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Art HERstory: Bridget Riley

No, the above image is not a t-shirt print for a new streetwear line…although I can totally see someone like Agyness Dean wearing this on a tee! The above art is by optical illusion (or op art) artist Bridget Riley.

Now, I know some of us have seen op art in our art history books, but a lot of us may forget that one of the foremost proponents of this art movement was a woman.

Read on…and don’t miss the treats at the end!

Bridget Riley with her sculpture “Continuum” – photo by Lord Snowdon in 1964.

Bridget was educated at Cheltenham Ladies’ College; she studied art first at Goldsmiths College and later at the Royal College of Art, where her fellow students included artists Peter Blake and Frank Auerbach. She left college early to look after her dying father. Sadly she suffered a mental breakdown after his death. When she recovered, she worked many jobs, including several as an art teacher, and briefly in the art department of the advertising company J. Walter Thompson.

Loss (1964)

In the late 1950s, Riley began to produce works in a style recognizably her own, a style inspired by a number of sources. A study of the pointillism of Georges Seurat, and later landscapes produced in that style, led to her an interest in optical effects. The paintings of Victor Vasarely, who had used designs of black and white lines since the 1930s also had a strong influence on Riley’s early works. In her later works, the influence of the futurists, especially Giacomo Balla, can also be seen.

Drift No. 2 (1966)

It was during this time that Riley began to paint the black and white works for which she is best known today. They present a great variety of geometric forms that produce sensations of movement or color. In the early 1960s, her works were said to induce sensations in viewers that were very much like seasickness and sky diving (…so don’t stare at these too long!). Works in this style comprised her first solo show in London in 1962 at Gallery One run by Victor Musgrave, as well as numerous subsequent shows. Visually, these works relate to many concerns of the period: a perceived need for audience participation (this relates them to the Happenings, for which the period is famous), challenges to the notion of the mind-body duality which led some people to experiment with hallucinogenic drugs (see Aldous Huxley‘s writings); concerns with a tension between a scientific future which might be very beneficial or might lead to a nuclear war; and fears about the loss of genuine individual experience in a Brave New World.

Movement in Squares (1961) Tempera on board, 48″x47″

Catarct 3 (1967) PVA on canvas, 88 1/2″ x 87 1/2″

Paean (1973) Acrylic on canvas, 114″ x 113″

Although remembered today mainly for the impressions of movement and color they give through the exploitation of optical illusions, it is thought that the impulse for Riley making these seemingly cold and calculated works was a failed love affair. One of the more famous works in this style is Fall, which she did in 1963 (below).

In 1965, Riley exhibited in the New York City show, The Responsive Eye, the exhibition which first drew attention to so-called op art. One of her paintings was reproduced on the cover of the show’s catalog, though Riley later became disillusioned with the movement, and expressed regret that her work was exploited for commercial purposes.

Britannia (1961) emulsion on cardboard, 56×61

Following a major retrospective in the early 1970s, Riley began traveling extensively. After a trip to Egypt in the early 1980s, where she was inspired by colorful hieroglyphic decoration, Riley began to explore color and contrast. In some works, lines of color are used to created a shimmering effect, while in other works, the canvas is filled with tessellating patterns. In 1986 Riley met the postmodern painters Philip Taaffe and Ross Bleckner, and was inspired to introduce a diagonal element to her work.


Ease (1987)

Going Along (1999) Oil on linen, 121.9 x 197.5 cm

Echo (2000) Silkscreen, 27 1/2″ x 28 1/2″

Fete (1999) Screenprint, 26 x 34 3/8″

In many works since this period, Riley has employed others to paint the pieces, while she concentrates on the actual design of her work.

Above: Composition with Circles (1998) Silkscreen, 27 5/8″ x 39 1/2″

Riley’s pieces are really big and overwhelming. For an idea of how big, below is a picture of an installation at the “Reconnaissance” exhibit that ran September 21 2000 – June 17 2001, in the Dia Center for the Arts in New York City.

On the right, is Composition with Circles 2 (2000) graphite, acrylic paint, and permanent marker on plaster wall, 13 3/4′ x 49 1/2′

Above: Is the artist and “Après-Midi” (1981) oil on linen, 91″ x 77 3/4″, photographed in 1982.

I’m ending today’s post with two videos: one where Ms. Riley herself speaks on her techniques and the second one is SUPER COOL garage rock (pre-punk rock) video called “It Won’t Last Long” by Patti’s Groove from 1966. The ’60s were the height of the Op Art Movement so this video in a tribute to both garage rock and op art. ENJOY!

Bridget Riley Speaks

It Won’t Last Long by Patti’s Groove (1966)

Images: nadav.harel.org.il
Info: www.mishabittleston.com

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