Five things to know about Bridget Riley

Saturday, October 5, 2019 - 11:18

Hayward Gallery’s 2019-20 Bridget Riley retrospective provided an unparalleled opportunity to experience powerful and engaging artworks by one of the most influential and important artists of our time. We’ve collated five things to know about this celebrated British artist.

Her abstract paintings explore perception and the way in which we see

Over the past 70 years, Bridget Riley’s subject matter has been perception and the way in which we see. ‘I wanted to bring about some fresh way of seeing again what had already almost certainly been experienced, but which had either been dismissed or buried by the passage of time; that thrill of pleasure which sight itself reveals’, she comments. In the 1960s, her dazzling black-and-white paintings became associated with the emerging Op Art movement, thanks in part to their inclusion in the landmark exhibition The Responsive Eye (1965) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York – although Op Art has never been a term that the artist herself identifies with. 

Bridget Riley. Movement in Squares, 1961. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London. © Bridget Riley 2019. All rights reserved.


Much of her work is inspired by the natural world

Riley spent her childhood in Cornwall, and she credits the Cornish landscape – its ‘bosky woods and secretive valleys’, its ‘changing seas and skies’ – with first teaching her how to look. Although her paintings are abstract, they often draw on and communicate sensations experienced in the natural world: the movement of leaves, for example, or sunlight on water. ‘I would like you to recognise the sensations’, she says, ‘to know that you have somewhere in the past experienced a sharp juxtaposition, a softness of form, a surpassing brilliance, a dusky, hidden thing’.


Since the late 1960s, her work has explored colour relationships and the way that colours interact

Riley first introduced colour into her work in 1967. Since then, the way that colour behaves and the way that different colours interact has been one of her main concerns. ‘At the core of colour is a paradox’, Riley explains. ‘It is simultaneously one thing and several things – you can never see colour by itself, it is always affected by other colours’. Speaking of her choice of the line or stripe to explore colour relationships, Riley comments: ‘a long line of colour, essentially an ‘edge’ without a large volume to carry, is the ideal element to work with this elusive relationship between colour and light’. Later in her career, Riley introduced curves and diagonals into her colour paintings, creating more opportunities for contrast and juxtaposition.

Bridget Riley. Cataract 3, 1967. © Bridget Riley 2019. All rights reserved.


Drawing is hugely important to Riley: she calls it ‘an exercise in looking’

As a student at Goldsmiths’ College, London (1945–52), Riley spent hours drawing and painting directly from life models. This experience of close looking continues to inform her work, in all its shapes and forms. For Riley, drawing is ‘an enquiry, a way of finding out’. This exhibition includes many of the artist’s early figurative paintings and drawings, as well as detailed studies and preparatory works. 


She has been influenced by the work of other artists – among them the French painter Georges Seurat

After graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1955, Riley struggled to find her voice as a painter. It was through studying the work of other painters, and in particular the work of Georges Seurat (1859–91), that she found a new approach. In 1959, Riley made a study of Seurat’s painting The Bridge at Courbevoie (1886–87). Creating her own version of this painting taught the artist about the importance of contrast, and the interrelationship of colour and tone. Seurat continues to be an important influence on her work. Speaking of the impact that Seurat, as well as other artists including Henri Matisse and Paul Klee, had on this early stage of her career, Riley states: ‘I believed – and in fact still believe – that looking carefully at paintings is the best training you can have as a young painter.’

Bridget Riley. Pink Landscape, 1960 © Bridget Riley 2019. All rights reserved.


Bridget Riley — organised by the National Galleries of Scotland in partnership with Hayward Gallery — was at Hayward Gallery from 23 October 2019 until 26 January 2020.

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