Summary of Bridget Riley
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.
- 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.
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."
Important Art by Bridget Riley
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.
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.
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."
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Bridget Riley
- The Eye's Mind: Bridget Riley - Collected Writings 1965-2009Our PickBy Bridget Riley
- Bridget RileyBy Paul Moorhouse
- Bridget Riley: The Stripe PaintingsBy Paul Moorhouse, Robert Kudielka and Richard Schiff
- Bridget Riley: The Curve Paintings 1961-2014By Bridget Riley
- Embodied Visions: Bridget Riley, Op Art and the SixtiesBy Frances Follin
- Not so square after allBy Michael Kimmelman / The Guardian / September 28, 2000
- An art history lesson from Bridget RileyBy Maggie Gray / Apollo Magazine / August 12, 2015
- Leading your brain into a crazy pirouetteOur PickBy Jonathan Jones / The Guardian / June 11, 2015
- Bridget Riley: How I got my curves backBy Mark Hudson / The Telegraph / June 15, 2015
- Bridget Riley: A BiographyOur PickBy Daisy Dunn / The Telegraph / November 23, 2010
- The Art Review Files: Bridget RileyArt Review / June 2014
- 15 things you may not have known about Bridget RileyBy Kaja Kozak / Culture Trip / September 2015
- The Life of RileyBy Jonathan Jones / The Guardian / July 5, 2008
- Seeing is BelievingBy Michael Bracewell / Frieze Magazine / October 2008