Bridget Riley
Biography of British Op-Art Abstract Painter of Optical/Retinal Art.

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Paintings by Bridget Riley
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Bridget Riley (b.1931)

The British painter and designer Bridget Riley CH CBE hit the cultural headlines in the early 1960s with her pictures of Op art - an illusionist geometric form of abstract art, originated by the French-Hungarian painter Victor Vasarely (1908-97) - which earned her celebrity status far beyond the world of modern art. Her monochromatic paintings, typically tempera or emulsion on board, used simple geometrical shapes like circles, squares, or stripes, set out in intricate, repetitive patterns to to create movement as well as other optical effects on the viewer's physiology and psychology of perception. In its suggestion of movement, Riley's work, along with that of other Optical artists like the British painter Peter Sedgley (b.1930) Richard Anuszkiewicz (b.1930), is a type of kinetic art. She is regarded as one of the 20th century's major abstract painters, and a leading figure in British contemporary painting. Among her best known abstract paintings are the following: Fission (1963, MOMA, New York); Hesitate (1964, Tate Collection, London); Arrest 2 (1965, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City); Achaian (1981, Tate Collection, London); and Shadowplay (1990, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge).

Important Works

Movement In Squares (1961).
By Bridget Riley.

Blaze 1 (1962) by Riley is a aA perfect example of modernistic trompe l'oeil painting.

For a list of the seminal
styles/periods, see:
Abstract Art Movements.
For other modernist art styles, see:
Modern Art Movements (1860-1970)
Contemporary Art Movements (1970-)

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.

For other works similar to those
produced by Bridget Riley, see:
Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.

For an explanation of the
terminology, see:
Art: Definition and Meaning.


Bridget Louise Riley was born in London and grew up in Cornwall and Lincolnshire. Educated at Cheltenham Ladies College, she trained first at Goldsmiths College (1949-1952), and later at the Royal College of Art (1952-1955), where her fellow students included the Pop artist Peter Blake (b.1932) and the impasto painter Frank Auerbach (b.1931).

Her early painting was mostly figure painting in a semi-Impressionist style. In 1959 She worked as an art teacher at the Loughborough School of Art, afterwards at the Hornsey School of Art, and from 1962 to 1964 at the Croydon School of Art. Until 1964 she was also an illustrator for J. Walter Thompson Advertising in London. During the late 1960s Riley lived and worked with her contemporary Peter Sedgley, with whom she founded the artist group SPACE, to provide affordable studio space for other young painters.


Riley's Op Art

Riley began to develop her distinctive style of black-and-white optical art around 1960, drawing inspiration from several different sources. A theoretical starting point was the Pointillism (an offshoot of Divisionism) of the Post Impressionist Georges Seurat (1859-91), although initially, Riley limited herself to black and white. In addition, the paintings of Victor Vasarely, who had used designs of black and white lines since the 1930s - for instance, see Zebras (1938) - had a strong influence on Riley's early style. According to Riley herself, another influence was her childhood in Cornwall where the ever-changing sea and sky stimulated her vision. Her 1960s optical illusions were an attempt to recreate the wonder of seeing which could not be captured effectively by a representational image.

In 1962, she had the first of several solo exhibitions at Gallery One in London. At the time, her style of painting fitted perfectly with the increasing fashion for audience participation (also illustrated by the new type of Performance art, known as Happenings), and with new ways of thinking that sought to dismantle the traditional mind-body duality (also illustrated by the trend towards hallucinogenic drugs). So although Riley was arguably 12-13 years behind Vasarely, and 40 years behind the Dutch graphic Op artist M.C. Escher (1898-1972), she appeared to be the new pioneer of an entirely new method of pictorial representation, which revolutionized the power of the picture plane. (Note: Although seen as an important female artist, Riley was too early for and uninvolved in the feminist art movement that emerged during the late 1960s.)


In 1965, one of her works (Current, 1964) was featured on the cover of the catalogue for the exhibition The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, curated by William C. Seitz - the show that launched Optical art as the next big thing after Pop Art, an event which brought her worldwide recognition as a major new star of contemporary art. As it transpired, Riley became disillusioned with Op art because her work was exploited for commercial purposes. For example, it was appropriated without her consent for fashionable patterns in the clothing industry. In 1968, she was awarded the coveted International Painting Prize at the Venice Biennale.

Important Works

Major examples of Riley's 1960s monochrome works include: Fission (1963, Museum of Modern Art, MOMA, New York), as well as Movement in Squares (1961), Crest (1964), Cataract 3 (1967), all British Council, London. In Fission, a square covered in black dots is distorted by progressive warping of the circles and compression of their spacing. The effect on the brain of the viewer is such that it cannot establish a fixed image of the picture which appears to hover upsettingly between the painting and the viewer. In this context, it should be noted that, while carefully programmed, Riley's graphic patterns are not strictly derived from scientific calculation, and she refuses to differentiate between the physiological and psychological responses of the eye.

Polychrome Op Art

In 1967 she began using colour in her painting. Inspired by the Ancient Egyptian Colour palette, Riley has also explored the psychological effects of certain colour combinations. For instance, one of her major polychrome projects was the decorative scheme for the interior of the Royal Liverpool Hospital (1983). This employs soothing bands of pastel blues, pinks and yellows, and reportedly has led to a significant drop in graffiti.

Paintings by Bridget Riley

Now seen as one of the most innovative of modern artists, Bridget Riley's works have been exhibited in many prestigious galleries and art venues around the world, including: the Dia Center, New York (2000); the Tate Britain, London, (2003); and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, (2004). Her paintings hang in several of the world's best art museums including the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

• For more biographies of optical artists, see: 20th Century Painters.
• For details of major art periods/movements, see: History of Art.
• For more information about modern art, see: Homepage.

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