greater the freedom of the spirit behind."
Bridget Riley
"Painting is, I think, inevitably an archaic activity and one that depends on spiritual values."
Bridget Riley
"No painter, dead or alive, has ever made us more aware of our eyes than Bridget Riley."
Robert Melville, 1971

"I couldn't get near what I wanted through seeing, recognizing and recreating, so I stood the problem on its head. I started studying squares, rectangles, triangles and the sensations they give rise to."

Bridget Riley Signature

Synopsis

Bridget Riley's geometric paintings implore the viewer to reflect on how it physically feels to look. Her paintings of the 1960s became synonymous with the Op Art movement, which exploited optical illusions to make the two-dimensional surface of the painting seem to move, vibrate, and sparkle. Grounded in her own optical experiences and not color theories, math, or science, Riley experiments with structural units, such as squares, ovals, stripes, and curves in various configurations and colors to explore the physical and psychological responses of the eye. Her paintings inspired textile designs and psychedelic posters over the decades, but her objectives have always been to interrogate what and how we see and to provoke both uncertainty and clarity with her paintings.

Key Ideas

Steeped in the paintings of the Impressionist, Post-Impressionists, and the Futurists, Riley dissects the visual experience of the earlier modern masters without their reliance on figures, landscapes, or objects. Playing with figure/ground relations and the interactions of color, Riley presents the viewer with a multitude of dynamic, visual sensations.
Riley's formal compositions invoke feelings of tension and repose, symmetry and asymmetry, dynamism and stasis and other psychic states, making her paintings less about optical illusions and more about stimulating the viewer's imagination.
While Riley meticulously plans her compositions with preparatory drawings and collage techniques, it is her assistants who paint the final canvases with great precision. Riley creates a tension between the artist's subjective experience and the almost mechanical feeling of the surface of the painting.
Riley's artistic practice is grounded in a utopian, social vision. She views her art as an inherently social act, as the viewer completes the experience of the painting. This belief in an interactive art led her to resist the commercialization, and in her mind, the vulgarization of Op art by the fashion world.

Most Important Art

Bridget Riley Famous Art

Kiss (1961)

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.
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Bridget Riley Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood

Bridget Riley was born in Norwood, London. Her father, John Fisher Riley, was a printer and owned his own business. He relocated his firm and the family to Lincolnshire in 1938 and when the Second World War broke out a year later, he was drafted into the army. While on active duty, he was captured by the Japanese and forced to work on the Siamese railway. He survived, but Riley remembers he was never the same. She recalls how "he had learned to live in a self-contained way, to isolate himself from what was around him."

During the war years, Riley was sent with her mother, sister and aunt to live in Cornwall, near the seaside town of Padstow. While she was there, she was given a great deal of freedom. Later she would claim that these early experiences roaming the countryside, spending hours watching cloud formations and the shifting light throughout the day, strongly informed her artistic practice.

Early Training

After attending secondary school at Cheltenham Ladies' College, she studied first at Goldsmith's college of art at the University of London (1949-1952), and then at the Royal College of Art, also in London, where she graduated with a BA in 1955. While there, she met fellow students Peter Blake and Frank Auerbach.

Being exposed to the London art scene for the first time, Riley found her studies at the Royal College of Art difficult, and she faced the dilemma most modern painters also experienced: "What should I paint, and how should I paint it?"

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Bridget Riley Biography Continues

After leaving college, Riley returned to Lincolnshire to care for her father, who suffered from injuries sustained in a car accident. While there, she underwent a physical and mental breakdown. She returned to Cornwall in an attempt to recuperate, but the stay did little to revive her health. After returning to London in 1956, she was hospitalized for six months. During this period her artistic productivity diminished along with her weak health.

Mature Period

In 1956, Riley saw an important exhibition of American Abstract Expressionist painters at London's Tate Gallery. She returned to painting seriously again, exploring the lessons of Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard. The following year she was sufficiently recovered to take a job teaching art at a girls' school in Harrow, near London.

Two years later, in 1958, she left teaching to become a commercial illustrator. That year, visiting an exhibition on "The Developing Process," she became interested in the ideas of Harry Thurbon, a teacher at the Leeds School of Art. Thurbon was a proponent of a new form of arts education that moved away from romantic ideas of expression toward concrete skills, embracing a connection to professional contexts, such as illustration and design. Thurbon's ideas echoed the much earlier ideas of form and function taught at the Bauhaus, which was an important inspiration in early Op art.

Riley attended Thurbon's well-known summer school in Norfolk, where she met influential artist, writer, and educator Maurice de Sausmarez. The pair began an intense relationship, and with de Sausmarez acting as her mentor, Riley began to expand her knowledge of the history of art and culture. In 1960, the couple traveled to Italy, where Riley painted the countryside and took in the art of the Futurists, especially the paintings of Boccioni and Balla, as well as the frescoes of Pierro della Francesca, and the black and white Romanesque facades found on the churches of Ravenna and Pisa.

