Bridget Riley creates massive, brightly hued geometric abstract canvases with overwhelming colors and patterns. Her first works were in black and white in repeated geometric patterns, and it is these black & white paintings for which she is best known.
Riley attended Cheltenham Ladies College from 1946 to 1948. She was accepted into the art program at Goldsmith’s College on the strength of her copy of Jan van Eyck’s “Portrait of a Man.” She chose this work because she was so taken by the portrait’s “beautifully constructed head.” She later attended the Royal College of Art from 1952-1955. She worked part-time as a teacher and as an illustrator at J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency. Riley has taught in numerous colleges of art and has studios in London, Cornwall, and Vaucluse France.
Her first paintings were copies of the pointillist artist Georges Seurat. In the 1960s she developed her signature style, an optical style of painting, called Op Art. She would begin each work as a preliminary drawing, attempting various sketches before choosing her final composition. Her black and white geometric patterns could trigger in a viewer sensations of movement or vibration, sometimes giving the effect of hallucinatory images. In 1966, she began to add color into her stripe paintings as seen in her “Late Morning” where white stripes were marked by thin red lines, which were then bracketed by blue and green stripes. She continued in this way through 1977-1978. Her 1978 aquatic on linen, “Orphan Elegy I,” shows swelling, wavelike surfaces in thin ribbons of soft colors – blues, pinks, violet, chartreuse – in a pattern of unease.
After visiting Egypt in the early 1980s and seeing colorful hieroglyphics, Riley added parallelograms into her paintings as well as more color. Her works were now painted in three distinct patterns. The first pattern was the use of very thin vertical stripes as seen in “Delos” 1983 and “Blue Return” 1984. The second consisted of paintings whose vertical orientation was disrupted by diagonal bars – sometimes in layers of colorful diamonds, such as ”Between” 1989. The third technique, made after 1998, was her use of interlocking waves where the verticals and diagonals were complemented by round and gently curved shapes of crescents and half-moons that fit together. Here the forms were larger and the number of colors smaller, which brought a sense of calm to the composition.
Riley has been using scissors for some time now, and the placement of the cutouts comes before the actual painting. In her wall painting “Arcadia 3, 2009/2011” Riley combined her use of cutouts with a restricted palette. The actual painting was done by her assistants so that Riley could achieve detachment from the work.
In 1968, Riley represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale where she was the first British contemporary painter and the first woman to be awarded the International Prize for painting. In 2003, Tate Britain organized a major retrospective of her work. She has had solo shows through the world and several retrospectives in galleries in London and New York. Currently there is a new solo exhibition of 90 works from her personal collection at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Her work is in the permanent collections of major museums worldwide: the Art Institute of Chicago, Arts Council U.K., Dia Art Foundation, Kunstmuseum Bern, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Stedelijk Museum, and Tate Gallery London.