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Bridget Riley - Biography and Legacy

British Painter

Born: April 24, 1931 - London, UK
Movements and Styles:
Op Art

Biography of Bridget Riley


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?"

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 colors 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.

The Legacy of Bridget Riley

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.

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"Bridget Riley Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
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First published on 05 Jul 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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