On her return to London, Riley synthesized her experiences into her first geometric patterned paintings. She continued to develop this new, bold abstract style over the next year. In 1962, in a legendary bit of luck, she took shelter from a sudden rainstorm in Victor Musgrave's London gallery, and he offered her a show. This first exhibition met with great critical acclaim, and over the following decade she was included in many of the well-known survey shows that came to define British painting in the 1960s, including the 1963 "New Generation" exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, with artists such as Allen Jones and David Hockney.

In 1965, Riley made her debut in the United States with a sold-out solo show at the Richard Feigen Gallery and with a prominent place in The Museum of Modern Art's influential exhibition of Op art, "The Responsive Eye." Unfortunately this rapid success led to one of the more difficult moments in her career. In later accounts, Riley recalled her drive from the airport to the museum, passing shop window after window with dresses whose fabrics were inspired by Op art or, in some cases, taken directly from her paintings. Despite the affinity between many Op art artists and the textile and design industries, she was dismayed by the commercialization of her work and claimed "the whole thing had spread everywhere even before I touched down at the airport." She tried to sue the designers of one of the dresses, but was unsuccessful. Riley said at the time that "it will take at least 20 years before anyone looks at my paintings seriously again."

Current work

While Op art's critical acclaim suffered in the United States due to its rapid commercialization, Riley continued to enjoy success in Britain. After 1967, Riley introduced color into her previously black and white paintings and has continued her explorations of form, color, and space to the present. In 1968, Riley worked with Peter Sedgley (her partner at the time) and Peter Townsend (a journalist) to create SPACE, an artists' organization that assisted artists looking for studio space and fostered community.

In 1981, Riley traveled to Egypt. She was moved by the dynamic use of color in ancient Egyptian art, saying that "the colours are purer and more brilliant than any I had used before." She was fascinated by the way Egyptian artists managed to use only a few colors to represent what she described as the "light-mirroring desert" around them. Her paintings after this trip contained a freer arrangement of colors than she had previously used and a palette inspired by the Egyptian art she had seen.

In the later 1980s and 1990s, Riley completed a number of large-scale, site-specific commissions. For example, in 1983 Riley painted a series of murals on the interior of the Royal Liverpool Hospital. The color scheme she chose was intended to make the patients calmer, and the murals significantly lowered the rates of vandalism and graffiti within the hospital.

Riley continues to produce art today. She works from several studios, including in her home in South Kensington, where four out of the five floors are dedicated to artistic production. Although Op art's visibility diminished over the last decades, Riley's example of pursuing tradition and innovation has inspired a younger generation of painters seeking to enliven the medium.


Legacy

Riley became an icon, not just of Op art, but of contemporary British painting in the 1960s, and she was the first woman to win the painting prize at the Venice Biennale in 1968. Riley's innovations in art inspired a generation of Op artists, including Richard Allen and Richard Anuszkiewicz. Due to the abstract geometric nature of much of her work, she has also been cited as an influence for many designers, including the well-known graphic designer Lance Wyman, whose work on the Mexico 1968 Olympic Games shows a strong correlation with Riley's aesthetic.

She also had an impact on a diverse number of artists associated with the YBA movement, including Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread. Even if artists aren't influenced by her abstract style, they cite her intelligence and perseverance in an ever-changing art world as a model.

The organization that she founded in 1968 with friend and fellow Op artist Peter Sedgley, SPACE, which helps artists find studio space and fosters a community of creative individuals, continues today in London.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Bridget Riley
Interactive chart with Bridget Riley's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Henri MatisseHenri Matisse
Jackson PollockJackson Pollock
Victor VasarelyVictor Vasarely
Paul CézannePaul Cézanne
Georges SeuratGeorges Seurat

Friends

Peter BlakePeter Blake
Frank AuerbachFrank Auerbach
Richard Allen

Movements

Abstract ExpressionismAbstract Expressionism
Post-ImpressionismPost-Impressionism
Italian FuturismItalian Futurism
Bridget Riley
Bridget Riley
Years Worked: 1960s - present

Artists

Richard AnuszkiewiczRichard Anuszkiewicz
Howard HodgkinHoward Hodgkin

Friends

EH Gombrich

Movements

Op ArtOp Art

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Useful Resources on Bridget Riley

Videos

Books

Websites

Articles

More

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

biography

The Eye's Mind: Bridget Riley - Collected Writings 1965-2009 Recomended resource

By Bridget Riley

Bridget Riley

By Paul Moorhouse

artworks

Bridget Riley: The Stripe Paintings

By Paul Moorhouse, Robert Kudielka and Richard Schiff

Bridget Riley: The Curve Paintings 1961-2014

By Bridget Riley

More Interesting Books about Bridget Riley
Not so square after all

By Michael Kimmelman
The Guardian
September 28, 2000

An art history lesson from Bridget Riley

By Maggie Gray
Apollo Magazine
August 12, 2015

Leading your brain into a crazy pirouette Recomended resource

By Jonathan Jones
The Guardian
June 11, 2015

Bridget Riley: How I got my curves back

By Mark Hudson
The Telegraph
June 15, 2015

More Interesting Articles about Bridget Riley

interviews

A Q&A with Bridget Riley, painter

By Dany Louise
Art News
June 18, 2015

At the End of my Pencil Recomended resource

By Bridget Riley
The London Review of Books
October 8, 2009

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