The pristine geometric repetitions and optical trickery of Bridget Riley's paintings are instantly recognisable and wholly distinctive.
Steering abstraction into the direction of illusions in the name of Optical Art, or Op-Art, Riley uses her oscillating surfaces to to disrupt the eye of the viewer, challenging them to question the nature of visual perception and experience. “For me,” Riley stated, “nature is not landscape, but the dynamism of visual forces.”
She developed her renown style during the 1960s, her works being very much a product of their time, where experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs, psychedelic spiritualism, and the threat of nuclear war were all in the wider public consciousness. Where artists had always tried to portray what was seen, Riley instead focused on the fundamentals of seeing itself through destabilising the visual field with illusory shapes that deny any ocular anchorage, exploiting the limits of the human eye.
Bridget Riley, Blaze, 1964
Riley was born in 1931 in Norwood, South London, but spent most of her childhood in Cornwall to escape the dangers of the blitz during the Second World War. The Cornish landscape was not only a habitat but an inspiration for Riley, surrounding her with cliffs, beaches, and coastlines which ignited her interest in light, colour, and form.
After the war, she returned to London and studied at Goldsmith’s College and the Royal College of Art, and during this time largely worked in a figurative, semi-impressionist style. She began to dabble in pointillist techniques, and was particularly influenced by Georges Seurat, whose work she saw at the Courtauld Gallery. Specifically, it was his approach to art as an “optical science” that made a lasting impact on Riley’s practice, who in the 1960s pioneered her trademark Op-Art aesthetic.
Bridget Riley, Untitled [Fragment 3/11], 1965
Initially, Riley worked in black-and-white, though her monochromatic works slowly transitioned into colour, growing an increasingly dynamic and varied palette inspired by her travels, such as corresponding to the hues of her visits to Italy and Egypt. Riley is first and foremost a draughtsman, meticulously planning her compositions with preparatory sketches and collage, before assistants execute the final canvas with near-mechanical precision.
Bridget Riley, Hesitate, 1964
Much of Riley’s practice is grounded in a utopian vision, where painting could become an essentially social activity, stimulating the viewer’s imagination to complete the experience of creating. The social contribution of art is also reflected in her founding of SPACE (Space Provision Artistic Cultural and Educational) with fellow Op-artist Peter Sedgley, an organisation providing artists affordable studio spaces and a supportive fostered community.
Though many of her works were created over half a century ago, they still feel remarkably current. Riley remains one of the most important British contemporary artists, the first woman to win the painting prize at the Venice Biennale in 1968, and an icon of abstract painting. She has inspired generations of artists including Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread, and Richard Allen among many. Even at the age of 87, she still continues to produce work from her South Kensington studio, manifesting a momentous and enduring force in the art world today.
Bridget Riley, Evoë 3, 2003