Bridget Riley b.London 1931-
Bridget Riley is considered the quintessential exponent of Op Art, an art that exploits the fallibility of the human eye although her intention has always been to simulate emotion rather than create visual confusion.
Born in Norwood, south London, her childhood during the Second World War was spent in Cornwall, a county renowned for its unique qualities of light and colour. She first studied art at Goldsmiths College where she learned the traditional skill of life drawing under the tutelage of Sam Rabin, visiting the British Museum Prints and Drawing Room to immerse herself in their vast collection of Old Master works.
In 1952 she entered the Royal College of Art. As with many of the long list of distinguished alumni who attended this establishment, she has achieved success despite of this association rather than because of it. She found the teaching confusing and not leading her in any direction she wished to go. She left college to care for her ailing father and soon after suffered a mental breakdown. Following her recovery, she worked in a number of jobs including several teaching art.
Like many young artists of her generation, Bridget Riley was greatly influenced by the 1956 show of American Abstract Expressionist art at the Tate, the first occasion that this work had been seen in the UK. In 1958 she joined the art department of the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, where she was employed as an illustrator. During the following year she attended an exhibition at the ICA entitled The Developing Process which introduced the theories of artist/educator Harry Thubron that were to revolutionise art education by establishing the Basic Design Course based on Bauhaus principles of understanding the use of colour, establishment of form and construction of space which was to become the entry level for degree courses through the UK and beyond.
With leave granted by her employer, Bridget Riley enrolled in Thubon’s summer school in Norfolk where she met his assistant, Maurice de Sausmarez, who was a major factor in broadening the artist’s cultural horizons as well as later becoming the author of many of her monographs. They visited Italy taking in the architecture and galleries, and painting. He suggested she study the pointillism of Georges Seurat whose work had been an amalgam of contemporary scientific colour theory and artistic emotion. Her paintings, Blue Landscape and Pink Landscape, the latter a depiction of the shimmering hills around Sienna, produced in that style, led to a fascination with optical effects which was to evolve into the stark black and white works that evoke a strong sensation of movement for which she is still best known today.
Her first completely abstract work was painted in 1961. During the year after she held her first solo show at Gallery One in London. In 1963 she won the open prize at John Moore’s Liverpool exhibition and in 1964, as well being able to quit her job at the ad agency, she was invited to take part inThe New Generation show at the Whitechapel along with David Hockney and Allen Jones. She participated in The Responsive Eye at MoMA, New York, the first major review of Op Art.
Sequences of coloured greys were introduced and in 1968 at the 34th Venice Biennale she won the International Prize for painting. Not only was she the first British artist to receive this accolade but also the first woman. By 1970 the full range of colours had entered Bridget Riley’s work.
She is not a prolific printmaker as prints have never been central to her art. Often she has published on her own initiative to research into some visual aspect of her painting usually when she has just embarked on a change of direction. The medium of choice has been screenprint as this it lays down rich layers of pigment.
Over the years her work has lost none of its full-on optical abstraction yet its rhythms and atmosphere can be related to nature as it explores the human sensation of sight.